Elon Musk, Twitter and “free speech”

It can’t be just me, but I really loath Elon Musk.

He reminds me of Donald Trump, only with a bigger ego and with more brains and a true fortune – he’s the world’s richest person. With eighty million Twitter followers, I’m not surprised that he recently became Twitter’s largest shareholder and now is attempting a hostile takeover of the platform. In response, Twitter has set up a poison pill which allows it to issue more shares of its stock if necessary, obviating his ability to get a majority of shares.

Without giving out too many details, I have a brother in law who had a run in with Elon. This was more than a decade ago but not before he was busy getting into the space business. SpaceX was bidding on government work and Elon’s ego of course got in the way. He started dissing NASA and engaging in behavior that was boorish at best and unethical and/or possibly illegal at worst. My brother in law, working through his lawyers, got an apology from Elon that smoothed things over.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

It’s clear though that Elon hasn’t learned the lesson.

Two things really cemented Musk’s fortune. First was PayPal, and he was clearly an innovator in this space, figuring out that micro payment services were going to be a thing and people needed a broker to make these transactions. Most of us have to pay homage in the form of PayPal fees to Elon’s company. Just today a $205 bill I sent to a client in the UK was minus $9.49 in PayPal fees. It costs money, you know, to transfer British pounds to U.S. dollars but also they can get away with it because they don’t have much effective competition. Venmo? PayPal owes that one too.

But a lot of his fortune was made at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. I’m not talking just about his ability to pay little to no taxes, or the offshoring of his many companies for the same purpose. He’s hardly alone there but, Jesus, the guy is worth an estimated $270 billion dollars! He’s a compelling reason for a wealth tax. And the reality is he’d never notice the tax. It’s change that slipped into the cracks of his sofa.

Anyhow, Tesla was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government when it got started. The government does things like this all the time because the private sector won’t otherwise bear the risk of new technologies, electric cars in his case. Arguably, there is no more pressing need than addressing climate change. Solyndra, for example, spent $570M that was ultimately wasted. President Obama got hell for it at the time, but the government doesn’t expect all these ventures to succeed. It floods the market in the hopes that some of them would succeed, and Tesla did. It’s one of the world’s most profitable companies now, thanks to at least $2.4B in U.S. government subsidies.

So good for Elon for succeeding in a new market where so many others failed, but he’d not have much of his wealth if it weren’t for these subsidies. That’s because he likely wouldn’t have gotten into the market in the first place. I’m all for electric cars, but I can’t stand the thought of buying a Tesla, mainly because I see Musk’s face when I picture Tesla.

Now Musk wants to buy Twitter to let free speech flow again. It sounds like if he were running it, we’d all be able to post as often as we wanted to, with no restrictions. So it’s fair to think that Donald Trump’s Twitter account would become active again, and his lifetime ban would go away.

I don’t understand Twitter’s appeal. I barely use it, except to post that I have a new post that anyone can read. It has one tenth the user share of Facebook. The 280 character limit on posts still feels confining, and trying to follow threads among multiple posts is jarring. The incessant mention and tag symbols make it hard to parse. And it’s distracting. How do you get any real work done if you are tweeting all day?

But also, it’s a proven platform for hate and disinformation. Despite efforts to crack down on bogus accounts, they are still plentiful. There’s very little actual free speech on Twitter, because both posts and replies are drowned by often hateful and factually incorrect information. Unless you are very well read outside of Twitter, it’s hard to know what’s real or fake. As a solution to the free speech problem, it sucks. True free speech is frequently drowned out and little of it contributes to genuine dialog or true information or insight.

Also, the private sector doesn’t have an obligation to provide free speech. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government from regulating free speech. Government doing this doesn’t seem to bother many Republicans, who are all about keeping teachers from freely speaking that Timmy’s got two dads. Anyhow, Twitter can set its own rules. Given how bad a job Twitter used to do at regulating its platform, going back to that seems counterproductive. Twitter’s current policies remain haphazard and largely ineffectual in promoting actual useful speech and communications.

But if we have to ensure free speech on Twitter, I have a modest proposal: ensure everyone who has an account is who they say they are and let them be the only posters. The number of checked (verified) Twitter users is still pretty small. If you are going to exercise your right to free speech on this platform, do it publicly. Their Twitter profiles should document the steps that Twitter took to verify their account, and when. Ensure that those posting go through periodic Captcha to prove they are a human. The same should be true for official accounts of companies, organizations and governments posting on the platform. Bullies should not be able to hide in fake profiles. If someone is defaming someone else on the platform, Twitter should help facilitate defamation lawsuits by aggrieved parties. That’s a tangible way to stop the bullying and intimidation rife on the platform.

I doubt Musk wants any of that. I too hide behind a Twitter profile but I’ll happily unmask if everyone else has to as well, or, more likely, I’d stop using the platform, which is of marginal value anyway.

We are living in Future Shock

Americans lived through a frightening week last week. Bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and supporters. Thankfully, none of these exploded. The FBI apprehended a suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc. Yesterday something far worse happened: eleven people were killed and six injured in an obvious hate crime at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers was quickly arrested for these crimes.

Both Sayoc and Bowers fit the usual pattern for these criminals today: right wing domestic terrorists and big Trump supporters, although Bowers had some criticisms of Trump. Sayoc’s van was famously festooned with right wing invectives and pictures on almost every window (which restricted visibility so much it was probably illegal). Both Sayoc and Bowers used social media, in Bowers case to basically announce his attack on Jews was imminent. Bowers’ crime might have been prevented if someone had bothered to notice it or if we did not allow people like him to have guns in the first place.

It’s not surprising that most of these incidents are by right-wing domestic terrorists. Statistically these people cause 71% of these domestic terrorism incidents, with just 25% domestically by actual Muslim terrorists. This Anti-Defamation League (ADL) heat map makes abundantly clear who’s most likely to trigger these incidents and they tend to be male, white, Republican, conservative and loners. With yesterday’s latest incident in Pittsburgh, the right wing can now claim 74% of the victims of these incidents. From their social media postings, it’s clear that Trump inspired both Sayoc and Bowers. Trump of course with his advanced case of malignant narcissism disclaims any association with these perpetrators. With a case as bad as his, of course you are going to praise a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who body slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy” and feel no remorse. His narcissism would not be malignant if he felt remorse.

What’s harder for most people to see is that horrendous incidents like these are entirely predictable. What’s new is that we have Donald Trump as a prominent catalyst; no president has ever incited people to violence before. This gives these incidents explicit sanction. To an extent we are all players of this game because we are awash in a world undergoing great change. Certain personality types though are more likely to “go postal” than others: those groups who feel the most threatened. Conservatives at least in theory like things the way they were (and in most cases they weren’t actually the way they were) so are more likely to engage in these crimes, as borne out by the ADL’s heat map.

Trump of course is a master bully. My own personal theory is that he is empowering other former bullies to be bullies again. Curiously, many of these actions actually amount to cowardice of some form. Sayoc’s alleged actions mailing pipe bombs allow him to hurt other people without necessarily being discovered. (He was a particularly inept criminal, leaving fingerprints on his explosives. His crazy van was certainly a red flag and doubtless helped authorities track him down.) Bowers showed up in person with a number of armaments including an assault rifle. When Trump tells people at his rallies that it’s okay to beat up reporters at the rally and he’ll pay their legal expenses, he’s obviously giving explicit sanction to others to act as his proxies. A legal case could be made that Trump is guilty of inciting terrorism.

Change is an inevitable consequence of living. We’ve been plunging headlong into the future at rates that obviously make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with it too. Ironically, conservatives are causing much of the change they are fighting against. For example, if you say that businesses should be able to create any product they want because they are innovators and capitalism is great but not consider the consequences, you end up with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that show us only content that meets our own biases. To deal with their cognitive dissonance, Trump has labeled anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and it’s clear that the supporters at his rallies largely agree.

They are obviously wrong. My mother-in-law, a lifelong smoker, never agreed that smoking causes lung cancer, even though the research was overwhelming and she died a painful and somewhat premature death from lung cancer. Climate deniers, principally right-wingers, are doing the same thing. It’s like the lobster getting out of the pot and turning up the heat then jumping back into the pot. It’s counterproductive and makes no sense. And we know it’s only a matter of time, should we live so long, when they will be proven wrong. Our species might die off as a result, but to them this is just more fake news.

Liberals are not entirely blame free either. How much freedom can we promote when many of the consequences of freedom also contribute to these problems? For example, if we want a higher standard of living for everyone without figuring out a way to do it in a sustainable way, we contribute to the destruction of our planet. We can’t always be sure our proposals will actually solve the problem, or fit the circumstances.

I believe that there are larger forces at work. Most of us will carry the values we learn from our parents and pass them on to our children, so it takes generations to change most of these values if they change at all. We also unconsciously carry many of our parents’ issues and anxieties. Unfortunately, we don’t have generations to get it right. Anxiety is actually a rational reaction to a rapidly changing world, but paralysis is not. Unfortunately for conservatives, we can’t go back to the way things were. And unfortunately for liberals, we don’t have the luxury of trying many approaches until we find the right combination. We have only the fierce urgency of now that none of us can escape, with many of us lacking the wisdom for making an informed choice. I hope November 6 proves me wrong.

(For those of you wondering, this blog is not completely dead. I’m feeling the need to continue at least through post 2000, as it seems a good closure point. Ideally I’ll get there on our before December 12, 2018, the end of sixteen years of blogging.)

Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink your love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

Figuring out that Trump is guilty is not too hard

And so our national nightmare continues. At least last week we learned for a fact that not only did the Russian government interfere in the 2016 elections, but also that doing so is a crime. Special counsel Robert Mueller released a slew of indictments, mostly against Russian citizens who will likely never be held accountable for breaking our laws. In doing so though he demonstrated that crimes did in fact occur, something Trump can no longer deny. Instead, Trump says “no collusion!” However, if someone colludes with an illegal intent, collusion becomes conspiracy, which is illegal.

Most likely this is just the tip of the iceberg that Mueller (if he hangs around long enough) will expose. Trump is being premature in his ludicrous claim that this exonerates him. If anyone in his campaign knowingly helped the Russians in these efforts, they are guilty of conspiracy. Remember that during the campaign Trump said that he hoped the Russians were breaking into Hillary Clinton’s email server. By hoping they would do so, he was cheering the Russian government on, tacitly endorsing acts that are illegal. It’s not conspiracy, but the non-lawyer in me suspects this could be construed as providing moral support to the enemy. If it’s not a crime, perhaps it should be.

The title of my blog suggests its principle topic is the application of Occam’s Razor. I rarely talk about the razor, but I do today to state what by now should be obvious. The most likely reason that Trump is giving the Russians the pass is that he is being blackmailed. No other reason makes even the remotest sense. Moreover, Trump is taking extraordinary steps to give the Russians a pass. For example, he is required by law to impose additional sanctions on the Russians, in part due to their election meddling. Over 95% of the Congress voted for these sanctions. The Trump administration though has refused to impose any sanctions. His rationale seems to be that what we are doing is working so well. So well in fact that Russians haven’t been deterred in the least. As I write they are working hard to influence our 2018-midterm elections.

Mueller’s indictments reveal the scope of Russia’s information warfare against the United States. It’s pretty breathtaking and sophisticated. In today’s Washington Post, we learn that in a building in St. Petersburg, Russia hundreds of Russians are working around the clock to spread disinformation and inflame our partisan tensions just on our social networks. From the indictment we’ve learned this included sending Russians to America to stake us out (in violation of their visas). Their budget for this exceeds $1M a month. It was used to pay for things like a cage to place in a pickup truck to hold a fake Hillary Clinton in prison garb, to emphasize the need to “lock her up”.

The Russians have extensively analyzed the vulnerabilities of our social networks. Working with psychologists they have figured out ways to hit our psychological triggers. It’s all quite sophisticated. I doubt our government is doing anything similar. Its scope is pretty breathtaking, not that the Russians have had a chance to catch their breath. Their effort continues apace, nonstop. But Trump could care less. He has taken no actions in response. He of course won’t impose any new sanctions on the Russians. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans in Congress looking the other way too. Implicitly anything that lets them retain control of Congress, or limit their losses, is good in their eyes.

What Russians are doing though is not the least bit subtle. They are trying to further divide us with the ultimate goal of breaking us as a nation. Governments rarely fall from invading armies. Rather they rot from within. So anything the Russians can do to further the rot and accelerate it from their perspective is good. It is so much better to take over a country where the infrastructure is at least still in place. So much better the spoils of war. It’s so much cheaper too.

And our IT companies are at least unwittingly abetting them. One of the downsides of a capitalist system is that its weaknesses are easily exploited. Facebook and Twitter are powerful social networks, but they are principally in the business of making money. Making sure content is legitimate and from verified posters is expensive and time consuming. It’s so much easier to take the money and run, which they did. I am on Facebook and I have probably seen some of their targeted efforts, as have you. Facebook’s witting or unwitting willingness to foster this behavior has led my brother to leave Facebook altogether. He cannot support a company that supports our enemy. Arguably any true patriot should ditch Facebook, Twitter or any other company that helped accomplish the Russians’ ends. I may have to join them.

Also arguably these companies didn’t know that sophisticated schemes were underway to leverage our social networks in illegal manners. You can bet though that they were quick to take the money of whoever offered it to them. In the Russians’ case, it came principally through fraudulent PayPal accounts. Thus Elon Musk (whose Falcon Heavy rocket made the news last week) is also tied up in all this.

As for Trump, he is trapped. The Russians obviously bated him long ago by catering to his usual vices: beautiful women and money, skills the Russians have long excelled at. I expect that the Mueller team will report in time that much of the money that propped Trump up these last ten years or more came through Russian sources via Deutsche Bank. I expect in time we will see that a lot of money laundering from Russian sources paid for a lot of Trump’s lifestyle too. When you sell lots of $500K condos for $1M, 5M, $10M and $20M, when similar condos in the market don’t command that price, it’s a sign of money laundering. When these condos that are often left unoccupied and where buyer is some shell corporation you are probably laundering money.

Trump knows that Mueller cannot indict him. At least in the short term, all Mueller can do is report his findings to Congress, which can choose to impeach and/or remove him from office. Once he is removed however it is possible that he could be held to account for any crimes uncovered.

A more rational lawbreaker would be working on a plea deal. In Trump’s case maybe it would be agreeing to resign if Mueller agreed to not indict him on any criminal charges. Trump though is not thinking this through rationally. When you have a case of toxic narcissism like he has, you close your mind to such thoughts. Instead you do everything in your power (and he has plenty of power now) to keep the dogs at bay.

We don’t have to speculate about whether he’d use this as his strategy. Based on having people like his lawyer buy the silence of those women he’s had affairs with (like Stormy Daniels), it’s clear which methods he prefers. Only sometimes it comes to bite you. Putin likely has the goods on him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the alleged pee tape does exist and Putin is holding its release over Trump like the Sword of Damocles. Putin likely has a lot more than that.

So what you see is an ever more frantic and unhinged Trump. While he rages and tweets though, Russia continues its sophisticated cyber attacks on our country making many of us its ultimate victims.

It’s time to use a virtual private network

As a tech guy, it’s rare for me to find technology and politics intersecting. Both are my passions. Last week though it did and at the suggestion of my wife (actually her friend) we subscribed to a virtual private network service.

Why? Well, if you live in the United States it’s hard to miss the news that Congress passed and on Monday Trump signed into law a bill that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell your Internet usage data. The law prohibits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from implementing a rule planned for later this year. That Obama FCC rule would have prohibited ISPs from selling your Internet access information without your explicit consent. With the new law, ISPs don’t need your consent. So in addition to paying companies like Comcast $100 a month for your Internet service they now have government sanction to do whatever they want with your Internet access information and without your consent too. You would think they would at least give you a kickback depending on the value of the information.

Being money grubbing, profit-making corporations of course ISPs will try to sell your information for as much as the market will allow. There are likely to be plenty of buyers because what they have to sell is likely plenty valuable. Think about your Internet life. Perhaps it is quite G-rated, as mine is most of the time. But even if you lead a G-rated life your browser history will still be tracked and analyzed, and sold to companies that will want to sell you stuff. Of course it’s much easier to sell you stuff when they already suspect you have an interest in what they are promoting, which is why it will likely generate a lot of profits for ISPs. In the sales business, this is called prospecting. It used to be done door-to-door and now it’s done electronically and you have no say in the matter because it’s like leaving your front door open for marketers to roam around in at any hour of the day to observe your behavior.

This practice isn’t news. You probably get targeted ads that follow you online, as I do. It’s probably not Comcast (yet) selling this information, although in the past they were not legally prohibited from selling it. (Most of these are site owners sharing information they collect about your access on their site, principally your IP address, to others.) The issue was murky so ISPs appeared to be refraining from doing it. That’s not the case now and really if you complain what are you going to do? Most of us don’t have the option of choosing another ISP. I sure don’t here in Massachusetts where Comcast holds the monopoly. My only choice is to give up the Internet altogether or access it from public libraries. Obviously this is not a viable solution today. Google and Facebook of course make lots of money selling targeted ads. However, you don’t have to use Google or Facebook, and they don’t charge you for the privilege. Using it is a choice.

With no constraints on what ISPs can do with information it collects about you while using its network, pretty much anything about your Internet usage is now available potentially to anyone with the money. ISPs could even give it away for free. Perhaps you don’t mind getting targeted ads so you think, okay, I’m in. If I have to have ads thrown at me online all day, maybe they can at least be relevant. But consider some of the other ways this information could be misused:

  • The government could pay ISPs to collect all this information and store a copy in its own servers. You could even make a case for it. If the NSA is looking for potential terrorists, knowing you keep going to an al Qaeda website sure would be good to know. Of course while they are in there they could also learn that you frequent PornHub.com or regularly contribute to the American Communist Party. If you want to create a police state, this is a pretty efficient way to get one started.
  • Political parties could use it not just to find new voters, but also to target voters they don’t want voting because they suspect you will vote against their interests. This is similar to what the Russian government is accused of doing in our last election through fake news sites and sophisticated web robots that promoted false stories that it believed we were likely to fall for. It’s quite likely that Hillary Clinton lost the election through the promotion of fake news stories about her email server or actions on Benghazi while Secretary of State.
  • It would make it much easier for the Russians to affect future elections. Now they have to hunt to find gullible people. Buying the information up front is so much easier and allows a broader scope. Russia need not be the only state actor. Any nation with the cash (like China) could play.
  • Your spouse can find out that you frequent ashleymadison.com or gay porn sites.
  • Your Googling of medical conditions might suggest to health insurers that you are a bad bet and they might deny you a policy or cancel an existing one.
  • You may have related confidential family information, maybe about your kid’s run in with the law, or a son’s ADHD, or a sister with Alzheimer’s Disease, stuff that is your business, but not some stranger’s business.
  • Political enemies could discover you and target you, perhaps with a brick through your window because you gave to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. (I am guilty of both.)

In short this should be very alarming. In more reasonable places, like most of Europe, laws prohibit this stuff. It doesn’t generate controversy because no one would consider an idea as radical as the bill Trump signed on Monday. Ah, but here in the USA we’re all about extreme capitalism. Those with the money make the rules and that appears to be Republicans since they moved this law, and very quickly too.

What can you do about it? I don’t intend to get into the many ways to safeguard your privacy on the web that have been around for years. In this case though you are being mined and recorded without your consent. Your Internet address is stored, geolocation information too along with a host of other information, like your web browser, the page you were viewing and the page that referred you to the page. It can all be logged and put into vast data warehouses and there is nothing you can do about it.

Okay, there is one thing: use a virtual private network (VPN). It’s hardly a perfect solution but it’s the next step. Unfortunately, a VPN service is rarely free, which means that if you value your privacy like everything else you will probably pay a cost, most likely in money, but perhaps just in your time. A VPN is a secure tunnel that your ISP cannot read, aside from knowing that you are connecting to a VPN site. Your web requests essentially are proxied through the VPN provider you choose.

(A side note: Congress is also considering legislation to do away with “net neutrality”. If passed, ISPs could use this is an excuse to block VPN sites or to charge them extra for the privilege, costs which would trickle down to you. This is just another reason that I think net neutrality is essential.)

We took the plunge last week and bought a year of VPN service from Private Internet Access. It’s a pretty good deal. ($40 a year for up to 5 simultaneous devices, if you pay for a year in advance.) I am not endorsing the company as we have just started using it. Of course you have no idea if the VPN service is reselling your information just like Comcast. You have to trust them. Private Internet Access’s terms of service suggest that if you are doing illegal things they can detect it and might report it. I’m quite confident that if they get a search warrant they can turn on logging easily enough. Of course they would not be in business long if they were engaged in these sorts of activities routinely. Private Internet Access, like most VPNs, says they don’t keep logs of your access. If true, it’s reasonably private.

So if you are shopping for a VPN, by all means shop around. This recent PC World article reviewed a bunch of VPNs so it’s a good place to get unbiased advice. (Private Internet Access is one of their Editor’s Choice winners.) Some, like one built into the Opera browser, are free. Most cost money. As you might expect the quality of the service you get depends principally on how much you are willing to pay. With Private Internet Access so far I have noticed:

  • I could not access Craigslist until I pointed it to use a connection point within the United States
  • I could not use it at the same time with another VPN. Since I teach at a local community college, I use its VPN from time to time. I could not use it until I first turned off the Private Internet Access VPN.
  • Content streaming is not noticeably slower but it is probably slower in general because there is an extra server between me and the content I want

Hopefully in time we’ll get a Congress and president again that will respect our privacy. Like with the Citizens United decision, Americans are overwhelmingly against this law, and that includes Republicans. So it’s likely Republicans will eventually pay a price for this heavy handedness. In the meantime if you value your privacy, you probably need to get a VPN.

Let’s put Willy Wonka back in the Chocolate Factory, M’kay?

Willy, will you just go away?

Pretty much every day one of my Facebook friends, sometimes multiple Facebook friends, is posting a picture of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971) who is imperiously but smirkily telling me some perceived truth about the universe or human behavior. Willy never makes me laugh. Instead, Willy makes me want to slap his face silly, and I like Gene Wilder. He’s been the star of some of the funniest movies ever made, including The Producers and Young Frankenstein. He has got the crazy, manic but funny guy down cold. In fact, he owns this peculiar market. I’ve seen his Willy Wonka movie and it’s a decent one. It’s not the sort of children’s movie that you usually get in theaters and is delightfully subversive and naughty.

Forty two years later, Willy’s been wonked by pretty much anyone with a cause who wants to lord their superiority over your human weaknesses. Yes, you can create your own on the Willy Wonka Meme Generator site, plus you can view 267 pages of memes others have created by applying subtitles to the same Willy Wonka photo. In fact, I created one of my own to capture how I feel about these memes:

Willy Wonka wants to passive aggressively piss you off
Willy Wonka wants to passive aggressively piss you off

Now granted, I can be imperious too. Unlike some of the posters of these Willy Wonka memes, I am comfortable with the notion that I have imperfections. The impression I get is that many of those posting these Wonka captioned photos are that you want to lord it over us that because you feel you are our better. Only you cannot say so directly, so they let Willy tell you instead in his smirky, smarmy and captioned way. They “Share” it on FB as a joke, you see, but not because they actually mean to point fingers at you personally. Ha ha! It appears to be more likely they have some contempt toward some group not at all like them because they don’t do what they do, and they know better.

You can scan the WW meme site for plenty more of these, but among those that I have seen in Facebook personally are from vegans castigating people for eating meat, gun nuts, anti-gun nuts, Christians, anti-Christians, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, very skinny people upset that there are fat people out there without their ability to control portions, drunks, the abstemious — you get the picture. In case you don’t it won’t take you too much viewing of the WW meme site to figure it out. To put it politely, there are people out there with an axe to grind and hurt to inflict, and they are really quite upset and would prefer to hack away but they’re too nice. So they need a passive aggressive solution and use Willy Wonka to speak for them instead.

Which means, of course, that these posters are just as flawed as the people and groups they are indirectly skewering. Which is sort of the point of this post. We all have flaws. None of us are perfect, unless you count sons or prophets of God. So just by posting these Willy Wonka pictures, you are acknowledging a deficiency in yourself that you are probably too blind to see in yourself.

So here’s an idea: just don’t do it. Stop it. Or at least qualify your jabs. “I’m doing this to annoy you and people like you, but I acknowledge that I am not the fount of all wisdom.”

Vegans, acknowledge that you are pretty darn uppity about your eating habits. Acknowledge that being a vegan is not just about what you eat, but it’s an all-consuming lifestyle to you. You want everyone to be a vegan and you secretly think that anyone who is not is at some level indirectly cruel. (BTW, you don’t have to make every other Facebook post more Gospel about why being a vegan is so morally superior. We get it.)

The same goes for the rest of you. Gun nuts: not all of us who are for gun control want to live in a society where only police have guns. We just think that maybe having semi-automatic weapons with extended clips that can fire thirty shots in fifteen seconds is a bit too far when our founding fathers had inaccurate and slow to load rifles that depended on sparks from flint to work. Gun control nuts, acknowledge that there are plenty of responsible gun owners out there who don’t feel the need to turn their basements into arsenals or carry their assault rifles into Safeways in Charlottesville, Virginia. Christians, we unchurched understand you think we are going to Hell. We’ll take our chances. Atheists, as an agnostic I tend to sympathize with you guys, but you are as annoying and dogmatic as a born again Christian.

The bottom line is there are a lot of hurting people out there, so don’t keep piling it on, m’kay? And let’s put Willy Wonka back into his chocolate factory where he belongs and get him out of our meme generators.

Beware of buying Facebook stock

Facebook finally made its stock market debut on Friday. The stock, initially available to select investors at $38 a share, closed at slightly above that price at $38.23 a share. Time will tell how investors really assess the stock. Most are probably waiting on the sidelines to see which way the wind blows.

Facebook won’t have to worry about me buying its stock. I strongly suspect the company is already massively overvalued at $38 a share. More importantly, I am not convinced that Facebook will be around in five or ten years. If the Internet has demonstrated anything, it is that web sites tend to be ephemeral. MySpace, which Facebook largely replaced, is a good example. Moreover, the web phenomenon of the moment is not Facebook, but Pinterest. You have to look hard to find web sites that have endured and remain profitable. Fifteen years ago Yahoo was phenomenal. Now it is hanging on, losing money, shedding employees and moving through CEOs at an alarming pace.

Facebook does have huge market share in part because it has figured out (it thinks) what people want in the way of a social networking site. It is already clear that it will never get everyone on the web. So many of its users are not active users. They have created accounts and then largely abandoned them, or check them out irregularly.  Of my 54 Facebook friends, on a weekly basis I see about 15 of them post or comment. Only three of them post regularly (every day or more). As I mentioned some time back, its user interface is confusing, although less so now than it was when I griped about it. Its privacy policies feel whimsical, giving you little confidence that your settings today will be there tomorrow or that your privacy policies will actually be handled correctly. Of course, Facebook is really about making money, so they keep trying new advertising strategies. The general thrust is to send you more ads and to make them more highly targeted. More and more, time on Facebook feels more like having a salesman regularly interrupt you while you are interacting with friends.

Its tepid IPO suggests stock analysts are right. To justify its price, it has to keep growing and more importantly it needs to convince advertisers that it can tie social networking and advertising together in a way that provides a unique advantage. General Motors gave it a try, and decided they just were not getting the return they wanted from advertising on Facebook, so they stopped using it.

Just how influential are your friends in convincing you to buy stuff anyhow? I like my friends just fine. I might see their dentist if they rave about him or her, because a personal recommendation makes choosing a dentist much simpler. But particularly with “friends” I rarely see in person, particularly those nebulous friends and friends of friends I have never actually met, and whose posts I mostly ignore, I doubt any attempt by Facebook to sell me stuff because my “friend” liked it will have any influence on me.

Facebook is also trying to make itself the center of your web experience. It is doing things like adding email (“messages”). Ideally, they hope you would never go anywhere on the web but Facebook. This of course defeats the whole purpose of the web, whose open nature is its key selling point. AOL tried this and failed spectacularly. Yet this is exactly the direction Facebook seems to be heading. Rather than be a utility on the web, it wants to largely replace the web by framing everything within a social context. However, the web is so much more than a social frame. It’s most about the ability to get information of interest.

I see Facebook as ultimately a limited business model simply because the premises on which it went IPO cannot be indefinitely sustained and population growth will limit its market. It’s bound to hit a brick wall eventually, and that time is likely to come sooner rather than later. Moreover, Facebook is no longer sexy. It has become ubiquitous and tired.

This is not to suggest that Facebook has no value. Obviously it knows a huge amount about its users based on what they choose to disclose and by analyzing what they do within Facebook, but this value diminishes quickly once it loses users. Its true value may be not in what it knows or can predict about your buying preferences, but by mining data among its users to determine trends. In particular, it should focus on thought leaders: those who set trends and convince others to follow them. Knowing what they and their friends care about is very valuable.

I suspect if Facebook is to grow that this is where it should be concentrating its resources. Operating as if users will not drift elsewhere as interest and whim takes them is delusional. Operating as if social relationships were all that mattered is also delusional. The history of the web suggests that users will move to another web site on a dime, which is why Pinterest is now a phenomenon, particularly among women. Pinterest clearly satisfied an itch for sharing information that Facebook simply had not thought through sufficiently.

To the extent that things endure on the web, it is because sites present tools that add value about the web as a whole. Particularly valuable is “meta” information: information about information. Google’s value is probably not inflated. This is because it can organize and present the Internet’s information in a coherent way that we need. Facebook does make it easier to keep and maintain social connections, but this is an ancillary feature of the web, not its heart. Information is its center.

As part of a balanced portfolio, perhaps owning some Facebook stock makes sense. As a strategy for acquiring great wealth, being heavily vested in it is likely to subtract from your wealth instead of add to it.

Google’s secret sauce revealed by Google+

It’s no particular secret that I hate Facebook. My loathing of it has not been enough to keep me off it, since I have a couple of friends that I would hardly ever hear from if it were not for Facebook. Surely, I thought, someone could write something better and more intelligent.

Google is giving it the old college try, actually a second try. Google Buzz was a first bumbling attempt, and is still around, but hardly anyone uses it. This newest attempt called Google+ is rightly perceived as sort of sexy. Facebook won market share surreptitiously but smartly, mainly by marketing to a high-end clientele. If you saw The Social Network you know it was designed to be an exclusive club in cyberspace for those attending Harvard University, then later slowly branched out to other Ivy League schools. It grew like kudzu, slowly at first, but steadily until before we knew it, it was pervasive.

I don’t know exactly how Google chose who would use Google+, or G+ as others and I are starting to call it (it’s so much shorter). But I suspect they looked at the Facebook model, ran some sort of algorithm that figured out who their most social Gmail users were, assigned them a “cool” rating and invited them to try G+ out. Being social of course they quickly invited their friends. I figure that’s how I got invited. (Right now, don’t assume you can just sign up. You need a sponsor.) My friend Renee is by far the most prolific poster I have among my Facebook friends and she has a Gmail account. So I wasn’t surprised that she got an early invitation and she quickly extended it to me. I have spent the last twenty-four hours or so dabbling in the G+ universe.

Yes, I do like it better than Facebook, which would not have been difficult. First, I admire Google as a company. Second, like me, Google obviously spent a lot of time pondering Facebook’s obvious and massive deficiencies, like its baffling user interface, and figured how to do it one better while looking sort of like it.

G+ Circles are one example. Circles are merely collections of friends or people that share a common interest with you. Facebook does have groups, but you have to navigate to them, redrawing your screen in the process. With Circles, Web 2.0 technology ensures that the screen stays the same, but the content changes. It’s much less jarring. Moreover, Facebook groups contain people you don’t necessarily want to interact with. Once you use a G+ Circle, you wonder how Facebook missed something so obvious.

It’s ridiculously easy to create and populate circles. Facebook will suggest friends based on your friend’s friends, the email services you choose to let it peruse and information you put in your profile. That’s a lot of hassle. Many of us in the Google world already have GMail, so there is nothing much for Google to do as far as suggesting friends. Doubtless it just figures out whom you are emailing and ranks them by how often you converse with them. Just drag their icon into the circle you want. That’s pretty much it. If they are not already in the G+ hive, apparently it can send your G+ posts to them via email. It’s unclear to me as a neophyte whether it does this automatically or whether you have to authorize it. I hope it’s the latter.

G+ is a beta product, so it will doubtless morph with features as it grows. I have yet to try most of its ancillary features, but most like Hangouts and Chats sound useful. Its main value appears to be as a key component of the amorphous but meaningful Google experience. For example, I can see that over time G+ will make email something that happens in the background. When necessary, communications will go out via Gmail, but since most of the people you contact will also be in G+, or will get email notifications of conversations through G+, the whole email To-From-Subject-Message thing becomes less relevant. Rather you just find the person in the circle of interest and send them a note. Google handles all the details. Email addresses become unessential physical details that Google handles transparently for you.

Google's application menu
Google's application menu

It’s really that grey bar on the top of your browser screen that distinguishes G+ from Facebook. Facebook had some idea what Google was up to because they too are trying to integrate email inside of Facebook, making Facebook social networking and email one common and seamless experience. But Google has all these other products: a slick calendar, an easy to use Reader for newsfeeds, Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets, its easy to use Picasa photo album not to mention its still top-notch search engine. Facebook cannot begin to compete with all these services Google has had around and have been maturing for years.

Moreover, as more and more of your personal stuff exists within the Google cloud, thinking about where you store all your stuff becomes so 21st century. It’s just out there when you need it – stop worrying about it and just assume it’s always there and instantly avaiable. For the optimal experience, of course, use Google Chrome as your browser. Or, if you are mobile, use an Android-based smartphone, although Apple’s iOS will work as well. Chrome and Android become presentation portals for all the Internet stuff that’s important to you. All those backend interaction portals, like G+, become optimized but sophisticated tools to make your interaction with the web as meaningful and simple as possible. There is all this plus the open Internet. You can still get to any place on the web you need to go. Moreover, doubtless there is an app, if not hundreds of apps that will let you do peculiar but necessary stuff on the Internet. For example, you may need to access that remote spreadsheet at work. Or if like me you are in the water monitoring business, you may want to check on water levels on your favorite local river. Hey, there’s an app for that.

G+ is an attempt, not so much to kill Facebook, as it is to let Google wrap its benevolent arms for you around your whole electronic world. We all get things done in the real world through real people, so interacting with them and exchanging information with them in as seamless and as effortless a way as possible is something we all want. Effortlessness is enhanced through G+ Circles, because there are groups you are very tight with and others less so that you can peruse when time allows. That is the meaning of G+, and is why both Facebook and Microsoft should be very afraid. The gentle giant from Mountain View, California is likely to succeed in bringing us the enfolding Internet, and G+ is its secret sauce designed to seal the deal.

Facebook’s appallingly bad user interface

I understand the appeal of social networks, but the more I use Facebook the more convinced I am that it is an example of how to not build a social network user interface. Yeah, I know they are more popular than God and they have something like 600 million users worldwide. I know that Facebook and other social media forces like Twitter are the key tools bringing democracy to the Middle East. Maybe it is just me, but I find Facebook annoyingly difficult to use and it seems to get more that way with time. It’s like the Windows 3.1 of social media. Using it is frustrating and often counterproductive.

I notice a lot of my Facebook friends use it even less than I do. Perhaps that is because they find it as baffling as I do. Yes, I do have certain very social friends who spend what seems to be much of their lives on Facebook. I wish some company like Google could make a social network site that is usable and kill this monstrosity. Yet, like Windows, Facebook seems impossible to kill simply because everyone else is using it. Gah!

I have two choices. I can disconnect from Facebook and maybe tick off my friends, or I can stay on Facebook and hope that for all the billions its owners are making they might spend some time to make it usable. Granted, if all I want to do is make a short and inane post, it’s fine. I assume most Facebook users rarely get beyond this level of usage.

Let’s take posting as an example of why it sucks. First, there is a limit on how much you can post, and you get no feedback like you do on Twitter on how many characters you have left. I don’t know why there is a limit in the first place. The limit does not seem to apply on certain places, like on your wall. Moreover, you cannot dress up your text with italics, underlines, bolds or colors. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach. For a while there it didn’t like paragraphs. Now you can at least add paragraphs but if you start a post you can’t undo it unless you select all your text and delete it. Naturally when changes like these are made there is little in the way of warnings. You just have to adapt instantly.

Then there are its notifications. It gives me all sorts of notifications, all of which it thinks are deathly important but none of which I think are so. So some friend of a friend likes some friend’s post. It must tell me about it immediately. I don’t care. Perhaps there is a way to turn off this feature but so far I haven’t found it. But even if you click on the notifications link and select whoever’s status, the notification doesn’t necessarily go away. The only sure fire way I have found to get rid of a notification is to reply or attempt to reply to the status. But in most cases I don’t want to reply.

Then there is the “Top News” versus the “Most Recent” news. Most Recent makes sense, but how does Facebook decide what is “Top News”? I sure don’t know but a lot of my “Top News” is more like “Bottom News”.

If I hit the “Home” link in the top right corner I expect that maybe I would go to the Facebook home page. What often happens is I get a Facebook page with no posts whatsoever. So then I click on the Facebook link in the top left corner. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. It’s all so baffling, confusing and non-deterministic, just like Windows.

Also baffling and confusing is how my browser is also baffled by it. On any other page, if I use my Page Up or Page Down buttons I will advance up or down the page by approximately the content on the screen. But not when I am in Facebook, or at best this happens irregularly. It probably has something to do with what control I was last in and its properties, but it doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else. So I have to drag the scrollbar with my mouse instead. It’s nuts.

And call me crazy, but if I press the “Friends” link on the left I expect to see a list of my friends. But in the crazy Facebook world, “Friends” means I want to find more friends and I am prompted to use various search engines to find them. Why not make the link “Find more friends”? News alert to Facebook developers: not all of us want to have thousands of friends. I’m done searching for friends. Of course, I cannot turn off this interface. How do I see all those I have “friended”? Apparently I have to go to my “wall”, which is done by clicking on the link associated with my name (why not a “My wall” link?) then click on the Friends link on the left column. Then I can see my 42 friends.

And what is the difference between a post and a message? To most people it would be the same thing, but in the Facebook universe a post is public (at least to your friends) and a message is private. Why not call messages “private messages”? It makes no sense.

Then there is the Profile link, which looks like it’s also my wall, but maybe not. In any event, in most other places I’ve been to when you select Profile you are immediately allowed to edit your profile, not see your profile as others would see you. In the weird Facebook world you go to your profile, then select the Edit Profile link. And what’s the difference between “Profile” and “Account”? Your profile is part of your account. Why not put it under Account? Why be so confusing?

I have only lightly experimented with photos and groups. Needless to say both were confusing so for right now I avoid both photos and groups. Then there is its Byzantine privacy system, which at least has been somewhat simplified, but is still darn confusing, and which often defaults to less privacy instead of more privacy.

I realize Facebook has to make money but I’d like an option to pay them a small stipend so I don’t have to see any annoying ads at all and have no marketing information about me shared. Is that too much to ask?

For all you Facebook fans, am I off base here or is Facebook really so wonderful? Am I some sort of 20th century curmudgeon? I wish Facebook would hire an interface guru like Jakob Nielsen so it would actually be usable to us. With all their billions in revenue, you would think it would be an obvious investment. Right now, companies like Google have every incentive to build a better social network. Making a better user interface should be a piece of cake.

When someone does, then I will be the first to “friend” my Facebook friends and try to persuade them to use it instead. Sorry Facebook, yours isn’t.

Random thoughts running around my brain

My brain is too scattered these last few days to put out anything like a coherent essay. So instead you get little snippets of stuff leaching out of my brain.

  • Bill Clinton sure is looking old. Today’s Washington Post showed him at a campaign rally looking all grandfatherly. He should look grandfatherly because he is 64. Fortunately, for Bill, he is not yet a grandfather in fact as Chelsea only recently got married and last I checked she had no buns in her oven. Still, grandfatherly or not, I miss the guy. The 1990s was a great decade that seems unlikely to come again. Somehow, I know that despite his sleazy ways, if he could be our president again we’d be in much better shape. He knew how to get things done and he wasn’t afraid to bitch slap Republicans. Even Obama is not as suave and slick as Bill. Bill was the master, unlikely to ever be exceeded.
  • As much as I enjoy my Mac Mail email client, web-based GMail has gotten so good that I am going to 100% web-based GMail. I think email clients are obsolete. GMail’s only remaining problem is the latency inherent with the web, but they are AJAXifying everything as much as possible to make minimize any latency issues. The new features for GMail just keep coming and most are compelling. I am overwhelmed with political emails, mostly begging me for money. Since all attempts at unsubscribing seem futile, with GMail’s new Priority Inbox, it is easy to push these into a seldom-read folder. Email sanity at last. Thanks Google!
  • Oh, how I hate Facebook. I don’t hate it enough to leave it, because that would piss off my friends, but how I wish I had the nerve to do so. As with most things, Google seems on the right track toward building a better social network. I have been experimenting with Google Buzz, Google’s answer to social networking. I really like features like being able to share an item I find while surfing with Google Reader, its RSS and Atom newsreader. Their integration of social networking components, while nascent, is done with a light touch and makes so much more sense than Facebook’s. Rather than put things all on one web site, it distributes features in its various products and is promoting an open social network. For example, I like how Google’s chat feature is integrated into a sidebar on GMail. For this anxious parent with a daughter two hours away, seeing her online inside GMail at least lets me know she is alive. That’s what I need in a social network, not annoying waste of times notices like knowing how a friend is doing playing Farmville and that some vague friend of a friend likes some pointless website.
  • RepubliCorp buys democracy one race at a time. This parody site is both funny and, not to put too fine a point on it, true, particularly after the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision. Priority Number One after the election should be a constitutional amendment outlawing corporate or organizational spending on elections. Since Republicans in Congress will block the amendment from coming up for a vote, most likely, such an amendment would have to come from the states. I doubt state legislatures would have a problem with such an amendment. What more proof do we need that we have a Congress bought and paid for by corporate interests when close to eighty percent of rank and file Republicans want Citizens United overturned, but their leadership won’t allow it? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone has spent at least $21 million dollars for ads for the midterm election, and haughtily refuses to tell us who gave it all this money.
  • Investing money is just too damned complicated. Why are we expected to have the education of a Wall Street financier in order to come out ahead in the market? No wonder Americans keep falling behind! Investing money feels increasingly like a Ponzi scheme to me, developed specifically to inflate the pocketbooks of Wall Street executives. Between the obfuscation, fees and thousands of funds to sift through it is hard to know what you are buying. Sometimes I feel like it is so much easier just to give up trying, put all my investment money in something like U.S. Treasury Bills and hope I am not living on dog food when I retire.
  • Voters who vote for Tea Party candidates are proof that no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American people. In less than two weeks time, unless polls are mistaken, Americans are about to elect a crowd of uncompromising rowdies openly hellbent on making the rich richer and further cutting benefits for people, like those voting for them. If you are planning to vote for any Tea Partier, please send me your name and address. I have some Florida swampland I want to sell you. You must be dumber than a box of rocks.
  • And speaking of Tea Party candidates, it is so hard to decide on any given day which Tea Party candidate is making the biggest fool of themselves. One of the few pleasures of this election is daily seeing who will win the contest for the most ignorant and shameless Tea Partier. The competition is tough. Will it be the mighty Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Rand Paul, Joe Miller, Sharron Angle or Ken Buck? They are taking hubris and ignorance to whole new undiscovered heights.
  • Why is it that before Obama was elected, Republicans were all for mandated health insurance because it emphasized personal responsibility? And now are all against it because it is socialism? Nothing says Republican like hypocrisy.