The United States of Wabi-Sabi

I spent three days in Washington DC last week. It was only my second visit, and the first was so brief and condensed that it barely counts.

DC is a suitable capital city for the United States. It’s broad, diverse, beautiful, ugly, deeply symbolic, and crassly commercial. The parks and monuments around the national mall are a gorgeous natural oasis surrounded by an urban hellscape. As my wife and I walked from our hotel past luxury apartments and 5-star restaurants, we encountered more panhandlers that I see in a couple of weeks in NYC. Even the hellish traffic fits with the United States’ self-destructive love affair with the automobile.

It’s an interesting time to visit the nation’s capital. It’s hard to stand at the marble feet of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson without wondering what they would think of the “man” who holds their job now. Walking past images of World War II and the Great Depression after listening to a speech about the “victims” of the Affordable Care Act was almost physically painful.

And of course, none of today’s controversies are new. While #45 may represent the absolute nadir of personal and professional qualifications for Chief Executive, today’s political debates have been with us for generations.

I left the capital not really sure what to think. The inherent contradictions in our nation’s capital were not surprising, but they were more stark and startling than I expected, and the news that John McCain was the man who delivered what might have been the killing blow to ACA repeal only brought the contradictions into starker relief.

On my first full day back home I opened up my RSS Reader, sobbed quietly at the number of unread articles, and started my triage. What would I just mark as “read” and what did I have time to read?

I came across this video while separating the wheat from the chaff.

Wabi-sabi has several meanings, and its meanings have mutated over the centuries, but what stuck out to me was the concept of flawed beauty, the idea of acknowledging the beauty of something not just despite its flaws, but because of them.

This aspect of wabi-sabi isn’t just a way to appreciate the beauty of everyday objects but also gives us a reason for optimism. Our nation is flawed, and it always has been flawed, but there is still beauty here. We’re best served by focussing on that as we try to fix things.

Cheryl Hunter, in a TedTalk that’s actually worth sitting through (unicorns exist!), tells a story that teaches us about Wabi-Sabi with a very visceral story.


The Customer Must Always Be Fleeced

Verizon's Head of Customer Service

Last week I went online and agreed to pay a little more for faster Internet. There are three adults in the house, and we all make pretty regular use of the ‘net for a variety of activities, so it seemed worth another $15 a month for a 50% faster connection.

We don’t have cable TV. My connection from Verizon is an ethernet connection, not cable. So this should have consisted entirely of my checking a box indicating that I want to pay more, followed by something in one of their data centers telling something in my house to operate at a faster speed.

But there are lawyers involved, so I had to click through 4 or 5 screens and check off at least four boxes because lawyers that work for tech companies make a lot of money by slowing things down and making them more complicated.

And this was Verizon, so after telling me that faster Internet would only cost me $15 a month more, they sent me an email saying “Your order has shipped!” I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I lied. I did know what they were talking about. I immediately knew that they shipped me a new router.

As I mentioned earlier, I have no cable connection; only a network connection. Since paying Verizon $10 a month or so for a crappy router would be silly, Verizon’s network cable is plugged directly into my expensive and very fast router.

So why would they send me a new one? I called, suspecting I knew the answer.

Their customer service person claimed that they sent it in case the equipment I have cannot handle the faster speed. This is male cattle feces. They have the ability to check their connection to my equipment and ensure that it is fast enough. They could do this automatically as part of the sales process.

I asked if I would pay a monthly fee for the router.

Yes. If I didn’t return it, I would.

I was right. That’s why they sent it!

So, since the package was not sent requiring a signature and I did not have a chance to refuse it, I went to the Verizon store to return it the day after it arrived.

Fun fact: you can’t return FIOS equipment at a Verizon Wireless. Never mistake them for one-stop-shopping business for cellular, Internet, and cable.

I didn’t open the box for the router. I had to open the shipping box because it since it didn’t say Verizon on it anywhere, but once I realized what it was, I left the router box sealed.

At the store, the customer service rep immediately opened the router. He had to scan a barcode on it to get my account info, apparently because the packing list inside bore no information about the device or why it as shipped.

Once it was open, I got a good look at the router. It was for cable service. I couldn’t have used it if I wanted to.

So, either Verizon doesn’t know what equipment I have, or they were hoping I would just throw the unused equipment on a shelf and pay a monthly fee for it.

While I was there, I overheard a conversation. I have paraphrased it below.

Service Rep: “Can I help you, Ma’am?”

Customer: “Yes, I would like to upgrade to the new cable boxes and faster Internet.”

Service Rep: “Can I have your phone number?”

Customer: (provides her number) She beckons to her husband, who was admiring the 65-inch display TV that was in desperate need of adjustment. 

Service Rep: “Your contract is expired.”

Customer: Looks at Service Rep as she doesn’t understand why she should care about this, she just wants those things she asked for when he asked her how he could help.

Service Rep: “You’ll have to get a new phone number.”

(In the interests of space, I won’t try to recount the Customer’s husband proceeding to lose his composure. I’ll summarize. Add your own histrionics.)

Customer’s Husband: “You have to port the number. It’s the law.” (He’s right.)

Service Rep: “That’s only between companies. We don’t have to when it’s inside our business.” (He’s also right, but in a very unhelpful way.)

Then the rep spent some time poking around on his computer and discovered that they could keep their number.

For a $22 fee.

I live in an area that’s lucky enough to have two cable monopolies instead of just one. I can only imagine how much more petty and abusive it is when there is only one.

This business model is based on abundance; clients are willing to sustain an abundance of abuse from the only company(s) that provide the service they need.

At some point, that abundance will run out. The FCC will eventually take the steps required to let broadband wireless providers become viable. This will be at least four years from now because the rather modest progress we’ve made with policing Internet providers is rapidly being undone right now. (#MAGA!)

My only hope is that I am still around when it happens so I can happily switch to one of them and watch these thieves recede into irrelevance and bankruptcy.

Caveman Politics

This video describes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and how it relates to his theories of government and his Theory of Forms. It’s also a video with TED Talk branding that doesn’t have a twentysomething single hipster telling you that you should quit your day job and follow your dreams because it worked for him, which is odd, but I digress.

Plato’s Cave can also be used as a metaphor for a debate that has gripped our nation for years: media bias. We’ve been discussing media bias for decades, but the debate has taken on a sense of urgency in recent months, for obvious reasons.

We’re all chained to the ceiling of a cave. In most cases this cave is self-imposed. We limit ourselves to the things we want to see. If you’re reading this from what most of us call “the Western World” you have a variety of choices in news and entertainment and what you chose is based on a combination of convenience and taste.

None of these choices are perfect. The first step in media savviness is realizing that everyone is their own unreliable narrator. All media have some degree of “bias” based on ownership, editorial staff (which is chosen by the owner(s) of course,)  and who the news is written for. (Again, decided by the ownership, but many owners are more than happy to sell something they would never personally choose.)

So we’re chained in the caves we choose. Perhaps a cave with a cable tv host that is careful to only rant about stories we want to hear, or with a website that only has stories critical of one President or complimentary to another, or a Facebook timeline that tunes itself to keep us just angry enough to keep scrolling.

One of the things that makes “the Western World” the western world is government staying largely out of these choices. Americans like to think our First Amendment makes us special, but it doesn’t. Freedom of Speech, which means a free media, is a part of every functioning democracy. Each nation has different wrinkles, like Britain’s less media-friendly libel laws, Germany’s restrictions on some parties, and the U.S’s silly puritanical streak, but a free media is always there in some form.

For the first time in a long while the U.S. has a government that actively and visibly has its collective fingers on the media scale. Politicians always play favorites and always have an influence on media by deciding where, when, and who to talk to, but what we see now is different. We’re seeing open hostility to any venue that reports unwanted news, combined with a concerted effort to game the system via changing the way press briefings work, who is permitted to attend them and, of course, “going around” the media.

This strategy is possible because a significant number (but not a majority) of Americans are already hanging in caves that are amenable to telling only what they want to hear. Their caves have shadows cast by media that are friendly to the new government and outright hostile to media that disagree.

I’m a bit of an optimist. I think this whole mess is going to collapse eventually, maybe even soon. But I am also enough of a realist to recognize that while the people hanging in government-friendly caves at the moment are not a majority, a majority of people are still living in caves of their own. When people resist now, is it because they don’t want the government to interfere with a free press, or because they hear things that conflict with the shadows on their walls?

I’m often afraid of what the real answer is. It’s easy to assume that the other guy is stupid, especially when he’s in a different cave.

Scummy Marketing

I’m sure you’ve seen them. The ads for the online “information products.”

I wish I could say I’m surprised to see the writing community filled with this stuff, but I’m not. I’ve been around the ‘Net long enough to know that all communities have them.

Pages and page of copy, filled with elaborate descriptions of the problems that the product addresses and specific descriptions of what the product actually provides you… somewhere on the next page maybe.

Every few paragraphs have a call to action to buy the product. A big button, usually a colorful one on a white background, invites you to Act Now™. There’s no price next to the button, of course, because if you have to ask, there must be something wrong with you. You don’t recognize real value when you see it!

There are tons and tons of bonuses. It’s almost as if the product can’t stand on its own and the seller wants to smother you with so many extras that it’s no longer possible to calculate the value of what you’re buying. But that can’t be why; they must be generous.

And of course, there is only a limited time to enroll. You may have even found out about this product or “online course” before you’ll be allowed to buy it. But they’ll send you an email or twelve to remind you when “registration is open.”

As a matter of fact, so many people signed up before that they had to stop selling it. And now they’ve improved it, and they’re going to open it up in a few days, but only for a limited time.

Why wouldn’t they leave a wildly successful and fully automated online product open 24/7? Why would you ask? You don’t recognize real value when you see it!

And the real topper, something I’ve only seen recently, is the lack of a total price. All of these products offer the cost broken down over two or more payments and then a discounted single payment price.

But what I recently saw was something like:

Pay only $295 over 6 payments or one payment with a 12% discount.

(I made these numbers up. I think the actual price was much higher.)

Nowhere on the page was the total price displayed.

This is what sleazy car dealers do. It’s how scummy mortgage bankers operate.

It’s what someone who hopes that you will buy their product without ever noticing the real cost does.

That’s not what a member of a community does. It’s the action of someone who wants to profit from a community.

A leech.

Your Personal Data Will Be Sold

(assuming it isn’t being sold already)

Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill that makes it possible for your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to save your Internet usage history and sell it or mine it for data to use for advertisements. By the time you read this, the President may have already signed it into law.

There are a few aspects to this bill and the debate surrounding it that I find deeply upsetting. (To put it politely.)

First, to quote the story above: “which also prevents the FCC from ever putting such a rule in place ever again.”

This bill is, more than anything else, a finger in the eye of the previous administration and its FCC. Obama’s FCC, which was run by a former cable lobbyist, made significant if maddeningly slow progress in bringing the U.S. in line with the rest of the world when it comes to the Internet (and television) access.

We pay too much, and we have too few choices, especially for a country that claims to be a bastion of consumer choice, freedom, and open markets.

One of the FCC rules, which was supposed to go into effect this coming December, was that our ISPs could not sell or mine our data without giving us a chance to opt out.

Note: without a chance to opt out. The rule didn’t forbid collecting the data; it merely required them to ask first.

This bill not only removes the opt-out requirement, but it also makes sure it can never be added again without a whole new law.

Because we know how much True Conservatives* like new laws.

Second, a recurring argument in the debate was that this bill “puts service providers on the same footing” as Google and Facebook and “makes the advertising market more fair.”

This assertion is complete bullshit.

When it comes Google, or Facebook, or any other Internet website/search engine/social media provider, you have a choice. You can not use them. I, for example, rarely use Google and am currently not using Facebook. (More about that in a later post.)

Moreover, when you do use one of those services, the exchange of data for services is clear: when you search on Google, they remember the search and how you used it. In return you get the best search engine there is right now.

On Facebook, you can share and find things. In return, Facebooks knows what you shared and what you found.

Of course, some people (like me) don’t necessarily like these arrangements, but they are clear and visible transactions. Information in return for service.

But in the case of ISPs, you have no choice. If you are lucky like I am, you might have a choice between two ISPs, but you can’t choose one that won’t snoop.

You also cannot choose what you share with them. If you use the Internet, they see it. Think about that. Every website you visit. Everything you watch.

This, by the way, is why Google wants you to use Chrome and log into it. If you do and save your favorite sites and browser history, maybe so you can access it on another device, they can see it. But why they want you to do it (and why I won’t) is evident, there are advantages for you as a user, and you have a choice.

There is no advantage to you at all if your ISP snoops and you and sells the information. None. Zero.

If you believe, as some politicians will tell you, that they will lower the price of your service in return, you have not been watching them for the past 15 years.

And, of course, you are already paying your ISP. A lot. Too much by any reasonable measure. Why should the government hand them another way to make money off of you?

Well, come to think of it, there is an advantage for the government; if the ISPs have the data, it can be subpoenaed.

It could even be sold to the government without a subpoena if they shuffle the paperwork correctly. (Think that’s far fetched? You must have not being paying attention a few years ago.)

My advice is the same as ProtonMail’s, right here. Use a VPN. Protonmail should be making theirs public soon. If you don’t want to wait, this review of VPNs is excellent, if a little verbose.

You might not think you have anything to hide, but apparently the U.S. government (even if you don’t live here) and your ISP do.


*Now extinct, BTW

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

Is Civil Disobedience (still) Effective?

Everything old is new again.

From the video description on Youtube:

“In November 1970, after my arrest along with others who had engaged in a Boston protest at an army base to block soldiers from being sent to Vietnam, I flew to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to take part in a debate with the philosopher Charles Frankel on civil disobedience. I was supposed to appear in court that day in connection with the charges resulting from the army base protest. I had a choice: show up in court and miss this opportunity to explain — and practice — my commitment to civil disobedience, or face the consequences of defying the court order by going to Baltimore. I chose to go. The next day, when I returned to Boston, I went to teach my morning class at Boston University. Two detectives were waiting outside the classroom and hauled me off to court, where I was sentenced to a few days in jail. Here is the text of my speech that night at Johns Hopkins.”

Was it the protests at town halls, the marches, the phone calls, and the letters and emails, that killed repeal and replacement of the ACA? (BTW, it’s still not dead.)

Or was the bill doomed anyway because arch-conservatives wanted nothing less that repeal with no replacement?

Finding out would require a level of honesty from members of the House that we’ll never see.

There’s little doubt that civil disobedience was a key part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, but how about now? Is it easier to ignore protestors when you can use social media to reach only the people that agree with you, as opposed to the old days when only three TV networks and a handful of national newspapers made the country seem more like a single entity?