11 February 2018

THE FADING PROMISE OF THE INTERNET

The early days of the Internet provided us with a marvelous tool to access libraries around the world, collaborate on projects, and have access to informational previously not easily available. The educational possibilities were endless and sites soon sprang up covering almost any imaginable interest. Email made it possible to communicate instantly with anyone anywhere. The Worldwide Web made it all even more accessible to the average person, and the promise was great. There would be a new birth of freedom and power would become decentralized.

But then came pornography (always an early presence with new technology) and baser subject matter as more and more people gained access, as well as predation, epitomized by hackers who were able to break into and compromise various sites which then required increased security. Internet chat became available and the groundwork was laid for social interaction. AOL provided an easily accessible organized framework, enabling millions of people to communicate and discover others to an extent that still hasn’t been realized by Facebook, which became ubiquitous much later on. At the turn of the century there were several search engines available and no one had yet heard of Google.  As the new century progressed the current incarnation of the Internet emerged, and it is deeply, perhaps irredeemably flawed. 

Today, despite billions of people being online, only a handful of sites get most of the traffic. Only two companies get more than half of all online advertising and that share is increasing as almost 90% of new revenue goes to Google and Facebook, leaving little for everyone else.


As indicated by the chart above this duopoly also gets 25% of all advertising (i.e. including, and at the expense of, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio) and that share is constantly  increasing as well, while the rest shrink. Indeed, for many, if not most people, they are the Internet. As a result the duopoly dominates most of the information on the Internet and have amassed an unprecedented amount of power that the “Robber Barons” of the past could never dream of. 

They are not handling it well. Facebook actively decides what information you get or don’t get, and  Google searches are skewed, yielding paid advertising first, so that you have to scroll down to get to what you are actually looking for. Barring some kind of change or intervention this is only going to get worse. Services are constantly monitoring us yet people have a depressing herd mentality in these things. 
There is even greater peril in other areas. We have a huge amount of personal exposure online. There are constant security threats and your information is simply not safe, and certainly not private. Every other day we read of an organization’s data being compromised, or  even worse, the government’s security being breached. The Internet in its present state is simply not safe. Reliance on the “Cloud” makes this even worse as we become increasingly dependent on being connected. But what happens if it goes down?
A few decades ago there was a vision of a future that had people telecommuting and working from home in the countryside, a small town or anywhere. But it didn’t happen. Instead  companies that allowed this are increasingly reversing themselves and bringing workers back into the office. 

Then there is the social cost, as millions of people have become addicted to social media, and the young are especially vulnerable to predators and character assassination that can have deathly consequences for those who are emotionally overwrought. Indeed some people have become so confused they believe the online world is reality, and if something is on the Internet it must be true, when in fact, it conveys a huge amount of misinformation. Never mind the enormous amount of time wasted online. 

Between emails, chat, and the sites you visit you leave a trail on the Internet that you might one day regret. 

Since people online want everything for free, there is an incalculable amount of theft of intellectual property and creative work, so that many of those that produce these things can no longer make a living. 

Our critical infrastructure is now so wired that we have enabled serious threats like a catastrophic attack on our electric grid, which would cause the collapse of our civilization. 

To fend off many of these perils you are required to maintain ever more complex and varied passwords for the sites you visit.  As things in your home become ever more “smart” via wifi you are that much more exposed. 

Thus, the online world is fraught with peril and must be used with a great deal of caution; hardly the future we expected. There may be a bright future somewhere, but this can't be it.







31 January 2018

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP


Even if you loathe Donald Trump it is hard to argue with the results he has engendered since taking office, and for all his personal flaws, results are what count.  The economy is doing very well, and as his policies continue to take hold, barring some unforeseen catastrophe,  it is increasingly clear that we are on the cusp of a boom that is only beginning, and bringing along the rest of the world in the process. Markets are at all-time highs, unemployment at an all-time low, job creation and investment are accelerating, and incomes are rising, and will increase even further for most people due to tax reform and cuts. ISIS has been decimated, and long overdue reforms are finally shaking up a sclerotic government that desperately needed it. 

It is no secret that I was skeptical of Trump prior to the election, but I withheld judgement to allow enough time to go by to reliably form one, unlike the preponderant conservative intellectual establishment.  However, his first State of the Union distilled the change that is in the air. If it weren’t for his off the cuff rhetoric he would be at least twenty or more points higher in polls, and in that respect he is his own worst enemy, Nevertheless his policies and results are increasingly popular even if he isn’t, as yet, but that could change as the reality of conditions sets in despite a hopelessly antagonistic and hostile media. 

The mainstream media coverage of his administration is atrocious, and truly unfair and misleading. The other day he made a major speech in Europe that was hardly covered at all by the networks that couldn’t even be bothered to show any of the speech, but instead lead with a non-story about an alleged attempt to fire a special prosecutor that never happened, so where is the story? With regard to the real news of the day all they could say was, well he didn’t go off-script. But they do make headlines out of every misstep he has made while ignoring the substance of what is happening on any given day. They report allegations as fact despite the lack of supporting evidence. This is ideologically driven malicious malfeasance, that cannot possibly be justified. 

This may play well with those who hate this President who are hearing what they want to hear and reinforcing their prior beliefs, but it is a miserable failure to inform the public, instead providing a truly warped image of reality.  This not to condone the very real flaws in his personal style, but there has to be some perspective, some truth, regarding what is happening substantively. Whatever misgivings one may have, he is getting things done, and keeping his promises. 

He is doing exactly what he said he would do. Even if he were a perfectly behaved angel it would make no difference, because he is an outsider who is directly taking on the establishment, as no one has done before, and they are biting back fiercely.  In fact in the days ahead it will become evident, to the point where the hostile media cannot ignore it, that the real election scandal was not Russian collusion, but in fact how that bogus story was conjured up by his opponents in entrenched bureaucracies that, it turns out, actively worked against his election, compromising the integrity of the FBI and other government agencies. There is much more to come.  


22 November 2017

A THANKSGIVING GIFT

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I experienced something nice.  The other day I wrote that my wallet was stolen in Times Square. I took the necessary precautionary steps, and resigned myself to its loss, as there is no point in agonizing over things you cannot change. But I just received a package containing my wallet, virtually intact, minus the credit cards, (which have all been canceled and replaced anyway), Even the cash was included. The very decent individual who sent it wrote that it was found on a street in Brooklyn. I am ever so thankful, not so much because the wallet was returned,  as because it is a pleasure to learn that there are still good people in this world.

Something similar happened to me some years ago, when leaving a Hawaiian resort. We left our things in what was supposed to be a secure storage room, while we went for a last swim. When I returned the wallet was missing, apparently lifted by an employee. When I got back home, I shortly thereafter received a phone call from someone staying in the same rooms at the resort, who said he found my wallet in the suite. Apparently the employee who had taken it got nervous after I complained and the heat was on, and made it reappear. He said he was sending it back to me, and refused any reimbursement, saying “I would hope that someone else would do the same for me.” Truer words were never spoken. 


For all the bad things we constantly hear about, we tend to forget that not everyone is a thief and  that they are greatly outnumbered by good people. This has restored my faith in others, in basic human decency, and I am indeed thankful for that. I am thankful for all the people who always rush to help others, be it an emergency or simply assisting strangers in the city. So this Thanksgiving I will be thinking about all the fine people that are still are around; people who will do the right thing even if no one is looking. It is something to ponder, always keep in mind, and  pass on to others. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

10 November 2017

ROBBED IN TIMES SQUARE

Last night my wallet was lifted in Times Square. It’s mostly my fault because I’m a lifelong New Yorker and should have known better. We were leaving a Broadway theater and I stopped to buy something on the street, showing my wallet. Since we were about to get in a cab I simply shoved it into my coat pocket, instead of where it usually rests- a front side pants pocket that is nearly impossible to breach. Unfortunately the coat pocket was wide open and that area is always very crowded so you are very likely to inadvertently bump into someone and not think twice about it. I didn’t even realize it was gone until I got home and was trying to pay for the cab.

You usually hear about pickpockets in major European cities, but not very often here, although an area like Times Square is full of clueless tourists, making it an ideal spot for thieves. Whoever did it made a good score because it was a Gucci wallet with $400-$500 in cash, several credit cards, driver’s license, and since I’m old enough for Medicare a card with my Social Security number. So I immediately had to contact all the credit card companies affected to cancel and replace them, as well as my bank and medical cards. That was not as easy as it was supposed to be, and in some cases and I wound up screaming at the phone all night. Then there was the Driver’s license, which proved to be a major hassle, requiring me to go file a police report today and get a form, before I could go to the NY State Motor Vehicle Department.  

I don’t think I’ve been in a police station since I was a kid, when the cops took me and some high school friends inside and beat the crap out of us, but we deserved it. In those days we used to hang out at an ice cream parlor in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the police precinct was right across the street. For the police it was a cushy assignment since the crime rate in the area was very low so they had little to do. As a result they were constantly harassing us for simply hanging out. Back then once assigned there,  they became embedded in the neighborhood, and became ever more nasty and corrupt (but I must emphasize not today; it was a different world). Then they had a sort of ceremony called “changing of the guard,” where the cops would line up in formation in their uniforms, sort of like the military. We were really fed up with loitering harassment, endless j-walking tickets, etc. so I concoct a scheme one day to bombard the formation with eggs. Most of them missed, but they managed to catch us and haul us into the precinct and exact painful retribution.

Both places are long gone now, but some fifty years later, when I walked into another precinct where I live now, not all that much was different. For routine matters they still operated at two speeds- slow and reverse. You are sent to a room staffed by a police academy cadet and some aides, are give a long form to fill out, and then have to wait for them to complete other paperwork and after an inordinate amount of time are given a form to take to the DMV.  I had to list all the missing items and check a box for stolen or lost, so I check the former, but was told that since it wasn’t absolutely certain that they were stolen, I  had to make changes and check “lost.” Now I understand why the city’s crime statistics are still so low; if something is only lost then there is no crime to report, so now the figures begin to make sense. 

Then I still had to put a freeze on my account with all the credit bureaus, and a few other things. The moral of the story is: 1. Don’t carry anything in your wallet unless you absolutely need it at the moment, 2. Men should always keep their wallets in the front pants pocket and never in an open coat pocket, 3. Have a list of all your card numbers ready, 4. Be vigilant when you go somewhere like Times Square.



22 October 2017

BAD NEWS


There is a bigger problem with the media today than the bias that often distorts stories. It is not “fake news” either. It is rather, no news. There is a paucity of real news everywhere and far too much goes unreported or is very briefly summarized. Cable news gives us mostly talking heads expressing opinions and not much in the way of real news. Broadcast news isn’t much better these days to the extent that there are too few stories that are selected in a rather arbitrary way, while hiding the fact that they have seriously cut back on correspondents covering various subjects or parts of the world. On cable “news” you see few correspondents reporting actual stories. Newspapers, and news magazines, even the “serious” ones aren’t much better, again with fewer correspondents now covering things regularly. News sites online aren’t all that informative either, especially to the extent that they are simply extensions of the television and publishing companies. 

A recent search I attempted clearly illustrates how shallow all of this is. The other day Vladimir Putin made what seemed to be some important statements, and from the news summaries my curiosity was engaged. But that’s all I could find, anywhere- summaries. I wanted to see more of the substance of what he said but could not find it anywhere from any “news” organization despite fairly extensive Internet searching. But the search engines are part of the problem because if the information was out there they weren’t showing it and what you usually get nowadays is top listings that re mostly paid followed by more that are basically off-topic. I find this happening time after time. Just try this with almost any other story. The idea that we are now able to easily obtain more serious information online is false. What one gets is the usual repetitive nonsense. 

 What we actually have now is mostly a repetitive echo chamber. In other words one source comes up with a story, say, the New York Times or Washington Post, and it is picked up by everyone else and repeated. This creates the illusion that they are actually covering the story from multiple points when in fact they are mostly repeating and uncritically passing on the same story. It is not just a herd mentality, but lazy, superficial reporting, Furthermore things that might really matter are often subsumed by nonsensical, superficial stories. Just think about what stories dominate the news every single day. Barring some sort of natural disaster the news contains a lot of trivia when not devolving into entertainment stories. As a result we are getting dumbed down news provided by dumbed down reporters and commentators. 


It gets worse. What we now get is more “entertainment news” instead of real, hard news. The entertainment news is ubiquitous, with each having its own entertainment program. In the recent past this did not exist at all and there were basically only gossip columns in this area, but now it supersedes everything. We get a huge amount of attention devoted to dopey “celebrities” that in reality are of no consequence in the larger scheme of things, and who are getting far more attention than they deserve. The media that now show unprecedented hostility to Donald Trump are largely themselves responsible for producing his presidency in the first place. Thus for all the information the we are supposedly being overwhelmed with, the truth is that we are less informed than ever. 

19 October 2017

GETTING BUSHED

George W. Bush made a statement today that no doubt will be widely praised in the liberal media as courageous and realistic for “breaking his silence” snd coming forward to broadly criticize the Trump era; never mind that he has a good deal of responsibility for creating it in the first place, as well as for the election of Democrat Barack Obama.  His presidency was an overall failure and a disaster for conservatives and Republicans who supported him, who only managed to recover because his successor was hardly any better. There is simply no way around this. Giving credit where it is due, he did acquit himself well in the wake of the 9/11 attack, but it was downhill from there. He is also a likable guy, of the sort you could easily share a beer with, he was honest, and has a lovely wife. But that’s about it. 
The “divisions” he essentially lays on Trump in fact became ossified during his presidency, starting with his failure to unify the country when he had the opportunity and did little to move it forward. The fact that his successor only made this worse does not relieve him of his own responsibility. His foreign policy was disastrous, and cost us dearly, in terms of treasure, and lives lost while aggressively pursuing an ill-advised policy of nation-building and promoting democratic freedom all over the world, whether feasible or not. Those of us who supported him at the time simply can no longer ignore the fact that he misled us, took us into an unnecessary war, and in its wake left the Middle East in chaos. As much as one might argue that his successor let all that effort go to waste, and made it worse due his distaste for the war in Iraq, the fact remains that it was Bush who started it all. It may be painful for some to admit this, but by any objective standard the conclusion is unavoidable. 

He managed to alienate an entire generation of young people from his party, while also causing it to lose control of congress by his policy failures. When together they had an opportunity to get things done with a reform conservative agenda they completely squandered it and accomplished nothing.  Instead he greatly increased the scope and power of the federal government, while claiming the opposite. Domestically he was a lot like Richard Nixon; using conservative rhetoric to gain support while actually pursuing generally liberal policies. When he did do anything that was somewhat associated with the right, it was something idiotic, like cutting off birth control assistance for poor countries. He ran up the deficit with nothing to show for it, precipitated a recession, and presided over an unnecessary financial crisis. While much of the cause of the latter can be attributed to the policies of his predecessor, particularly in mortgage finance, his administration did nothing to stem the growth of the problem or introduce any fiscal discipline,. 

Overall then, he not only accomplished very little, but was actually counterproductive in many areas. As the epitome of establishment Republicans and followed by two lackluster candidates from the same mold, the base of the party ultimately became so frustrated that when the opportunity arose they gravitated to the most anti-establishment candidate to come along, namely Donald Trump. They were so tired of being Bushwhacked they nominated the most improbable candidate to ever arise, and one who otherwise would never have been chosen. It was a total loss of confidence in the establishment along with a desire to avoid another Bush-style presidency that led to this. I am not suggesting anything about the wisdom of any of these choices but simply trying to describe how we wound up where we are today, thanks in so many ways to George Bush. For him to now decry what he himself had a major role in precipitating is simply disingenuous to say the least. 

HISTORICAL TRUTH & HISTORICAL LIBEL

One of the most irritating phenomena in contemporary entertainment is how exceptionally good production values are combined with thoroughly juvenile, idiotic, inaccurate, and historically ignorant screenplays. It is true there has always been “poetic license” to fabricate things presumably in the interests of some “larger truth.” However it becomes problematic when it is distorted to the point of creating an outright lie, because producers can count on the widespread historical illiteracy of contemporary audiences. Some examples:

The film Titanic depicts its subject very well but has a thoroughly ridiculous storyline. Worse, it mixes in some people who really existed and sullies their reputations. Most egregiously, in the film, the First Officer, William Murdock, is shown shooting passengers before shooting himself. Nothing of the sort ever happened and in fact the real man heroically went down with the ship. To libel his memory in this way is simply outrageous and there is no possible justification for it.

In Gangs of New York, which grossly distorts history in an otherwise good production, Horace Greeley, editor of the NY Tribune is shown collaborating with Tammany Hall figures; the complete opposite of what the man actually stood for. One of the most egregious cases occurs in an obscure film titled Hoodlum, wherein a character says they have to pay off Tom Dewey, which is preposterous. Thomas Dewey was in fact an excellent prosecutor, Governor of New York, and a two-time presidential nominee who was known to be incorruptible. To slander him in this way is inexcusable, but few now remember the truth. There are many more examples, but the point is that there is too often a gross dereliction of responsibility and decency, made all the worse by  purporting to be telling a true story. Even dead people deserve to be treated fairly.

However, it is more prevalent to find a great job being done depicting the background with an over-the-top portrayal of real characters, doing things that never happened,  accompanied by people that never existed. This happens a lot in fiction, but it matters when it goes beyond trivial matters and portrays things of consequence in a totally misleading fashion, A good example is current series about Renaissance characters, such as The Medici, and The Borgias.  The former is somewhat better, but the latter is totally warped by a completely fabricated screenplay. The real Borgias have a grossly exaggerated reputation for evil, even in 19th century novels, but this show uses that as a starting point along with rumors and innuendo from their enemies as a basis for an endless series of awful events that go much further, are completely made up, and devoid of any historical foundation. Anyone who thinks this is history is being played. (This is the Showtime series; the other Borgias series on Netflix is much better). But the most preposterous show being currently aired is Marco Polo, which has virtually nothing to do with the real Marco. The producers of this series have clearly never even bothered to read Marco Polo’s journals, which actually contain enough interesting material for drama, but none of it appears here. They simply have taken a real figure and period and then run off into a kung-foolery universe.

It is possible to do a credible job with historical situations, when carefully produced, as in the History Channel’s Vikings series which uses some historical, some mythological and some fictional characters in a way that, while sometimes fanciful, nevertheless does not seriously deviate from overall spirit of the source material. Real figures can also be faithfully portrayed successfully, such as in the HBO series John Adams, (although an old PBS series titled The Adams Chronicles was even more accurate). Rome, on that network was also not bad, if you ignore the excesses. But apart from these, the best are from the BBC or PBS. Unfortunately the excellence of the UK productions does not extend to continental Europe, which has gone Hollywood with previously mentioned shows. 

Even the greatest have done both. Shakespeare was surprisingly accurate in some of his dramas based in ancient Rome, since he largely relied on Plutarch as his source, and it is actually his depictions that largely inform people today about these characters. However, when it came to more recent characters from British experience, Shakespeare wrote in a way that frequently glorified the Tudor version of history. Further back even Virgil did this in the Aeneid, a second-rate epic that grossly flatters Augustus, and which Virgil himself actually wanted destroyed, At least in those days it was excusable in order to keep one’s head. However in an age when far more people get their information from movies and TV and sadly far fewer people read, entertainment producers have at least some responsibility to tell the truth.