Some thoughts on personal privilege

I did not grow into adulthood wealthy, but I was privileged.

– I was born white and male

– My parents were not wealthy when I was young, but they were committed to each other.  They were college educated and encouraged their children in whatever personal interests we had. I followed a career path they did not understand. Rather than object they found money to expand my undergrad training so they were comfortable that I had a backup plan. My own goals worked out and the breadth of my preparation ended up being a benefit throughout my career.

– I found a lifelong partner who supported me and who shared professional interests that magnified whatever personal talents I had.

So many struggle because they do not benefit from such privileges. They deal with discrimination because of irrelevant personal characteristics that are of no consequence. They mature in an environment of turmoil or hardship that was not of their making. They miss out on a break here or there that may have eventually resulted in great opportunities. They are unable to connect with someone who allows them to achieve far more than they would have on their own.

I take some credit for the successes of my life. I also realize that pretty much every possible break went my way.

This time of Thanksgiving should be a time of reflection. We seem to be in a time of great turmoil and a willingness by many to ignore life’s privileges. I hope the inequities generated by privileges are not overly magnified by the political decisions now being considered.

 

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Big Tech needs a version of Martin Luther

How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt?

This is the question John Naughton asks about our commitment to big technology. He answers this question in a strange way – by reference to the way Martin Luther confronted the corruption of the Catholic church. I admit that being brought up as a Lutheran probably caused me to read more than the title of the Naughton post, but his analysis, Lutheran or not, is interesting to consider.

Naughton makes a number of interesting observations. How did Luther survive (in a physical sense) taking on such a powerful institution? He was protected by powerful people and his access to a means of mass communication (new media – the new printing press) allowed him a measure of protection.

What was the key to the success of the complaints he listed? He identified both flaws in the ideology and the business model of the Catholic church. The key was the focus on indulgences (payment for the forgiveness of sins). Religion was not supposed to work this way.

Like the author, I find myself reluctantly realizing that I am a recovering utopian.

recovering utopian. When the internet first appeared I was dazzled by its empowering, enlightening, democratising potential. It’s difficult to imagine today the utopian visions that it conjured up in those of us who understood the technology and had access to it. We really thought that it would change the world, slipping the surly bonds of older power structures and bringing about a more open, democratic, networked future.

This technology and internet thing is working out quite as I had hoped. What we have lost is the voice of the little guy. The business sector was able to gain control and we are now more and more at the mercy of big money. They figured out that we were either not as smart as we think we are or more likely simply lazy and cheap. We are willing to trade our values and control of our attention for free. Luther called folks on similar weaknesses – paying a few bucks for release from the responsibility for sins was a good deal. It was easier than doing the right thing.

I do not know if I agree with Naughton’s theses, but I do find them scary and worth the effort to oppose.

No 19: The technical is political
This thesis challenges the contemporary assertion of the tech industry that it stands apart from the political system in which it exists and thrives.

No 92: Facebook is many things, but a “community” it ain’t

The Naughton piece seems to end before he gets to the point of proposing solutions. I guess this is up to us. I propose we start with this – awareness. Revelations related to the election of 2016 should make this clear. Twitter and Facebook feed our biases to harvest our attention. I would use these same services to declare awareness of this corrupt business practice.

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People of character

The foolishness of assuming someone successful in one domain would have the skills necessary to be successful in another is there over and over again. Whether you believe Trump is a flawed and maybe criminal individual is a secondary issue. It is obvious daily that Trump lacks the personality characteristics and leadership skills necessary to be an effective president. There is so much negativity and wasted time required to deal with this individual. He will not back down from his failures because he sees any concession as a sign of weakness. Failing to fact check and identify mistakes allows egotism. lack of compassion, and lack of judgment to prevail. I understand that this is a strong focus on the negative, but people of character cannot walk away from this reality and pretend it does not exist.

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Strong and weak signals

I have a kind of geeky concern, but it is a concern nonetheless. I wonder if the culture of sharing rather than authoring is reducing the quality of online search and personal reflection.

The logic of my concern works like this.The original Google system for listing search results was based on a system called page rank. Based roughly on the way journal articles are assigned importance, page rank is determined by the frequency with which something posted online is linked to by other sites. The assumption being that the more frequently others link to your work, the more important your work must be. In addition, the more important the pages linking to your page, the higher your page would be ranked. The Google algorithm has grown more complicated and more mysterious, but linking still plays an important role. The variables used in the ranking algorithm are frequently called signals. These signals are not weighted equally. There are strong signals and there are weak signals.

What I see online is a decline in original work and a drastic increase in sharing. Twitter offers little opportunity for analysis and explanation, but is great for sharing. Facebook does not impose the character limit of Twitter, but my experience has been most contributions are still shared news articles, posters, and videos. There are clearly data in the frequency of what is shared, but sharing is too easy and too imprecise. Sharing does not require careful reading of what is shared and without personalized, shared summarization, there is little evidence that what is shared is even understood. In comparison to something that is personally constructed and referenced, sharing provides only weak signals.

Maybe it is laziness. Maybe it is overload of one type of another. I think we are losing the strong signals that come from the thought required to put together personal statements in blogs and other social media constructions. Search will likely suffer. I also wonder if people even consider what they really think when they find it easier to use others say instead of speaking for themselves.

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You are complicit

Just so we are clear, you are complicit in this situation with Facebook. You were willing to be a heavy user of Facebook without understanding how Facebook works and how the company makes its money. You were willing to share your personal information in exchange for free access to the services of the social media company to share your pictures and comments about your family. You were also convinced that Facebook provided access to credible news and made this judgment because the news appeared in your feed so it must be accurate and well reasoned. You may have even forwarded the Russian propaganda to others with little personal analysis and related commentary. Now that some of the players – Facebook, Russia, you – have been identified, the big question is whether or not the list is complete. Were the characteristics used by Kushner and the RNC in targeting ads shared with Russian actors?

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How am I categorized by Facebook

The role Facebook appears to have played in the election of 2016 has created interest in how Facebook targets ads to each of us. Facebook collects information it can gather from our online behavior and these data are made available to those willing to pay to have specific ads provided to those with specific combinations of these data points. Core questions include what does Facebook know about us and what about this information results in us seeing any given ad?

This post from TNW addresses these questions and shows you how you can learn at least something relevant to these questions. This post is well worth your time.

Here is a simple thing you can try. When you are presented an ad on Facebook, you can ask why am I seeing this ad. The downward pointing caret should open a drop-down menu. If you find the ad useful, you are likely to see similar ads more frequently. If you are interested, this gives you some measure of control over what you are likely to see in the future. The option to ask for an explanation allows you to see something about the data used to select you for the ad that has appeared.

The following is the type of thing Facebook will reveal.

Here is an example with a little more political potential.

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Another gun tragedy

Brokaw offers sound advice. There is no defense for public access to military weapons. This has nothing to do with the constitution, it is the consequence of some sick NRA logic and the money flowing from this organization to politicians. The Make America Great motto has little meaning when the political process allows these events over and over. There are so many areas in which the arrogance of Americans prevents us from recognizing the sound decisions made in other countries.

 

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A hat to live by

Cindy loves to read or send me inspirational quotes she finds online. Things that are intended to help me find motivation or direction for my life. I think I have found something far better – an inspirational hat. I have many hats. This is the case because I keep forgetting the one I am supposed to have with me. I have a thin covering of hair on the top of my head and I must seek coverage to limit sun or cold exposure. I found this hat in the gift shop at Ha Ha Tonka (laughing waters) state park.

Ha Ha Tonka state park did have some other interesting things. This is the remains (it burned in the 1940s) of the Castle at Ha Ha Tonka. Those in the castle had a tremendous view overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks.

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Pre-existing conditions

Awareness of pre-existing conditions likely came to the public awareness during the ongoing debate over health care and made visible the issue of whether the government has a role to play as insurance companies are allowed to deny coverage. Pre-existing is used in reference to characteristics of individuals, perhaps based in unfortunate genetics, making specific problems more likely and as a consequence making such individuals statistically more expensive to keep healthy. Of course, poverty is also a pre-existing condition predicting greater health risks and greater difficulty purchasing health care coverage. Such situations are convenient to ignore unless you happen to be or know someone falling into one of these categories.

I was thinking about the plight of those in Texas and Florida as they struggle to recover from the recent hurricanes. Even though a good deal of the financial burden will fall to home and business owners, the government, translation tax payers, will pump billions of dollars into the region to support recovery. My point here is not to speak against all of us making this contribution rather it is to point out how unaware we are of inconsistencies in our thinking when it comes to statistically unavoidable life consequences. Building close to warm water is a pre-existing condition for hurricane damage. The odds of being outside the 100 year flood plain (I understand this situation from being flooded while living outside the 100 year flood plain in Grand Forks) doesn’t guarantee you will avoid costly damage and doesn’t deny you government support.

Pointing this out is mostly intended to target all of the southern Republican politicians willing to vote against the Affordable Care Act and now expecting the rest of the country to fund the unique pre-existing conditions they fail to recognize as such. In my opinion, ignoring pre-existing conditions is basically selfish and is an issue the government must address. Politicians may pick and choose their issues without regard for the inconsistency in what makes them look good. Perhaps bringing this inconsistency to their and their constituents attention will be helpful.

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News from social media

Facebook is increasingly becoming a source many of all ages turn to for news. In light of recent stories regarding the targeting of stories based on demographics and Facebook’s own use of user preferences for prioritizing the content provided based on personal preferences, this trend has the potential to convince people they are staying informed when in fact the inputs to their thinking are being biased in several ways.

News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2017

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