You get what you pay for.

I’ve been thinking about the so-called the “democratization of information” or “right to information” or just the plain old adage that we went to the moon with less technology than what sits in my pocket and catches emails for me; if I want to know the answer to something then Google is there for me (or Duck Duck Go — browse privately, friends).

This is the same world where we see quips like “Please do not confuse your Google Search with my medical/law/etc. degree.” The same world where one has to look for and describe what “peer reviewed research” means. The same world where “alternative facts” and “fake news” are lobbied in counterpoint.

We have an information pricing problem.

In a conversation with a colleague we were discussing school adventures — ours — and up came terms like “microfiche” and “card catalogue”. Back in my day (with overtones here of “get off my lawn you kids”) if one wanted information one had to go to the library to get it — you went armed with your topic (say, Earthquakes) and went to the card catalogue and first searched by subject and then narrowed it down to one or more books/items that had information about that subject. Each item was printed on a card, with the name of the item and the author(s) and publishing information (in fact, cribbing from that card is what typically got you your bibliography). You then followed the Dewey code for that item and went looking in the stacks to get the item in question, and then you had to actually read the whole item even if you were for example going to cherry pick things to meet your needs. (Card catalogues have been around as “the way to find things in the library” for over 100 years, so what was true for me was true for my parents and theirs and theirs and so forth).

Microfiche was even more involved — if your item was microfiche then you had to take it to the librarian or look through the drawers for it, put it into a special machine, and scroll through it until you found the article or print you were looking for. Microfiche has not been around as long as the card catalogue, but it’s coming up on it’s 85th birthday in libraries. Microfiche (and film) is still in use, but it wasn’t as snazzy as this when we had to use it. It looked like this. Somehow everything in the 70’s was beige.

This was “pull method” of information – you made the investment and went to the library and invested your nontrivial amount of time to go and get the information and glean it for whatever purpose.

“Push method” — ingestion of information in a someone-else-does-the-bulk-of-the-work-way — was mostly TV (nightly news, from 6:30-7:30) and radio (mostly public or talk radio). This was before blogs and user-based journalism which have largely changed the landscape of the form and presentation of journalism (far less stuffy but far more opinionated). Journalism has a code of ethics that most journalists follow, rando persons on the internet (such as myself, hi/hello) are not bound by those ethics. (I mean, I try, but I’m not formally trained and this is not a professional blog, this is just where I spit things out that are in my brain). It’s important to note however that the “push method” of nightly news and radio, along with relative lack of choice (when I grew up there were at first 3, and then 9, channels) meant that the news you were getting in your home was the same news that everyone else got. The same leading stories, the same local color, the same news from Washington and the world. The accessibility of the news, even with the “scheduling war for news” we saw with the Gulf War, was still relatively uniform.

Which is all a very long way to say that, for the previous 100-odd years, the foundation for information was roughly uniform and the amount of investment one had to do to get it, past that initial uniform bit we got with Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather (or before them, the nightly newspaper), was relatively involved.

My offspring recently graduated high school and he has never known a world where information wasn’t searchable locally at home: every “paper” (for most of them never made it to paper) was researched via internet.1 Everyone I know has a mobile phone that has internet search functionality on it and can quite literally “look up” the answer to any question at any time for any purpose. The *investment* to procure information is drastically lower, information is now astonishingly cheap – and I do mean cheap.

Quick digression – I’m a fan of good diction, this comes from how I operate in the world (very explicitly). If one has a reputation for being specific and direct, one has to choose one’s words carefully because the amount of thought that goes into receiving them is ostensibly higher. When I say “cheap”, I do not mean “inexpensive”. There are a variety of definitions for “cheap” and the fact that “inexpensive” routes to “cheap” according to Merriam Webster is a tragedy. I think someone cut a corner there. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary gets closer to the nuance I’m looking for. “Cheap” comes with an inference of low quality as to the reason for something’s low price, whereas “inexpensive” (for me) does not.

Here we return to “Do Not Confuse Your Google Search with my XYZ Degree”: The seventeen seconds you spent online “researching” your symptoms do not equate to the years of study (and practice) a good MD has (always get a second opinion, though). How many times have we heard the joke that one goes to google with one’s symptoms and they’re either dehydrated or dying? The issue at hand is while the access to the information has been greatly simplified, the investment required to get to it has also been removed: the knowledge isn’t earned and the context is absent.

I can go watch endless YouTube videos about solving household plumbing problems (e.g., how to clean out your P-trap, remove drain flies, even replace a toilet). This does not make me a plumber. If I elect to attempt any of these things on my property it’s my problem but I sure as heck should not be advising you on yours (nor should you take my advice there except as maybe a prompt to go talk to someone who actually has been trained in this). I do a lot of home cooking and watch a lot of food recipes, this does not make me a professional chef. I read up a lot about the things I contend with (thyroid, cardiological, etc.) but I do so in preparation for an intelligent conversation with my MD’s about it and not *instead of* those conversations, and absolutely not to “guide” others. (Or to suggest to them that “doing their own research” will arrive at the same conclusions.)

The cheapening of information combined with an elevation of User Generated Content to Journalism (a loosening, in my opinion, of how journalism operates — a lot more opinions and editorials) and the breadth of information and information targeting (my “news fix” may not be the same as my neighbors) has led to extreme polarization and, worse, a willful ignorance to information that may not align with our inclinations. (This exists, incidentally, in scientific exploration which is why peer review is so important and why you should always get a second opinion). This polarization is not only political, it extends to our societal behaviors when it comes to medicine (e.g., vaccines in general — not just for COVID) and how we view things like Climate Change (regardless of political affiliation, or perhaps exacerbated by it).

I am not suggesting we somehow lock down information (I mean, that would create a scarcity which in turn would increase the price as supply goes down and demand ostensibly goes up, but that’s a little more 1984 than I think anyone wants). I *am* suggesting, as with any (relatively) newfound2 privilege or boon, we do our homework. Specifically, we elevate the role and investment of critical thinking (in our schooling and as a foundation of education), The information tsunami (and its accompanying hurdles) will not go away and so, much as we should be teaching financial literacy and scientific literacy in schools, we should be teaching critical thinking skills. In a world where information is cheap and easy, the filtration and identification of information of actual value is not.3

The “good” news (?) is that educational standards are set at the State level. Meaning the curriculum requirements for your state are owned by your state Superintendent of Public Instruction (or equivalent). In a world where all politics are local, this can be influenced by your local state representative and local state senator (again: not Federal. You’re not writing to the person that goes to DC, you’re writing the person that goes to your state capital).

Yes, writing. This is the sort of topic that would not come up (or only come up cursorily) during election season, likely drowned out by the myriad of other agita that happens at that time. The very best way to get action on anything from an elected representative is to visit them, which can be impractical (in terms of investment), so the second very best way to get them to look at a thing is to write a letter (like… the kind that gets mailed). Email is your third choice here. Don’t want to go through the pain of finding your state’s legislative site and then figuring out who represents you? Go here — you can find your state (and federal) representation. Here’s a guide on writing legislators. As to your State Superintendent of Schools — sometimes these are elected, sometimes they’re appointed, you can find that out here. (You can also use that link to find your State Superintendent, their office, and their office mailing address and email). In addition, you can get involved through your local school *district*, either directly with the district or via a PTSA council (if you have that kind of time, and not all do).

There is a contingent of folks who will read this who either 1. do not have children or 2. whose children (like mine) have already graduated and are off to their next endeavor. The inclination here is to say “this does not affect me” and therefore no investment is needed. I argue that that is shortsighted and obtuse: you as a taxpayer are paying for the education system and you are paying for the product of that system (its current and future students), who in turn are going to be your future co-electorate. If the purpose of public education is for a well-informed and productive public, then you should be very much incentivized to ensure your investment is well spent.

  1. The teachers explicitly stated not to use Wikipedia as it is not considered a credible source; we taught him to check out the footnotes to find the credible sources and use Wikipedia as a coalescing function.
  2. Let’s just wave a hand at it and say it started with the internet in the 90’s. That’s 30 years, and so we’re at least one and likely two generations behind here already. “Relatively newfound” is overgenerous. We are late.
  3. In a sad turn of events, searching for “critical thinking” (in quotes deliberately to get that phrase), plus curriculum plus legislation, all I got was the never-ending debate over Critical Race Theory, which is a different thing altogether. That and a WaPo article about how Texas doesn’t want to teach critical thinking skills but I couldn’t find a second source.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Does Not Have a Glaring Story Problem

There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon introduces Amy to Raiders of the Lost Ark (the first Indiana Jones movie) and, having expected her to be awash in amazement, is disconcerted when she asserts that it has a glaring story problem: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story.” The tenet here is that the Nazis would have found the Ark of the Covenant, gone to the island, opened it, and would have died as they did, regardless of Indiana’s involvement.

I don’t think this is true, and after countless minutes searching (yeah, I Duck’d it for a few minutes and found only a couple of articles including a discourse on movies.stackexchange– read, I invested no real time because I kept getting cookie notifications) I figured it’s time to document that here. I *hope* this is a cookie free experience but who knows what wordpress does.

Let’s start with the near-beginning of the movie, when Indy is introduced to the idea that the Ark is real and the Nazis are after it. The US Government has intercepted a cable sent by the Nazis saying they have “discovered Tanis” and need the “headpiece to the staff of Ra” and that they need to find “Abner Ravenwood, US”. The Government doesn’t understand what any of this means and Indy explains: Tanis is the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant (stone tablets of Thou Shouldn’t Really Do Anything to Piss A God Off), the headpiece is a shiny medallion like thingy that sits on top of the stick, no one really knows how tall the stick is, you use the piece on the stick in a map room to find the treasure, and he hasn’t seen or heard from Abner Ravenwood in ages because they had a “bit of a falling out I’m afraid”. (We discover later it’s probably because Indy was schtupping his daughter.) Indy says that he thinks Abner may be “someplace in Nepal”.

After some discourse with Marcus Brody (Indy’s boss? Chancellor of the University? Head of Archaeology? Curator at the Museum? I don’t think we really ever get to know his title) Indy books a trip (that we get to watch on an interactive map graphic) to Mongolia. We see as he boards the plan a nefarious character in all black (I prefer all black too but I’m not so nefarious — we know this guy is because the music changes) who eyeballs him and puts his paper up to shield his face.

Here is my first counterpoint to the argument: I don’t think the Nazis knew where to look for Ravenwood. The cable said, “Abner Ravenwood, US”. Indy asserted to the US Government folks (who said they couldn’t find any trace of Ravenwood” that no one really knew for sure and he thought Ravenwood was “somewhere in Nepal, I think”. Without the tail on Indy, they wouldn’t have known to go to Nepal, or at least in that general direction. I personally think the cable was leaked on purpose (though that is never stated in the movie).

After the map gets to Nepal, instead of seeing Indy’s arrival we see a drinking scene, and Marian Ravenwood closing her bar after winning it. Indy comes in, they fight with some exposition, he asks her for the medallion and she says she doesn’t know where it is, he offers her cash, he leaves. The Bad Guys come in after, having followed Indy (I think this further supports my point above, if the Nazis knew where Marion was before Indy went to her, they would have gone there first), and attempt to get the medallion. For various reasons they don’t get it but they get a print of one half of it. Indy and Marion escape with the real deal. And now we’re off to Cairo!

The Nazis are digging in the wrong place, which we know because they only have one half of the medallion. While we can say that’s because of Indy, we can also assume if they had both halves they’d be digging in the *right* place. Indy gets his digging team in the right place, he and Sallah bring up the Ark, the Nazis catch them, and now the Nazis have the Ark that they are going to attempt to fly out. Indy escapes with Marion and as part of that escape blows up the little airport (and at least one plane), and his rival French archaeologist (Belloq) and the German in charge of things (Dietrich) say they’re going to put it on a truck and get it out of Cairo that way.

Then of course Indy hijacks the truck, gets to a ship and Marion with Sallah’s help, and they’re now on a boat! Which of course gets waylaid by the Nazis and the two of them (and the Ark) taken *again*.

I’ve glossed over a lot that happened here and we’ll get into a more nuanced argument in a second, but let’s pause: let’s give the Nazis credit for craftiness and assume that they would’ve, *eventually*, figured out where Abner (or Marion) Ravenwood were, and would’ve eventually got the medallion, so they would be digging in the right place.

I don’t think they were originally going to take the Ark to the Island. The original plan was to fly the Ark out, but Indy blew up at least one plane and a bunch of fuel at the airport– and the German in charge’s next plan was to *truck* it out of Cairo. Without Indy blowing things up, the Ark would have been on a plane back to Berlin.

Here’s where the more nuanced part of this comes in: Belloq and Indy are old adversaries, and Belloq (it’s pretty clear from some of the dialogue) winces at his mercenary status. (He’s not giving it up though, because it gives him access to things he thinks are valuable, like the Ark). It’s clear that Dietrich doesn’t approve of him and that approval decreases over time with Belloq’s fancy with Marion, with Belloq’s apparent soft side, etc. But Dietrich allows for it because he knows he cannot get the Ark without Belloq, and as Belloq uses patience over time to get to the Ark this strengthens his position with Dietrich — meaning Dietrich has to give Belloq what he wants (Marion, specifically not torturing Marion, and then letting Belloq be the one to open the Ark) because Dietrich knows he can’t get what the Fuhrer wants without him. My point (and I know I’m laboring to get here) is that if the Nazis had got the medallion first thing, got to the map room straight away, dug up the Ark without Indy, and had their plane not blown up, that plane would’ve gone straight to Berlin — with Dietrich in tow, certainly, but none of the confrontation we see between Belloq-Indy would have fueled pursuant Belloq-Dietrich confrontation — I don’t think Belloq could’ve made the successful argument that they needed to divert an entire army to a small island to open a box. The blown up plane, the hijacked truck, the ship’s capture — all of that needled the situation to allow for it.

At this point we’re on the island, Indy bluffs with a grenade launcher and loses, and now Indy and Marion are tied to a pole. Queue opening the ark, ghosts come out, face melty things happen, and Indy and Marion survive because they close their eyes. If Indy had not been there, and if we say my second point is moot (we ignore “would they have gone to the island or Berlin directly”), YES, the Nazis would have opened it and all died anyway. Sure. But what would have happened is now you have a closed Ark on an altar in the middle of a presumably deserted island with some Nazi artifacts around it (remember, it consumed the bodies but left the camera – although it did fry the camera, so no video evidence). Without Indy, the Ark stays there. With Indy, the Ark goes to a warehouse in US Government custody. There is truth in the assertion that Indy’s original charter was to make sure the museum got the Ark, and that did not happen because US Government. But the Ark exists in the movie in that undefined warehouse because of Indy; otherwise it’d be either have discovered in Berlin (assuming no one opened it and it just sat in a Nazi-analog warehouse) or opened and left on a remote island, somewhere undisclosed. In the Big Bang Theory, towards the end, the boys (Sheldon and his friends) do acknowledge this, but then burn on Indy as he “couldn’t get it back to the museum”. Sure — that was his charter and he was unable to fulfill it (Thanks, Uncle Sam) — but it is not an argument on his not having a role in the outcome of the story.

Art and Artifice, Requirement and Request

This time last year, my brother, my son, and I were in Disneyland. It was the first time the three of us had been together, the first time we had been as adults (well, I had taken the kiddo but he hadn’t really been an adult until this time), and it was all the things I appreciate about Disneyland: a predictable experience, people on their best behavior, cleanliness, and a sincere acknowledgement that the world doesn’t actually work that way but wouldn’t it be lovely if it did? I love Disneyland. Yes, it is artifice and yes, it is not real. As active escapism goes, for me, it’s right up there in my top three. (Books are and forever shall be the top one.)

When I was a kid, I lived in California, and so a Disney trip was something that happened once a year with camp, and once a year with my family. As such, I would reliably get physically ill the night before – waves of nausea, I couldn’t eat, I was a jumble of nerves and had fitful sleep. As an adult this happens to me still; plus all of the associated accoutrements of generalized anxiety disorder: I am, as my husband puts it, constantly anvil-spotting. Imagine a videogame where you know you’ve entered the boss fight space by a change in the music — now imagine you hear that change in music but there is no boss fight to happen. You’re picking up the mail. You’re filling birdfeeders. You’ve just finished a day of meetings. It’s like your brain decides, “hey, everything’s going fine, let’s panic now: ok heart rate you go up, lungs? I want you to pretend like you can’t get air. Stomach — do that Disney thing. And then let’s just shut it off after about 10 minutes of googling panic attack symptoms. Sound good?”

I wasn’t formally diagnosed until two years ago, and before that I had already started to take this into my own hands as a project. If I would anvil spot, I would anvil spot my anvil-spotting. I talked to a therapist about the attacks (only long enough to talk about the physical bits, let’s just ignore the mind racy bits) and she suggested breathing exercises. I have a friend who is an amazing music teacher and specifically vocal coach (I have seen her in opera, I will go to anything she is in, ever) and had her teach me how to breathe. (She, being the smart cookie she is, also had me learn music theory, because she knows I like math). With the ability to reactively control an attack, things got better. When I actually got cognitive behavioral therapy, the proactive side of things got better.

To be clear: I’ve also learned to use this as a power: where I used to get caffeinated and reorganize friends’ garages or clean kitchens or such; now I am in a space to professionally execute in job whose whole purpose is to identify all of the things that can go wrong and come up with contingency plans.

Yes, I’m still fun at parties.

We are one year into the US general acknowledgement of the pandemic, about two weeks away from the anniversary of when it got real for most of us — we got sent home to work and ten million people got sent home to not work. (I am dripping with privilege, folks: I “get” to work from home, I still have my job; my kid is actually doing *better* in online schooling than in-person schooling, my expenses have gone down, etc. etc. It’s not fair. I know it’s not fair. I am trying to do things to help.) Our political system and the people in it very courteously (/s) displayed possibly the most effective and thorough civics lesson we had encountered in our generation: I would wager a majority of folks had no idea that the electoral college worked the way it did, or what the electors did, or when they met, or when and how the Senate and House met to vote and ratify, or all of the different deadlines with that, until 2020. Our financial and employment systems very courteously (/s) displayed the most effective and thorough economics lesson we had encountered in our generation (well that whole Great Recession should have learnt us but this was a step beyond): the stock market is not the economy and the job market is not the stock market. We learned that our most critical workforce is the least paid and provided for; we learned that nearly 40% of all landlords are mom-and-pop mortgagees that are left unsupported and whilst renters are randomly assisted (or not — moratoria or not, some landlords are engaging in good faith and some are not; some renters are engaging in good faith and some are not) no mortgage relief for these small-shop landlords exists. For all of you thinking landlords are large corporations, consider that friend of yours who elected to rent out their house while they moved to the Bay Area or Texas and rent an apartment — they are a landlord now.

Everywhere you look there is work to do, and/or opportunity: yes, there is value in framing these things with a silver lining (as in, identifying the things that are going well and recognizing them) but let’s not let that get in the way of the remaining work to be done.

As individuals, and as US Citizens, there is the temptation to indicate “well we voted and that’s that”; e.g., by voting I have exercised my voice and therefore I participated in the process and therefore I have done what can be done (protest aside). (When I say protest, I mean peaceful march, not breaking-and-entering, not threatening people with bodily harm, but instead I have snacks and a water bottle and I am using my voice and this sign to bring awareness to my cause). In addition to my consistent reminder that there are more elections than just the Presidential and MidTerm ones — for example Washingtonians our next one is in April — there are other ways you can influence the system. I’ve written before about how all politics are local and it’s still true. You may not like the person who was elected to represent you but they work for you and you get to tell them what your thoughts are and how you’d like them to proceed.

If you’ve tried that route and it’s still not working for you then you can get involved in the nonprofit space — there’s a lot of them out there and they’re probably doing a thing you’d like to support, either monetarily or with time (they may use your brawn, they may use your brains, they may use both).

If you’re not really into that sort of thing then see about local organizations of which you are already involved — maybe your local church, PTA, school, kids care center, etc. has something you can help with.

And if you are one of the millions of people who need this help I’m telling the other millions of people (well I know not millions of people will read this but let’s just pretend, shall we?) then know that there is help — albeit difficult to find. Start with your local library, believe it or not. King County Library System for example offers a whole lot more than books and periodicals – printing services, resume-writing classes, even help on filing your taxes. The King County Library System Foundation also offers literacy programs, and digital literacy and internet services for folks. Hopelink can help you with food, housing, financial services, employment help, transportation, and a whole lot more.

I do not suffer the illusion that some day we will all get to live in a cleanly-designed, hyper-efficient land of wonder and magic, where people are a shade nicer and things are a shade rosier (and with churros!). We will not get to live in Disneyland. We can, however, work to make it better.

After Life

(Note: This is the last one of these I’m going to write for a while. Not because they’re particularly depressing for me, but they can be a bit of a downer for others. Still, I’ve had a couple of people ask about “what happens next”, so without further ado, here’s what happens next.)

(Also note: this isn’t about the spiritual afterlife — the one that happens to your spirit when it leaves the body, if that is your belief. This is about what happens to others who are still in this life, when that happens, in a practical tactics sort of way.)

I once had a break of a whole week between two jobs — a real break, I had left company A and was moving to company B. In preparation for that I started a checklist of all the things I was going to do during that week — various house stuff, crafting projects, probably catching up on filing, reorganizing the pantry — and it grew. The checklist started about four weeks before the break, and about one week before the break, it was complete.

I had done all the things on the checklist.

It has taken me years to allow things to sit on a list for their appointed time, because my instinct is to do the thing if it can be done. This has historically resulted in manic cleaning fits, late-night papers, insomniac email, and associated unhealthy behaviors; I’m working on it. Still, I typically craft my resolutions for the New Year around Thanksgiving and start addressing them around mid-December.

I’ve had a will, and the standard, boilerplate living will/healthcare directive since I had my son. I felt like I had done all that needed to be done, things were addressed, and so if something were to happen to me, the “work” left to my estate would be trivial. My mom also had a will, a healthcare directive and healthcare power of attorney (that specifically named me). It took seven months from the time of her passing to the last bit of paperwork/administrative work to be complete.

(NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TALK TO ONE). In the interest of preventing others from going through this same hassle (inasmuch as it can be avoided), I’m going to share some specific experiences and some guidance for you as you think about your own paperwork or guide a family member through theirs.

When my mom got put on hospice, the hospice team suggested reaching out to make pre-arrangements with a funeral home. We did do that, a local place that was hugely sympathetic and understanding (I had to do it virtually thanks to the viral outbreak), and walked me through the process. They had a lot of questions that were not answered in mom’s documents: did she want an obituary? Did she want a full or partial viewing? What kind of container did she want her remains in? Did she want them interred in a cemetery or to come home? And so forth. Learning: go talk to the local funeral home/investigate their site and look at their intake forms. It will give you an idea of the questions you should either have answered in your will or separate letter to whomever you want taking care of that.

When it happened, the home walked us through the initial administrative process, and we notified mom’s lawyer that she had passed. Both the home and the lawyer walked us through next steps, which included such things as “let us know” (the home) “how many death certificates you need”, and “get me a death certificate and the most recent bank and title statements of the joint properties listed in the community property agreement” (a thing my parents had in addition to their will, that was supposed to streamline the process and avoid a lengthy probate). Learning: each financial or legal institution you will deal with will want a *certified* death certificate. So each life insurance, bank, etc. Start with five if you can, or if things are super-tight, start with the one and then ask each office to send it back. (In Washington State, death certificates are about $20 each, and your funeral home can get them for you as part of their service).

About a month or so in to going through mom’s papers, we discovered not one but two ancient life insurance policies – one opened up as a “savings account” for her by her father when she was born (the kind you pay each year and then cash out at 21, except she didn’t) and one she opened when she was still married to my dad, her first husband.

The savings account one wanted not only a death certificate but receipts from the process, and when they made a copy error (I am not making this up) and copied the receipts over the death certificate they held up progress for FOUR MONTHS while they sent me form letters saying they hadn’t heard from me. (I’d call and they’d tell me the form letter wasn’t as specific as it could be and that they wanted a new death certificate. When I pointed out they already had one and that their copy error shouldn’t be my problem, they agreed and said they’d handle it. The next month I’d get another form letter saying they hadn’t heard from me. Repeat.) Learning: the Insurance companies aren’t just going to let you file a claim and receive the paperwork and have it be all fine, be prepared to spend some phone time and (in my case) know who the OIC (Office of the Insurance Commissioner) is in your state, the state the life insurance contract was opened in, and the state the insurance company operates in. (In my case, I ended up opening a complaint in California, Pennsylvania, and with the BBB).

For the one opened in her first marriage, the insurance company did NOT care that there was a will, that my mom had divorced my dad, and that my mom had remarried. The beneficiary in this policy was my dad, and so to my dad the payment would go. (Dad mailed the payment to my StepDad because my dads are cool). Learning: Check your beneficiaries, especially if you have had a life change. Those can override any sentiments in your will.

Additionally, with Life Insurance, the appreciation you get on it (e.g., if the policy matured N years ago and therefore has been collecting X interest since then) is taxable. Learning: Talk to an accountant/estate planner about how that works and/or talk to yours if you are on the receiving end about the tax implications so you’re ready. (Also, not every insurance company withholds anything from this payment. I have a letter from the “savings” insurance company saying they did. The actual check stub and accounting does not show this. I’m not saying that insurance company sucks, but I won’t be voluntarily doing business with an insurance company whose name rhymes with Detrimental).

(Incidentally, the local banks and mortgage company, the department of licensing and the social security office all went easy as pie.)

Dollars and cents aside, there’s then the physical artifacts: what do you want to become of your stuff? I’m not talking about the stuff you name-check in your will — the family opal ring or the signed print or such — I’m talking about your *stuff*. Your clothes, shoes, etc. mainly. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of nice, barely worn things from a stretch of cruising. The nice things got donated to a local women’s shelter, as did unopened extras of toiletries and such. There were also some not-nice things, and those went into the trash. (I don’t think my mom ever considered it but I think she would have agreed with a women’s shelter and would’ve disagreed on the “not nice” label). Learning: if you have a preference, spell out where you want your stuff to go. If you don’t, spell out that it’s up to the person executing the estate.

It probably comes as no surprise that I processed this grief the way I process most everything — there was an Excel spreadsheet, a detailed One Note; there was lots of productive activity, there was lots of avoidance of the icky, emotional deluge (which didn’t turn out to be much because, as I sorted out with my therapist, I’d been grieving since she got admitted to the hospital)– but I hope that the learnings from this will help you and/or yours in how you approach your preparations, perhaps as a New Years’ resolution.

Giving Tuesday

It’s Giving Tuesday, and while this is but one of many opportunities to donate to the charities that have meaning for you, it’s the one that’s here right now, nestled between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

A couple of weeks ago I reached out to family and friends to find their favorite charities. It’s not that I don’t have an idea of where my money can go, it’s more that I usually see these folks during the course of the year across a banquet table with elaborate, biddable centerpieces and carefully-folded linen napkins and dubiously fresh rolls and frozen butter. If your thirties are spent at soccer matches and theater practice, your forties (at least mine) are spent at fundraiser breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; at auctions and pop-up shops and cookie drives and popcorn sales.

I don’t get to see my friends much these days, we’re all disinclined to collect a new health concern (being in our forties we save discussion for “what’s the latest part of my body to go south” until after dessert). There’s no dessert lately, because we’re all staying home; so there’s no emotional guest-speaker, no witty and quick-moving emcee, no carefully (or not) placed nametag over the ubiquitous scarf-of-the-season.

So I reached out to my friends and asked them about their local charities, the ones they like, the ones for which I should’ve got an email invite to a downtown hotel that would make me mentally calculate my parking options, except that there are no said events. I got replies, some expected, some not, and in case you’re looking for some places to give, I hereby give you the List. It is a working list, I’ll keep adding to it, but here’s the list, this Giving Tuesday.

If these aren’t for you, I encourage you to reach out and find the one(s) that are, and see what you can do; COVID has hit not only the predictable health, homeless, and food security spots, but also there are downstream education and childcare impacts, disenfranchisement, etc. You can also reach out to me if you’d like to add to the List.

Moral Support & Technical Leadership

I was fortunate enough to grow up with four parents — while most divorce stories in the late-70’s/early-80’s were full of the (very real, very ugly) drama of how divorce could be, for me, I netted a couple of extra parents and double presents on holidays and my birthday. Sure, when I screwed up I had twice as many people on my case, and they got along (at least in my youth) so it meant grounding at house A was continued at house B, but for the most part this was a good deal for me.

My step-mom (heretofore to also be referred to as mom, because she is; this is not the same mom that recently passed) did a lot of the raising (period) but especially at my dad’s house. My dad, who is awesome, was a Corporate Dad and had to travel a lot and stay late at the office and is probably the reason why I don’t really let work go (and why it’s important to me that work be good enough to not let go of). He would joke sometimes about providing moral support and technical leadership when it came to parenting, but to be honest he did exactly that and it was, for me, exactly what I needed. Sure, it took until I was about 27 to “grow up” but hey, better late than never.

I myself became a parent at 29 (very much planned, very much awesome) and then became a single parent at 32 (very much not planned, very much not awesome — at the time). As such, there I was, at 32, with a Real Big Person Corporate Job of my Own and an *almost* three year old, a mortgage, and a dog.

The three year old, who is now nearly 18, was a handful. In his early teens he was loathe to hear about his exploits but now we can all look back on them and smile; let’s just say my kid was *that* kid and the principal at his elementary school and I were on a first-name basis. I became intimately aware of how school administration functioned and how things got documented. Someday I’ll write up all about that — when I’m not on the PTA or affiliated with the district anymore. This is all to say that I got a call from the school, on some thing or other, at least every other day until he was five, at least twice a week until he was seven, and about once a week to two weeks until he was 9. He was a fireball of energy and had a low BS tolerance (as remains so), is intelligent and a big fan of the minimum effort for maximum return (which, as we all know, can get radically problematic if the initial effort is misjudged). Imagine having this parenting challenge while trying to work.

I owe *a lot* to two managers I had during this period, both of them men, for the trust and flexibility they extended to me. The work got done, absolutely, but I had the benefit of managers who understood if I had to leave *right now* because I just got a call, or if I needed to work from home here or there (before it was common or, as now, required). I was able to keep my job, and my *career*, because these folks understood that I would get the work done somehow (even if it was in the middle of the night while the kiddo slept) but just not right here or right now.

The fact of the matter is that while the calls came and when I’d have to go and get the boy from school, for the most part he was *in* school and so, as a single mom, I had the benefit of that “childcare” (the primary function of school is not child care — but I had the benefit of knowing my kid was in a safe place while I worked, and that safe place happened to be school). That plus this flexibility on the part of my management meant I was able to continue my career and find myself (as I have been these last few years) in what I would call a really good place.

Slightly over two million women in the United States have had to leave the workforce since COVID slammed onto these shores. Just under one million of those left in *September alone*. It’s not that these women didn’t also have super cool understanding bosses, it’s that trying to work from home and moderate your kids’ online learning — something *I never had to do* — is pretty much impossible. You can’t pay attention in the team meeting or edit your queries or write your spec if you are also on deck to make sure the kid isn’t also playing CoolMathGames on his computer (true story, my kid did this *in school* when he was in elementary school — and if you’re a parent of a kid between 5 and 15, chances are yours did too) and that she’s listening to the teacher and that they are using all the tools correctly and hey how’s that bandwidth going for you? The reality that in a dual-income household it’s typically the mom who takes on the rearing duties — either because of economics (dad makes more) or social placement (that’s the way it is in some families), women are facing a choice and the choice isn’t pretty.

For those whose initial response is “who cares, people have to do what is important for them, this doesn’t impact me because I’m not a woman/not a mom”, we should all care. We should all care, because:

  1. We (in the US) are likely to see a $1 trillion loss in GDP by 2030 because of this brain drain — for those fretting on the money we’re “spending” on battling the economic effects of COVID, understand this is money we’re “losing”, despite existing expenditures.
  2. Workplace diversity will reduce, which in turn has negative effects on productivity, financial targets, and employee engagement.
  3. Female-dominated industries, such as education, healthcare, services, and hospitality, impact not just women — a reduction in healthcare professionals for example means your elderly grandpa’s assisted living facility may have trouble hanging on to CNA’s (or nurses or doctors).
  4. This disproportionately impacts black women and further hinders racial equality and justice which further impacts everyone.

Those are just the dollars-and-cents/what’s-in-it-for-me reasons, ignoring those that center around “let’s not be assholes” and “life has enough drama already, let’s not add on to that”.

There’s two things we need here, then: firstly (and most obviously) we need a coherent pandemic response strategy that is comprehensive (addressing both the fiscal impacts of the pandemic but also the structural impacts), *and* we need better support structures and systems for working parents. Paid parental leave (as most countries have — this is not just a socialist country thing), federal support for child care costs (for those who ask “who pays for it?” — the answer is we already are *losing* that money (and possibly more) by the workforce drain) are two good first starts. (Childcare.gov already exists to help in this area, it just needs to be better-funded and expanded).

With the elections “over” (I put that in scarequotes because elections are a constant thing — your state will have more elections next year on all kinds of local issues, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking elections on even years are the only ones that matter ) the temptation is to say “well the incoming administration will just take care of it”. I mean sure, yes, let’s be optimistic but let’s also put some realism in our optimism. Here’s how one can be informed and move things along:

  1. Check out how your state uses the CARES act funding for child care. (You can see how much they got and how it is distributed). (You can get a review of the CARES act funding, en-toto, here (handy pdf on the site)).
  2. Check out how your state is approaching child care funding and distribution outside of the CARES act (Washington state example here)
  3. Write to your STATE and FEDERAL legislators.
    1. ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your state legislature is more agile than the federal one.
    2. You can find your state government websites here, which you can then look up your state legislators on. For Washington State, it’s here: House Senate
    3. You can find your federal legislators here: House Senate
    4. You can find a great guide on how to write to these folks here.
    5. You can ask your federal legislators what they are doing in addition to funding efforts such as this.
    6. You can ask your federal and state legislators what you can do as a citizen to help (guess what? You can start a dialogue with these folks. After all, they work for you, not the other way around).
  4. See what your workplace is doing. I am super-fortunate to work for a big company that is doing many productive things in this area, but engagement and reinforcement socially in the workplace is important.
  5. In preparation for the next election, pay attention to the stances (and voting records) of the people you are voting for. Don’t vote straight ticket.
    1. You read that right. Voting for a person simply because they are the party you tend to affinitize to does YOU a disservice. When you do that, you are making the assumption because their well-shared opinion on Topic X matches yours, that their not-so-well-shared-opinion on Topic Y matches yours. It may not.
    2. You can check out your federal legislator’s voting history here: House Senate. You may find it illuminating.

You may not be a mom, or a woman, or a parent; but we are all capable of moral support and technical leadership.

When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.

I have voted in every election (and I mean every election, even the weird February local initiative ones where you’re wondering why they saw fit to bring this up *now*), since 2000. I read the book that comes out, I do fact checks, and I vote.

There are some things I wish I could wave a magic wand and just have go away:

  1. Opinion Journalism. How you say what you say matters, and you can take a statement of fact and either amplify the parts of the statement that suit your need to sway an audience and/or de-amplify the ones that don’t suit you. We have forums for editorial journalism — they’re in the Editorials section, cleverly enough — and they should stay there. Since the dawn of “alternative facts” this has become more and more sketchy, and it feeds the hysteria.
  2. Speaking of hysteria – can we have a round of applause for the Hysteria Machine? No? Good. Because the Hysteria Machine is exhausting. Yes, I know s/he said the thing. It’s on tape, I saw it. I do not need you to reinforce to me how awful the thing is. All I need is the fact that s/he said the thing (or did the thing). Let me have my own disgust, or anger, or sadness, without imparting a healthy layer of *yours* on top of it. (By the by, I’m referring to articles, blog posts, radio, podcasts, etc. If you are my friend and we talk socially and you want to commiserate over the whatever — or even *healthily debate with facts and reasoning over differences of opinion* — then that’s cool.) I just don’t want a national news syndicate telling me where my outrage should come from. It’s insulting (it implies I don’t understand things and so wants to dumb it down to an emotional reaction) and it’s exhausting.
  3. Armchair data science. I love data. I love data science. I love everything about data including tracking it from where and how and under what rigors it is collected to the pipelines in which it runs to the output in which it is consumed. I love data even — and perhaps especially — when it disproves an assumption or bias I have, because learning is hard and sometimes un-fun and that means you are exercising your brain. Go brains! Armchair data science is none of these. Armchair data science is like this:

Let’s play a game.  What’s wrong with this poll?

Firstly, it sits in a very popular media entry site, sandwiched between international news and Latest Video (of… stuff, I guess), below an article about free pastries at McDonalds and above local news (predominantly about COVID). The context is negligible or confusing at best. In what context am I being asked how I feel about polls? Apparently one in which I am also interested in a McDonalds Apple Pie while self-isolating and reading about how things are going far away from me.

Secondly, look at the nature of the question: “Do you like taking polls?”  The question can be answered 3 different ways:

  1. Yes, I like taking polls.
  2. No, I do not like taking polls.
  3. No, I do not like taking polls, but I do anyway, because I can’t help myself.

The first one is easy – yep, like taking polls, so I’m going to check that box.

The second one has got to be facetious – if I do not like taking polls, I’m not going to take your poll. The results you get with this poll will not reflect the actual population that likes or does not like taking polls, and will skew heavily towards those that like taking polls.  You’re not going to get the volume of “No’s” that reflect reality, because your poll does not have ESP and can’t read my mind as I register what it is asking me, reflect that I don’t like polls, and therefore do not engage. (The fact that I’m engaging this much on my blog and yet still won’t click your damn button illustrates this).

The third one is even better — I do not like taking polls, but I am unable to stop myself from grasping my mouse and clicking that button (or taking my finger and poking at it). What is being measured here is the impetus of the user to click a button because they like the little dopamine rush they get when they click a button; and likely has nothing to do with polls per-se.  

The results of this poll will be useless — they will be heavily skewed towards the first and third answers, and, if the respondents who would represent the second one actually behave in the manner the poll suggests they behave, they would not be represented at all. What’s wrong with a useless poll?

This useless poll will probably drive someone’s decision, somewhere.  It will either drive a marketing choice (have more polls! people love taking them!), an editorial choice (we should make polls on the front page every day!), or a behavioral choice (people love clicking things, let’s add more clickable content!).  Which then will drive other behaviors and choices, and what you end up with are ad-filled, click-bait-filled pages of no material use for those of us who just wanted the facts.

This is just an innocuous, stupid little poll about polling.  What happens when it looks like it’s a legit poll about how people feel about COVID? Or the economy? Or healthcare? Or personal freedoms?  The output of that drives more of the hysteria machine, of course, because now we know how to cater to our clickers– they care about the economy so let’s tell them what is happening with it, but not objectively — let’s not share specific data points with a holistic view; let’s instead concentrate on the Stock Market. Or on the jobs data — but not all the jobs data, just the ones we think will drive the most clicks. 

Ironically this means that those of us who would like all the data, so we can make informed choices, absent of editorial sway and anxiety exacerbation, have to click *more* … to dig it all out.

 

That’s How it’s Done

I use Flipgrid to consolidate inbound tech and economics news; along with a few podcasts and my weekly Economist that represents the bulk of my news media intake.  This time of year it’s a particular minefield, of course, with politics. But for the most part it’s my regular vegetables of tech and economics that get me what I want to know.

I was reading an article about how Amazon is launching an Alexa service for property management — e.g., the property manager pays for/owns the Alexa that lives in the residence with the renters, using it as a de-facto localized presence to control smart home things and, essentially, as an “added service/feature” of renting the place. (So much as you’d look to see if there was that extra half-bathroom or if there was a walk-in closet, you’d see if they included Alexa, too).

For the record, I read articles, because a pet peeve is when you get the poster who forwards an article that they clearly haven’t read (e.g., using the article to make a point that the article actually counterpoints). This is a case of me reading two separate articles, coming to a conclusion, and that conclusion was wrong.  It’s a better case of a colleague gently educating me.

Firstly, to the other article.  Granted, this NYT article is about a year old but we all remember the news that made the rounds about how Alexa is always listening. It’s true, she is: she *has* to.  Obviously she can’t start your timer or add your biodegradable pet waste bags to your Amazon cart if she can’t hear you.  In the NYT article, it’s about what she has done, and where that data goes, once she hears you. There is a sentence from that article, however, that did not stick in my brain from last year, so when I read the TechCrunch article, I made a comment on Twitter/Linked In.

My comment, quoted, is here:

“Two things: 1. interesting way to make IoT accessible to a broader base and 2. I would not at all be reassured the data is truly deleted (and isn’t, say, shipped off in snippets for “logs”/“troubleshooting”, for example). Also, the hand waving over who’s data it is needs to stop. Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

For the record, I still think #1 is true, and most of #2 is still an open question for me. I’m not at all clear on what happens to the data (yes, deleted at the end of the day, but… is it? What part of it is deleted? Is it every command, every call; or for example is there a record still in the smart thermostat (or a downstream reporting service) of all the changes I made, for example? And so forth.) Or who owns it (e.g., if something happens in the home, and the home belongs to the property manager, and the Alexa belongs to the property manager, but I’m the one renting the home, is that day’s data mine or the property managers?)  However, this post is to talk about someone who reached out to address the last point:  “Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

Now, it’s true that she does have to listen. However, a generous colleague reached out — privately, via LinkedIn messenger — to reassure me that Alexa does listen in for her name, but that listening happens only on the device… she doesn’t “trigger” until she hears her name, so no data leaves her until she does.  Or put the way they put it (bold is mine):

“Wake word detection is done on device in a closed loop, that is no audio sent to Alexa (aka. the cloud). Only when the on-device model detects the wake word with a high confidence, the audio of the wake-word it sent to the cloud for additional verification (besides false-positives this handles for example “Alexa” being said in ads).  No audio is ever sent to Alexa without a visual cue (the blue light).”

(Incidentally, the NYT article has this in a sentence that didn’t stick in my brain at all (bold is mine):

“…it’s true that the device can hear everything you say within range of its far-field microphones, it is listening for its wake word before it actually starts recording anything (“Alexa” is the default, but you can change it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “computer”). Once it hears that, everything in the following few seconds is perceived to be a command or a request, and it’s sent up to Amazon’s cloud computers…”)

I wanted to share my colleague’s message because *this is exactly how it is done, folks*.  While I would’ve been just fine with them pointing this out as a comment to my LinkedIn post, they’re being polite and careful, because not everyone would be and frankly, they and I had one lunch at one time and that’s about all we know of each other.

My larger point — because I know that not everyone is in to public correction and many could find it disconcerting — is that we need to be better at private correction, at accepting new data, and at assimilating it or at least making the sincere attempt.  You will read articles and they will be carefully constructed on the part of the author — either attempting to be scrupulously fair or attempting to sway you one way or another — but what you don’t get to see is what was omitted, either via editorial jurisprudence or a required word count or assumed common knowledge.  What you don’t get to realize is what your brain has omitted, either via convenience, or simply the wear of time.

So thank you. I happily sit corrected :).

Goodbye, Facebook

I’ve been on Facebook for the better part of 11 years. In that time it has afforded me the opportunity to keep in touch with friends, old and new; to see the immediate impacts of world events through a local lens; to ensure my family knows I haven’t fallen into a puddle of stress. In return, Facebook sold my data to various marketing endeavors, so I’d get served up “relevant” ads for Stitch Fix, Starbucks and You Need a Budget. I was fine with this arrangement.

I am not fine with them selling my data to a firm that will target ads to me in order to change my voting behaviors or my social views. I’m fully cognizant that they already have my data, and my deletion of my content on Facebook the site – which I’ve mostly done thanks to a script referenced in this article – is an academic exercise for those wishing to mine it from Facebook. The deals are done, the data is out. (Note it’s not technically a data breach, because Facebook gave the data freely away.) This is me, voting with my keyboard: they don’t get any future data.

Not directly, anyway.

Facebook still creates ghost profiles, still uses cookie drops through scores of sites on the internet, leverages publicly available data and sells the cooked product. It will still sell the cooked product. I will not help them do it, though. I am deleting my Facebook entirely March 30th. I have already deleted WhatsApp and Instagram (two Facebook properties). I am retaining Twitter (for now) and LinkedIn.

Things I Recommend:

  • If you remain on Facebook, I recommend using FB Purity.
  • If you want to delete your content (after downloading) I recommend Social Book Post Manager.
  • If you want to keep the cookies at bay, I recommend Ghostery.
  • If you want to listen to some great podcasts about the latest Facebook data sharing issues (because this has happened before), I recommend this and this.
  • If you are more of an article-reading person, read this and this and this.

Keep in Touch:
If you have my email, or we’re linked on LinkedIn or Twitter, that works. If you have my phone number we can totally text. My friend K has set up a private photo sharing process in his family that I will be pinging him shortly on how to do the same, to make sure my son’s grandparents get the latest photo evidence that he’s still growing and healthy and making bland sartorial choices. And if a more responsible photo-and-update sharing platform arrives on the scene, I’ll have a look.

Fight Enough

One of my favorite movies this time of year, for sheer shlock and Americana, is Holiday Inn.  Holiday Inn is a Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle, full of musical numbers (the premise is a musical act that moves to rural Connecticut and opens a dinner theater that is only open on holidays), and that 1940’s vibe of “wow, things were so much simpler.”

Things were not, in fact, simpler then. Objectively: technology was ruder, and there was that whole World War II thing: families back home were just as invested in the war as the soldiers abroad — meatless, sweetless, and wheatless days, for example. Nevertheless, Bing kept singing and Fred kept dancing, and all in glorious black and white.

My very favorite routine of the whole movie is Thanksgiving. Because Thanksgiving is when our hero (Crosby) has been “cheated” of his girl (by Astaire) (and no he hasn’t been cheated, he was a dick and she caught him at it), and so he’s alone on Thanksgiving listening to his own recording of his musical number, “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For”.  During the number he savagely cuts into his dinner, clapping back at his recorded signing self, and has to get told by his “Mamie” (an African American housekeeper. So much can be said here but you know it already: not how it should have been, not how it should be, caricature, racist, etc.). “Mamie” tells him off and tells him to go “get his woman” because otherwise he doesn’t “have fight enough to keep her”.

Well.

I like Mamie and all but the reason I like this piece has to do with before she enters stage left (oh I like that she tells him off, too.) It’s the two Bings: Bing one is sitting and eating dinner, all pissy and whiny about his circumstance, and Bing two is looking at the bigger picture (gee, I have food and health and I’m not busy fighting a war on two or three fronts that we don’t know when it’s going to end.)

The two Bings remind me that I have two Bings too: I can choose to focus on the negative (and like most privileged people I can manifest a series of bullshit reasons my life is so hard: yet I have food on the table and a roof over my head, etc.) or I can choose to focus on the positive. So when I look at the bevy of things I can be upset or disenchanted about, I can either mope or I can figure out what I can do to address it.  I’ve got a slew of things to address: work stuff, home stuff, “political” stuff.

Well. I’ve “fight enough”, as it were.  And  I think we all do. So if I can give y’all a belated Thanksgiving message: don’t let the Turkeys get you down :).

 

*edited to update the name to Mamie instead of Mammy.  Thanks Stan :).