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The changing culture of collecting

This week I’ve been pondering a possible cultural shift that came to my attention in an unusual way: a call from my mother. After I spent half an hour trying to explain the differences between a smartphone and a cellular phone to her, she asked me an eBay question. An elderly relative of ours just moved into a smaller place and thought it was time to profit from the collectibles she had been buying for decades. However, when she went to a dealer, she was told that her Swarovski crystal animal figures and commemorative plates were worthless. “Nobody wants those anymore,” she was told. My mom asked if they could be sold on eBay. I skimmed the pages of listings, noting how few actual bids were placed. “Nope.”

I visited the Swarovski Kristallwelten on my recent trip. They were sparkly.

I visited the Swarovski Kristallwelten on my recent trip. They were sparkly.

It got me thinking about generational differences in collecting, particularly one type: buying and holding onto new products that are specifically marketed as collectible and with implied or expected value as investments. Commemorative plates or coins, limited edition dolls, figurines, etc. I’m differentiating those from souvenirs and memorabilia, which are reminders of an event or location that was personally experienced, though the owners might hope they appreciate. I’m also separating out collections of antiques or second-hand products, because most of them were not initially sold as collectibles, or collections of anything for personal interest where future value isn’t important to the owner. Flipping collectibles for a profit right after buying them isn’t the same behavior, either.

I’m dealing with a limited sample, but I don’t know anyone in my age group or younger who engages in that sort of collecting. The collectors I know fall into the other groups above; even my friend who carefully protects his action figures isn’t counting on them to increase in value. He enjoys the hunt and displaying them as part of his decor. On the other hand, I know a lot of people — all Americans between the ages of 60 and 85 — who have built up significant collections of items that they may not even enjoy. My relative from the first paragraph has piles of commemorative plates in boxes in her basement. Others have rosy-cheeked Hummels or creepy Precious Moments figurines tucked away in closets and cabinets. Nowadays, buyers for those tend to be in the same age range. It’s not a growing market.

So, why don’t younger people buy new “collectibles” the same way as some Boomers? My husband and I talked about this. He proposed that the last collecting fad to hit Gen X and below was Beanie Babies and that people learned from that bursting bubble (a new book came out about that craze this year, and Slate has a good short article discussing it). Maybe. I wonder if it might have more to do with the speed of technological changes and a shifting worldview.

The speed of obsolescence in the last few decades reinforces the idea that things will lose value. I’ve been around long enough to see my treasured childhood vinyl LPs supplanted by cassette tapes, then by CDs, and then digital files. My Sony Walkman was replaced by a Discman and then replaced by smaller and smaller MP3 players. The computer that cost me two months’ salary in 1996 was useless before I had to worry about Y2K. We can choose to spend a lot of money on a new iPhone, but we’re not planning to resell it for a profit in twenty years. We know that we’re really buying two or three years of use before we’ll want the next model. With the housing bubble, we learned that even real estate — long considered a safe, steady investment — can lose significant value.

I think there’s also a growing anti-materialist feeling. While it might be a minority attitude, it can be seen in the maker and craft movement, tiny house trend, and the popularity of articles about simplifying and removing clutter. Those were characteristics of hippies when I was a kid; now they cross subcultural and economic lines. Combine that with more environmental awareness (reduce, reuse, recycle), the importance of authenticity to Millennials, unsure financial times, partnering/marrying after age 30 instead of earlier, having fewer children who might inherit collectibles, and I have a hard time imagining a 28 year old stashing away commemorative plates.

There’s the other side to consider, as well. Why did/do Boomers buy into the notion of manufactured collectibles? All I can do is speculate, but clearly I’m not averse to doing that! I wonder if the financially conservative attitudes of their parents, who went through wartimes and the Great Depression, mixed with the increased affluence of Boomers to create some strange attitudes. Being raised with a knowledge of frugality and the need to save, but having more disposable income? Perhaps the expectation of future profit provided justification for buying. That goes hand in hand with using discounts and sales as an excuse to buy more things.

It certainly isn’t that young and middle-aged adults don’t spend money, buy things, or even collect. Heck, I know a few people who are passionate about collecting digital items in games or virtual worlds, which may not have resale value in any currency. There are some treasure hunters, too — people who might keep the first edition of a new comic mint in the bag, hoping to resell it for a profit later. But, am I completely wrong about that one type of collecting being generational?

As someone who catches the occasional episode of Antiques Roadshow, I could refute my hypothesis in a simple way: tastes change over time. Often, the things that are valuable in 100 years are those that were popular but then went out of fashion, causing most people who owned or inherited them to hide them away, throw them out, or change them (Ming vases converted into lamps, etc). The items that survive in good condition despite decades of being out of favor can become valuable again. We could simply be in an anti-collectible phase, but in 50-60 years, it could be the height of fashion to display vintage Franklin Mint plates.

Also, I could be biased by my personal aversion to stuff. The only things I actively collect are squashed pennies: they’re inexpensive souvenirs and I can keep my entire collection in a small bowl. When I was younger, my great-aunt gave me “collectibles” — Goebel/Hummel figurines, a plate with Raggedy Ann celebrating the US bicentennial, a plate commemorating the birth of Prince William (it seems she was a little confused about American independence). One of my grandmothers always bought me souvenir silver spoons when she traveled and I kept adding to that collection until I was about 30. I have no idea what to do with any of those things now, so I suppose I’m just another person with a box of worthless collectibles in the basement.

pennies

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Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Culture

 

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Using public transportation in Central Europe

While my trip is fresh in memory and even though it’s off-topic for this blog, I thought I’d share some public transportation tips for future travelers. Keep in mind that my husband and I live in an area with limited options (the Detroit People Mover doesn’t really count), so public transportation isn’t part of our everyday lives. My tips will no doubt elicit a big “duh!” from some of you. We relied on trains and local systems in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and an overnight stay in Slovakia. By the end of the trip I was stressed about planning routes, but really, everything was easy to navigate, convenient, and not very expensive.

Interior wall of Malostranská metro station in Prague

Prague metro stations look like they’re upholstered in Dalek skin

 

Local Transportation

If the local transport system has an app, use it. It’s much easier than trying to correlate paper maps and timetables, and while it’s possible to use Google Maps for route planning (set up the start and end point for directions, then choose the train icon for public transport options), it doesn’t include all systems or have up-to-date information. The local apps in Berlin and Munich were much more useful.

One place where Google Maps excels is that it will tell you the walking time required for each route. For example, it might say that you need to take the S2 S-bahn and Bus 152, and there will be 12 minutes of walking. For someone with mobility issues, traveling with children, or dragging luggage, walking time can be a deciding factor.

Speaking of mobility issues, our experience overall was that Central Europe would be happy if disabled folks would go somewhere else, thankyouverymuch. There was not always an audible announcement of stops or arriving trains for the visually impaired. Many stations had stairs and no elevators. Escalators in stations were often broken — I think every escalator in the Munich Hauptbahnhof was simultaneously out of service. Austria was better than the other countries we visited, but it was still touch and go.

When buying local transportation tickets at a machine in a combined train station, you might need to go to the very top menu and then choose the local system. I made this mistake the first time I tried to navigate the machines at the Munich main train station; I had to go up a menu to find the options for the MVV instead of those that also included DB.

Waiting for the U-Bahn in Berlin, I tentatively translated a notice that the upcoming train would be short. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that meant. We soon found out as we jogged down the platform after the receding end of the tiny train. I later noticed a mark on the wall next to the track that clearly indicated where a short train would end. Ohhhhh. It’s hard to notice all the little details when you’re overwhelmed with a different culture and language.

We found it useful to buy tickets that allowed the use of any public transportation — bus, tram, S-bahn, U-bahn/metro — for a specified amount of time rather than individual tickets. We bought tourist cards (which include all public transport and some discounts/free admissions to local attractions) in Berlin and Prague, where we spent enough time to make the price worthwhile. In Vienna we bought 48 hour passes. Munich was the worst: the day tickets expire around 6:00 am the following morning, no matter when you buy them, but can still be cost effective.

Validate your ticket if necessary. This isn’t true for every system, so it’s important to do a little research ahead of time, but in many places, buying your ticket isn’t enough. You also need to have it date stamped by a machine you can find in the station (or on the bus/tram). In the Czech Republic, you must do this before you go down to the metro platform or you can be hit with a significant fine. To make things even more fun, in areas where validation is mandatory, some tickets don’t require it. Hahaha! In all of our rides, we only encountered a ticket inspector on a bus in Salzburg, but he checked each ticket to be sure it was stamped. Side note: you don’t need to show your ticket every time you get on. Keep it tucked away somewhere convenient.

Buses may or may not pause at every stop. In Berlin, if nobody was waiting and nobody had pressed the Stop button, the driver just kept going. Efficient perhaps, but not user friendly if you can’t hear the announcement of the next possible stop (don’t count on it, and sometimes the interior signs don’t work). In Vienna, vehicles paused at every stop. I suppose the advice is to pay attention and if there is a stop button, push it before your stop even if it might not be necessary. Also, sometimes you will have to push a button to open the door; they don’t all open automatically.

Watch the locals. In Germany, people get up before their stop and stand near the doors, ready to impatiently push the button and burst out. If you don’t stand until after the bus has stopped, you might find the door closed in your face and the bus underway again before you can exit. The Czech were much more relaxed and Austria was a mix. Once you get used to the local rhythms and customs, it’s easy.

Long Distance Transportation

Buying tickets ahead of time is easy and often cheaper. The Deutsche Bahn website is good and their app is excellent for booking long distance trains; you can even buy “Handy” (mobile phone) tickets that have a QR code to show to the inspector, eliminating the need for a printer or stop at the ticket office/machine. Before the  trip, I wasn’t able to get the ÖBB (Austrian railway) website to accept my credit card, so I bought some tickets at the train station in Dresden. It was a lot like the DMV (motor vehicle department), with a long line and employees who reeked of exasperation and annoyance.

Second class on long distance trains is just fine. It’s a hell of a lot nicer than Amtrak, but I’d recommend paying to reserve your seat, especially if hauling luggage or traveling with others. Social and backpacking? Then go ahead and save some Euros; you’ll just have to look around to find an available unreserved seat. I liked first class and it was still less expensive than US train travel, but the advantages varied by route and type of train. Sometimes there was free WiFi. Once we were given bottles of water. Other times, first class simply offered a more comfortable seat with a power outlet and a reserved place included in the price. Some trains also offer a quiet car if you want to avoid people having loud mobile phone conversations in nearby seats.

There is a lot of information on the platforms, but much of it gets lost in visual overload. On long distance trains, you might have a reserved ticket that says you’re in Wagon 273, Seat 32. Fantastic… but then this long train pulls into the station and you only have a couple minutes to find the right car, and you feel like an idiot running down the platform with your suitcase bumping behind you. Maybe that’s just me. The screens above the platform that announce the trains will often say “ABC” or “ABCD”, etc. Those correlate to signs above the platform and give you an idea where the train will be positioned. Sometimes, a sign will tell you which order the cars will be in, such as 1st, 1st, Dining, 2nd, 2nd 2nd. Even better, sometimes you can find a sign like the one below from Mannheim. This is such great UI that I’m embarrassed to say I never noticed something like it until the end of my trip; maybe they are standard. Not only does it list the trains by departure time, number, and major stops, it shows you which direction they will go, the car schema, and the vertical red yarn marker shows the location of that sign compared to where the train will stop. This was invaluable for making sure I was standing near the right car and didn’t have to haul my bag down the length of the train after it was underway.

german_trains

Seriously, watch your bags in the train station. While waiting in the station at Bratislava, my husband and I watched the pickpockets and scammers work the crowd. There was an elderly beggar who seemed innocuous until we noticed his partner exchanging signals with him across the room. A woman sitting and chatting on a side wall was silently communicating with someone else. We couldn’t find the partner of the girl selling magazines, but since she vanished — along with the rest — just before the police walked through, we’re sure she was part of a crew. Their eyes slid over our luggage locks and Pacsafe bags (love them) and they ignored us. Most places outside of the former Czechoslovakia felt safer and there’s no need to be paranoid, but be alert.

Main train stations in some cities are essentially malls with trains that run through them. Berlin’s Hbf is incredible and the new Vienna Hbf is great too. I already miss the train station bakery and sandwich shops. One of my summer projects is to try to duplicate the mango curry sauce that Le Crobag uses on their chicken baguettes; my heavens, it’s good!

All in all, taking public transportation during our trip was fantastic. I wish that it were possible to have a useful train system in the US, and local transit planners should have to spend a couple weeks navigating systems in Europe to help them avoid harebrained plans like monorails to nowhere and dead end light rail lines. I spent the last two weeks of my trip driving everywhere, which was also nice (the best roads in Michigan are infinitely crappier than the worst roads in Bavaria, where even winding mountain trails were as smooth as a freshly paved NASCAR track), but sometimes I missed just hopping on a tram.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2015 in Culture, Side Topics

 

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The wonderful rainbow world of /r/thebutton

Let me get this out of the way: I’m a grey. A non presser. Not because I’ve made the decision to never press it — I will, before I leave for my trip — but because I’m waiting until it matters… or I can nab red flair.

animated gif of the countdown clock and button from Reddit's "the button"

You can only press the button once. Only accounts created before 2015-04-01 can press the button. We can’t tell you what to do from here on out. The choice is yours.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the button; it’s so mainstream that even Time covered it and Fox News got their tighty-whities in a bunch over it, but this Vox piece is a good overview with some details. I, um, appropriated the image above from their article.  Shhh.

While the button itself interests me, the button community is more fascinating. Groups of button-protecting knights have formed, committed to keeping the timer alive. Button “religions” with different philosophies around the button have emerged, many of which are waiting for the Pressiah, the final presser before time runs out. Pranks have come and gone, as have campaigns to get the greys to all become purples or wait until the clock ticks down into the teens or below. There have been reports of auto-click trojan software and trolls tricking unsuspecting users into clicking before they planned.

Users are also rolling around in data like happy puppies. People have developed bots to track statistics and post when the button reaches a new low time. (As I’m writing, 15 seconds was the lowest click.)  Here’s a list of some of the known button analytic resources. Some visualizations can explain the progress more clearly than numbers, like this graph that user incitatus451 posted:

graph plotting number of clicks each day against the remaining seconds on the timer for each click

You can see the community growing more daring over the past three weeks, with oranges finally appearing over the weekend but as of yet, no legitimate reds. When I first discovered the button, the timer was always reset before the 30 second mark. Now, it’s not unusual for me to see low 20s and upper teens before someone clicks. The ranges for flair colors can be found on the subreddit wiki. Of course, when the button first launched, there were few instructions and no information about flair colors, so these have been determined over time and red is still a guess.

As long as the rules remain in place, the button timer must eventually run out. There are a finite number of Reddit accounts created before April 1st; even if every single qualified user clicked the button, the pool would be depleted. Users have calculated when that day might come, on various assumptions of the average click time. It’s vastly more likely that the timer will run out when there are few greys online — the hours before dawn in the Americas, when it’s still early in Europe — and there is a lapse of attention or users wait too long in the quest for a low number. Nobody knows what will happen when the timer reaches 0. It could simply vanish. I wonder if Reddit expected their April Fools’ Day launch to last and develop as it has.

Even if you pressed long ago or can’t press because you don’t have a pre-April 1 account, it’s worth spending a little time in the subreddit. There a lot of clever gifs and interesting graphs, and you can almost feel the anticipation. If you have a qualified account but have been ignoring the button hype, when you go to the subreddit, the button will show as greyed with a lock symbol over it. The REAL button is blue and only appears after you have clicked to unlock it, so you don’t have to be concerned about an accidental click.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2015 in Culture, Usage Patterns

 

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Roundup: Ex Machina, thoughtcrimes, Con Man, personal stuff

It’s Monday and after days of being deeply involved with the conference, I need to get back to my writing.  Just a few short things to share:

Ex Machina

I’ve had mixed luck with future tech movies lately. Big Hero 6 was fantastic, Transcendence was a mess, and after reading the reviews, I couldn’t bring myself to see Chappie in the theatre (though William Gibson liked it, so I might have made the wrong choice).  My hopes are high again for Ex Machina, which hits theatres next month:

Thoughtcrimes

Gizmodo just published When Does Online Fantasy Become Criminal Conspiracy? (originally published on EFF). If you don’t know the story behind this, a very high level summary is that a NYC police officer and several other men had graphic online discussions about kidnapping, killing, and eating women. Some of the conversations moved into “plans”, though the men claim they never intended to follow through. The officer was convicted of criminal conspiracy by a jury, but the verdict was thrown out by a district court judge who said, “the nearly yearlong kidnapping conspiracy alleged by the government is one in which no one was ever kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place, and no real-world, non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone.”

One of the world-changing qualities of the Internet is that it allows people with similar interests to find each other, not matter who or where they are. I’ve been online for a long time and I’ve had discussions with people whose fantasies were most kindly described as gruesome. Some of them might have been terrible people, but it seemed to me that the majority were processing something that thrilled them in what they perceived to be a safe way. On the other hand, there are people incapable of discerning reality from fantasy. For one awful example, take the current case of the two young girls who tried to kill a friend as an act of devotion to Slender Man (at their age, my best friend and I were building structures to try to harness “pyramid power”; not all tween girls are logical).

I won’t claim to have answers or even suggestions. It’s hard to tell if someone ranting online is full of hot air, serious, or unhinged. If you overheard the same conversation at the next table in a restaurant, you would have context, body language, and tone to shape the decision to roll your eyes or call the cops. Does driving fantasy conversations deeper underground give them more taboo power? Are fantasies less potent if they are discussed with others, or obsessed about in private?  In this era of omnipresent government surveillance I am much more careful about what I type and I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I can’t speak for the effect it has on others.

Con Man

Back to a lighter topic! I can’t imagine that if you’re a fan of the TV series Firefly (too soon), you have missed the news that Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, and PJ Haarsma are making a web series. They’re crowdsourcing Con Man through Indiegogo and now have funding for twelve ten-minute episodes.  Here’s a teaser:

 

What I really wanted to mention was how these guys have shown a real understanding of fan culture. It doesn’t hurt that they’re all charming and funny and that Firefly has a notoriously enthusiastic fanbase. The perks they created have elements that many fans appreciate, like insider information, collectibles, early access, and contact with the stars. I’m a funder at a relatively low level, $25; I wanted to support them and see all the videos, but I didn’t want any physical “stuff”. I laugh at the gifs and videos they’ve released and yes, it’s fun to get a Hang w/ request from Alan Tudyk or PJ Haarsma on my phone.

The first Hang w/ I did, there were fewer than 35 people connected while Alan gave us an update, but with over 33,000 funders so far, the sessions now are crowded and they’ve pushed the technical limits of the service. I’m not the sort of fangirl who goes to great lengths to be near entertainers I admire; I’ve been a background actor in a number of movies and truly enjoyed seeing some of them work (and I will tell the story of having lunch with George Clooney until the day I die), but I don’t go to conventions or lurk outside theatres or hotels. Still, to have Alan sit back on a couch, dogs running in and out of frame, and talk to us about progress on Con Man is much more powerful to me than getting an update video now and then. I haven’t yet watched a Meerkat stream but I’m guessing it gives the same sense of immediacy and intimacy, regardless of how many people are connected. The entertainment industry has changed and I think this is one example where a producer/artist/fan partnership can be better for everyone than the network model.

Personal update

Jakob had his second round of chemotherapy for stage IV stomach cancer last week. The treatment is taking a heavy toll on him, most notably in the pneumonia, hypercalcemia, and anemia he’s fighting now, too. We’re both struggling with the fact that I’ll be there to see him in 8 weeks and our existing vacation plans include reservations for a walk-up flat in a pretty mountain village, far from his doctors. Such lousy timing.

I was forceful in pushing him out of denial yesterday. I couldn’t take any more of his insistence that he would be perfectly capable of doing everything we had planned — which include a long drive, biking, and hiking — when he gets winded from walking across a room and doesn’t know how many more cycles of chemo are planned. I’ll be traveling with my husband for two and a half weeks before meeting Jakob and his health can change dramatically from one day to the next, so I wanted a Plan B. “If we can’t go to ____, then we will _____.” From my point of view, it would be better to have plans we can go beyond than plans that are unreachable, leading to frustration, guilt, and sadness.

Confronting that was very hard for him. This is a damned tragedy, it absolutely is.  He convinced me that he needs the vacation. He’s clinging to it. … [insert sound of heartbreak] … Ok. I understand that.

I never wanted to cancel the trip, but only to have him acknowledge that we might need to change some things because of his condition. Maybe I’ll take the train to a city closer to him and do the driving from there, for example, to make it safer for both of us and less exhausting for him.  He said he’ll be less passive about his health, I’ll try not to stress about the uncertainty, and maybe we will have a burst of luck. We need it.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Culture, In the News, Side Topics, Video

 

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Roundup: Relay for Life, anthro of hacking, marketing SL, and travel questions

I’ve got some little things today, while I’m working on my other writing and a bigger post for next week:

Relay for Life

Did you know that more than $2 million has been donated to the American Cancer Society over the past decade through its presence in Second Life? Or that as of last summer, the SL Relay for Life team ranked 17th on a list of donation amounts from 5000 RFL teams? The run up to the fundraising season kicks off this weekend, leading up to Relay Weekend on July 18-19th. I’ve never participated in RFL, but this year… well, with Jakob going through intensive cancer treatment and being a “survivor” myself (I hate that term with a passion), I think it’s time. Anyone need another team member?  One thing that the Relay for Life of Second Life site really lacks is a “How can I help?” page: it’s not easy for an individual to understand how to jump in if they’d like to do more than attend an event or make a donation.

2015-rfl-of-sl-logo-v7

Anthropology of Hacking

Earlier this year I reviewed the latest book from Gabriella Coleman, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency. There’s a little treasure trove of her other writing available here on her website, including links to sites where you can read several of her papers/articles. The link to the CC PDF version of her book “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” is unfortunately broken, but perhaps that will be repaired. I’ve got a copy and it’s on my current reading list.

Drax and Becky on Marketing Second Life

This week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] discusses the topic of how to market Second Life, with special guest Canary Beck. That’s something that many of us debate at length, since SL is what we make of it, and therefore many different things to different people. The show runs more than an hour; check it out.  Also, happy rez day, Drax!

Travel Advice? Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Salzburg, Munich?

I’m in the final stretch of planning a trip for this Spring and our transportation and places to stay are booked. I’ve been to some of these cities before and I’ve read websites and guidebooks, but the best tips I’ve ever gotten have been from locals or travelers who stumbled across something incredible. Anyone have recommendations for things to see or places to eat that aren’t the basic tourist spots?  We’re traveling by train and most of our accommodations come via airbnb, so we’re restricted to places we can reach with public transportation in the cities (except for a day when I plan to rent a car so we can go to Český Krumlov). Thanks for any ideas!

 
 

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The fog of memory in a digital age

Lately I’ve been working on a novel with a plot line based loosely on events in my life almost 20 years ago. My recollection of the story has one narrative and set of characters — some are still friends, some I’ve lost touch with, and some are gone. Memory is subjective and I’ve never claimed to have a great one. I remember useless trivia but forget people and things from my own life. However, even two decades ago, everyone in my story was active online. So, I wrote for a few weeks from my memories, then I went to the Internet.

Wow. What had been cloudy to me is slowly becoming clear and my reaction to this is complicated.

Through the mist

I thought the story had taken place over several years. It hadn’t. I had been struggling with the details of the timeline, yet there were some things I could verify, like when a movie was released or when a CD or book was available. I searched for those and started making corrections. I discovered that someone had already written part of the same story in an anthology. I read that and it confirmed the dates I had found. In the end, it turned out that the framework of the story had lasted 22 months, not 4-5 years.

Then, I opened some long-ignored backup folders and looked at dates on old, low rez photographs. Instead of clarity, this led to more confusion.  So many things that loom large in my memory overlapped in such a short period of time. It’s shocking to me now.  I went through month by month and made notes based on the evidence, rearranging the list of scenes that had taken a different shape in my mind.

This morning I did what I had been dreading: I read through a dozen logs of chats between a friend and I, saved from that period of 1996-97.  The almost random nature of the conversation hints at what I know was speedy banter between two adept typists who had developed their own way of communicating — vulgar and raw and full of cultural references. The logs paint a very unflattering picture of me. I was single, struggling with illness, juggling freelance gigs and trying to make ends meet in a very expensive area. But, I was also manipulative, insecure, deeply unhappy, immature, and narcissistic. I can see how my attempts to be the Cool Girl may have even encouraged some very dangerous behavior in my friend.

It’s going to take me some time to process what I rediscovered and in the end, I’m sure it’ll make for a better story. The “me” character doesn’t feel like me anymore, because she isn’t: she is a fictionalized version of me at a very different time in my life. It’s a lot easier to let go of my ego and let her be the flawed person she needs to be, growing a personality distinct from my own. On the other hand, I have to deal with the reality of who I was and wonder, now, who I am.

Assembling the timeline and reading those chat logs allowed me to piece together the facts again, so that I can step away from them and be sure my novel is a work of fiction. If I wasn’t writing, would it be better to just remember the softer, slower version of that time? For me, I think the answer is yes. Relationships that have become more meaningful with time stretched out lazily in my memory. I have happy remembrances of times between the chat logs but they are now punctuated by those harsh jabs of reality. When we can easily archive so much of our lives, and some people are actively recording every minute they can, maybe we need to consider what benefits we get from shifting memories.

 
 

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Privacy vs. personalization: finding a balance

Try to discuss data privacy with someone outside of the tech world and an indignant, “I don’t have anything to hide!” usually comes up. Yet most of those people not only have locks on their doors, they have doors! Maybe even curtains or blinds on the windows. What nerve, wanting to choose who can rummage through their personal things and watch their every move.

When I worked at a huge Internet company, our first steps into collecting data for the purpose of personalization were made with the best intentions. If we must show you ads in order to provide a service at a reasonable price, isn’t it better if the ads are relevant to you? Focus groups said yes. Won’t you be more interested if we help you find content and services that are connected to topics you already visit regularly? Those certainly had a higher clickrates. There was no nefarious goal but a desire to provide a more compelling product and minimize complaints. Over time, of course, the data gained a value of its own and that thin line between serving and exploiting users has been breached again and again.

This season of Parks & Rec has featured smart satire about a tech company that offers exciting products and services, but with utter disregard for personal privacy (though the company motto is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”) The clip above is one example, where Gryzzl sends gifts to the townspeople of Pawnee that are startlingly appropriate. And that’s the thing: personalization can be wonderful, but when it’s done based on data gathered without your knowing consent, it isn’t ok.

Living with an Amazon Echo, I’m realizing what it’s like to have a digital assistant with very few ties into my personal data. It’s not good. It could be so much more useful by integrating with my email, messaging, calendar, network folders, and my Internet-connected devices. In fact, without those connections I don’t think it can be successful. Though I have some friends who are almost off-grid and others that have overshared since birth, I try to take a middle path: I want the benefits that come from detailed and accurate personal data smartly integrated, but I want my information protected like it was the Crown Jewels and never used or shared without my clear and unambiguous consent. I would like to require reauthorization to use my data, on a regular basis, perhaps every year or two. I believe I should be able to review the data that is collected and how it is being used, and be empowered to request deletions and amendments.

On the theme of reviewing what is collected, I downloaded a copy of my Facebook data this week. Even though I have a good idea of what I share and wasn’t concerned, the contents made me angry. What was in there?  Every event that I had been invited to, not just the ones I had accepted. My entire list of Friends (of course), but also requests sent/received but not accepted. My “Friend Peer Group” was categorized as “Established Adult Life”. Fair, I suppose. They had all of my Wall posts, including activity notes from apps that I have set not to share and that never appear on my Wall on Facebook itself. Every app I’ve used even once to enter a contest. Then, there was the ridiculous Ads Topics list, apparently for targeting purposes. Some of the items seem to be misunderstandings of my other data. Here, take a look at some of the bizarre ones, with my snarky commentary:

  • #Pro-Ject  [huh?]
  • #Harvest (wine)  [wine is lovely, but someone else can pick the grapes, thanks]
  • #Phonograph  [I also like my velocipede]
  • #Jesús Arellano  [who? I have a friend with that surname, but I do not have a friend in Jesús.]
  • #Farmer  [???]
  • #Calendar (Mac OS)  [I last used an Apple product in 1982]
  • #Gramophone record  [for the phonograph, duh]
  • #Shoe  [just one, please]
  • #World  [I keep my stuff there.]
  • #Colors (TV channel)  [?? Apparently a Hindi station. Hmm. I’ve got a color TV?]
  • #Extras (TV series)  [I’ve been an extra, but… I have no idea.]

None of those are particularly awful. It’s not as if they’ve wrongly labeled me as a two-time felon with a heroin habit. However, the items are inaccurate and stupid. I’m torn between more emphatically liking things that appeal to me and liking everything, to screw with the data.

If you’re willing to give away some privacy for a benefit, it’s incredibly important to read the fine print. I smashed my smartphone this week (insert lots of cursing because I’m not at my upgrade date), which gave me a reason to visit the Verizon Wireless website. I wasn’t aware of the Verizon Rewards/Verizon Select program before this, and sure, it sounded appealing: earn points by simply paying my bill and use those points for gift cards and discounts. Great. What’s the catch? Oh, it’s a big one. They’ll analyze my data and sell it to marketers to target ads at me. Here’s an excerpt from their participation agreement about what data they’ll use:

  • Addresses of websites you visit when using our wireless service. These data strings (or URLs) may include search terms you have used.
  • Location of your device.
  • Apps and device feature usage.
  • Demographic, interest and behavior characteristics provided to us by other companies, such as gender, age range, sports fan, pet owner, shopping preferences, and ad responses.
  • Demographic, interest and behavior characteristics developed by Verizon.
  • Information about the quantity, type, destination, location, and amount of use of your Verizon voice services and related billing information (also known as Customer Proprietary Network Information or “CPNI”).
  • Other information about your use of Verizon products and services (such as data and calling features and use, FiOS service options, equipment and device types).

Wow. There is no way on earth that I would opt in to that. I’m happy with Verizon’s service, but this? No. To make matters worse, a Time article about the program included this quote from Louis Ramirez of dealnews: “If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls.” Hell no.

The balance between privacy and personalization is extremely tough to achieve. I dream of a near future with useful devices, charismatic robots, and meaningful connections in the Internet of Things. That requires me to extend limited trust to corporations who have done little to nothing to earn it. At the same time, it has become clear that putting trust in any level of government is stupid; it makes the most sense to assume my personal data is being collected and can be retroactively searched and misinterpreted to suit any agenda. Whether or not I have anything to hide, I choose to have curtains and doors and locks on those doors; I want and deserve the authority to control access to my personal life.

For now, I seek to find a precarious balance by using privacy tools online (HTTPS Everywhere, Disconnect, Adblock Plus, Privacy Badger, and sometimes Tor). I skim Terms of Service before clicking, and I don’t install apps or programs that want more than I’m willing to give up, no matter how appealing they are. I don’t trust Google, but I choose to use many of their products because they work together and I don’t spread my data across a bunch of services. I have long-term alter ego accounts that I can use if I need, as well. These methods are occasionally annoying, but the whole result is something I can live with. I can keep my optimism and quiet my paranoia, and maybe that’s the best I can hope for right now.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Culture, Digital Devices

 

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