What I Learned: Week of September 16 – 22, 2018

A rundown of things I read, saw or heard this week that stuck with me. This week happens to be all podcasts.

Worth a listen

Post No Evil. Radiolab. 2018aug17.

Early in the rise of Facebook, the company realized they needed a rulebook of acceptable behaviors to deal with the occasional appalling, depraved, and possibly illegal content created and shared by users. This was a difficult problem in 2008 when Facebook had a few hundred thousand American users. Now, the platform hosts 2.2 billion users across the entire globe.

This podcast explores the struggle to define and systematize rules of behavior that impact 2.2 billion people everyday with sometime hilarious, sometimes harrowing effect. The challenge of boiling human intent down into discreet, algorithmic if/then rules creates absurd situations where white men are protected against derogatory speech but black children are not. This happened as a result of linguistic nesting of modifiers. White men were protected because the concept of white men belongs to two categories of protected modifiers: race and gender. Black children were not protected because the concept of black children only belongs to one category of protected modifier: race. Children was not a protected category. Hilarity ensues.

Worse still, the discovery that most of the work of monitoring and removing objectionable content happens by low pay, human operators working 8 hours shifts reviewing and removing flagged content at a decision rate of something like one image every 8 to 10 seconds. The workers, mostly Irish and Asian, often turn up with PTSD. I think of them as the Call Centers of Despair.

Divided, Part 1: How Family Separations Started. The Daily. 2018aug21. and Divided, Part 2: The Chaos of Reunification. 2018aug24.

A clear, concise step-by-step roadmap of how the American government implemented a policy of separating immigrant families at the southern border well before admitting that such a policy existed. These stories reveal a situation far more complex than simply the President and his cabinet are evil. Its worse. They are incompetent, too. The metadata in place for tracking parents and children was lost when detainee’s status changed. A few keystrokes made it possible for the government to lose track of which kids belonged to which parents. The kids were secreted, sometimes in the middle of the night, to detention centers across America. The parents sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the continent or deported.

Listen for a useful summary to make sense of the disparate reports over the past few months. Listen to remind ourselves that the crisis isn’t over even through our attention has moved away.

Shun the Non-Believers. Akimbo. 2018aug22.

Seth Godin reflects on the power of product reviews. Reviews help us find products and services that matter to us, but reviews can wreck the creative process of building those same products and services. This is required listening for anyone who aspires to creative work.

My quick take: when you make something, make it for someone specific. Make it unique. Let it be weird. Making a product to satisfy the reviews results in average content, which soon disappears.

Things made for everybody are actually made for nobody. These things are called commodities.

Things made specifically for someone are called art. These things endure.

Social Media Stockholm Syndrome

I logged off Facebook “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Most of the words above aren’t mine. They belong to Henry David Thoreau who from 1845 to 1847 experimented with living a fuller, more authentic life by living in a cabin beside Walden pond. Thoreau’s Walden is hardly a rustic, wilderness survival story. Thoreau didn’t live far from town. His mom did his laundry, and he often mooched off his neighbors. Thoreau’s experiment wasn’t about self-sufficiency or living off the land. Thoreau wondered if he could live in accordance with his own best principles.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s experiment and wondering if I could do the same. I’m not thinking about building a cabin in the woods or cutting my own firewood or mending my clothes to suit the needs of my current enterprise. I’m contemplating a step away from social media.

Facebook has been a positive force in my life. Most of the people I love gather regularly there and share interesting bits of their daily lives. Photos of kids, dogs and weekend adventures keep us connected between visits. Facebook is how we connect and communicate. Facebook is how we stay in each other’s lives.

And yet, increasingly, for the past year Facebook has left me feeling empty, a bit sick. Since sometime last year, the persistent thought arrives while posting or scrolling down the endless feed: “We aren’t meant to live this way.” Sharing seems less an act of generosity than one of grandiose self-promotion. Liking has become a way to acknowledge someone’s thoughts or feelings without pausing for the hassle of truly taxing my own emotions or empathy. I don’t like the way I am using social media or the way social media is using me.

And so, I contemplate what it would be like to shut down my social media for a season, to retreat to my metaphorical cabin by the pond, to live by first principles with both intention and attention.

No easy feat this. Leaving Facebook, even for a season, means exporting a tremendous amount of personal data, contacts, birthdays, and emails. It means disconnecting apps and disrupting third-party services. Leaving Facebook, even for a season, means communicating with people by email or text or ***shudder*** in person. Even contemplating such an act feels like preparing to leave my country. Boarding up the windows. Turning off the plumbing. Checking, double-checking that I have the proper documents. Asking the neighbors to watch the place until I get back.

I am uncertain if this is a thing I can or will do. The irony bites me that I am even posting this to Facebook. Posting to Facebook about wanting to leave Facebook is the most Facebook thing you can do. 

Leaving Facebook would be an experiment in relationship building and maintenance. What is it like to speak to my friends in paragraphs rather than comments? What is it like to tell some specific someone something about my day rather than broadcast and wait to see who turns up in my feed? What is it like to not know so much about the smallest parts of everybody’s lives and not have them know the smallest parts of mine?

If I go, it will be so I can learn from the experience and write about it, and yet, if I go, no one will read what I have learned or written because Facebook is how readers find the blog. Hostage situation. Social media Stockholm Syndrome.

The Internet Revolution is Now Complete. My Grandma Has WiFi.

The Internet Revolution is now complete. My 88 year old grandmother has wi-fi.

I visited her this afternoon for our traditional New Year’s family lunch. I was surprised to find a router sitting beside her recliner, lights ablaze and signaling traffic. This shock was preceded a few weeks earlier by a Facebook friend request from my grandmother. What is going on?

Turns out my uncle activated a DSL connection, installed the router and established the Facebook account. He also bought a used Toshiba tablet so my grandma can Facebook. This is a bit of a head bender. My grandmother is an intelligent woman but I’m not sure if she knows that she internet access. I have never once seen her use a computer of any kind. She distrusts debit cards, does not carry a cell phone and uses only two TV channels — CNN and The Weather Channel. I’m not even certain she knows what the internet is.

But, that doesn’t matter. She now has wireless internet access, whether she realizes it or not, and it will make her life noticeably better in at least two practical ways. My grandmother is losing her hearing. She can still enjoy conversations in rooms without background noise but phone calls are a chore. For two years, she has been using a telephone-to-text relay service that is mediated by a third party listener who listens to the conversation and transcribes on the screen for my grandmother to read. It works okay but accuracy is about 60% and there is some lag. Like I said, phone calls are a chore. The DSL connnection was installed to connect her telephone to an internet-based transcription service which works faster with more accuracy. I am told the transcription is now 80% accurate and much faster. That alone is worth the price of the internet subscription.

Photographs are a big part of my grandmother’s life. She started taking snapshots as a kid and has carried the hobby ever since. Her pictures reveal what is most important in her life – family. I am sure she was tens of thousands of candid family photos, many of which are pressed in albums or are hanging on her living room walls. When she leaves her apartment, they will have to re-sheet rock the entire living room because there are so many nail holes from family pictures. It is a sight to behold.

The wireless connection and tablet allow my uncle to show my grandmother recent pictures from family in west Tennessee, Texas and Kansas through Facebook. Even if she never likes a post or publishes a status update, wireless internet access allows my grandmother to extend the reach of photo collection into virtual space. This is a good way to keep her from feeling quite so far away from the people she loves.

I write a lot about how the Internet shapes my daily life. When thinking about technology, I often succumb to the rhetoric of revolution. Today, it occurred to me that the revolution may be over. The Internet now truly underpins every aspect our quotidian lives. The Internet has become a utility like water and electricity, so ubiquitous in our daily lives we don’t even have to know it is there for it to bring value. The revolution is complete. Everything is different and the tools have disappeared. We can finally take this stuff for granted and expect it to work for us every time without special skill or training. Incredible to realize how boring and commonplace the magic has become. We live in fascinating times, even when we find them completely ordinary.

The Earth Moved (Just a Little)

The Earth moved today. Okay, the Earth actually moves everyday. Today I actually noticed it moving.

I was in my home office (Oak Ridge, TN), working on review notes for a friend’s article, when all the walls in the house began to shake. It was loud but not terribly frightening. It lasted only a few seconds.

At first, I thought the front of my house had been struck by a strong gust of wind, but I looked outside and none of the trees were moving.

Strangely enough, my first instinct was to post to Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone else had felt the tremor

While posting, my neighbor called to see if we felt the tremor. They had just had their pilot light activated and wondered if something had gone very wrong. We assured each other that we weren’t crazy.

A few seconds later the tweets and Facebook posts started rolling in. Friends felt it from miles away. Turns out a large part of the South

Fascinating to see so many people reach for Facebook to share the experience or just confirm sanity.  Equally fascinated to get a tweet from a friend in Nashville who didn’t feel the tremor but had seen a news article tweeted a few moments before.

This is how news travels now. We turn to Facebook to make sure our people are okay and Twitter provides the information on what’s going on.

A completely minor, non-event. Still, a nice, gentle reminder that it’s all connected.

Facebook is failing me

I don’t Facebook as much as I used to. My apologies to my Facebook friends. I still love you. I just don’t love the Facebook experience as much as I once did. I still check in many times throughout the day. I still post status updates, share pictures and video of my daughter and links to interesting articles. I check-in at places and share new blog posts, books I’m reading and, occassionally, the music I’m listening to. I still enjoy that part of everything.

But I am finding it very difficult to keep up with other people. The people I most want to see are getting buried beneath the Other Stuff. At the moment, I use Facebook much like a publishing platform. I’d like to use it as a way to keep in touch with friends.

I think there are two main reasons this is happening: 1) Facebook isn’t mobile friendly and 2) I forget to use the curated feeds.

Facebook isn’t mobile friendly. Both the iPhone and iPad apps are wretched. This is a problem since I do most of my Facebooking on my phone and tablet. To be fair, both are actually great in allowing me to post statuses, share pictures and video directly from my phone’s camera roll and check-in places. I get real-time notifications when people like, comment, message or post to my Wall. This is all terrific, which is why I do these things a lot. What I don’t do a lot is visit other people’s news feeds. They don’t render well on either the iPhone or iPad. The feeds are cumbersome to explore and can be difficult to comment on. I usually scroll a few screens, hit “like” a dozen times and move on to something else. Not good friend behavior.

I have tried using Facebook in Safari, which is somewhat better than the app interface but still isn’t fully functional. The Timeline UI renders rather poorly and it takes  a while for things down the page to load. Not good.

From time to time, I try to adjust to these problems by using a third party platform like HootSuite or Flipboard. Both help me see posts I would otherwise miss but neither feel like real Facebook experiences. I am open to suggestions here.

The problem with other people’s feeds became most pronounced about a year ago when Facebook changed the way they ranked news feeds. I started getting a lot more random posts than posts from the friends with whom I was most engaged. Not sure what they changed in the news feed algorithm, but it made my Facebook experience less coherent, not more. At the same time, they made Facebook less friendly by adding the javascript real-time crawler in the upper right-hand corner. This does not display at all on the mobile browser versions. Confusing.

Tonight, I rediscovered the smart lists on the left that allow me to customize feeds to lift friends into focused group categories that hopefully make them more manageable. Not sure how I missed that fact. I’m going to give list making another try. Hopefully, I will begin seeing more posts and engaging with friends more meaningfully. Until then, Facebook peeps, know that I love you and wish you the best, even if I haven’t liked your posts in a while.

How do you use Facebook? Do you curate lists? Visit specific friends’ Walls directly? Visit all friends’ Walls regularly? I’m looking for practical advice here. I’m not sure how Facebook became strange to me. I need help becoming a better friend.



Vacation envy

I haven’t traveled anywhere for vacation since 2003. I won’t bore you with the reasons why. Let’s just agree that I’m a bit overdue for non-work-related travel.

For the past week, I can’t log into Facebook without seeing tons of pictures of happy friends smiling on beaches. Friends toasting at nice restaurants and checking in from exotic locales. I don’t begrudge them their happiness. They are my friends. I am glad for them, but I think I liked it better in the old days when I didn’t get to travel vicariously along with all my globe-trotting friends in more or less real-time. The twinge of vacation envy wasn’t so sharp hearing about it after the fact, looking at a few dozen photographs and getting the distilled 10 minute travelogue.

I want my friends to keep having a great time. I want them to keep posting their pictures. What I want is a software solution so I can opt out of their happiness temporarily until I have steeled myself for the uncharitable thoughts and feelings that arise from involuntary vacation envy.

I want Facebook to install a photo filter that will automatically screen beach pictures from showing up in my news feed from the months of May through August. After that, I’m fine.

But, if Facebook is too busy dealing with its IPO fall-out and figuring out how to monetize the mobile Facebook experience, then I would settle for a third party solution. I’m picturing some sort of Facebook API that guarantees a vacation photo free user experience when I need it. Just something until the nerves settle and I resign myself to another year of not being at the beach and not being the smiling person toasting at some fantastic restaurant locale.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

I can’t be the only person who could use this.

Better than a birthday card

Yesterday was my 38th birthday. I had a very nice day. We picked up my daughter early from school. Had a free sandwich from Firehouse Subs. Went to the zoo. Had dinner with my mom, dad, mom-in-law and grandmothers.

I kept checking Facebook along the way. The very kind wishes and quick messages through the day made the whole day more special. Just small, constant reminders that people were thinking of me. It made me happy in a way that birthday cards rarely do.

Birthday cards are pre-fab. They rarely say what you need them to say and, even when they do, you have to decide whether to keep it filed away someplace or recycle. I generally recycle.

That’s not to say that birthday cards are bad. My grandmother always takes a lot of time to pick out the best card and writes a long, special message every time. Then, she further personalizes by underlining the key phrases in the card that she wants to emphasize. Something very special will be gone from my life when she isn’t around to do that. I don’t want my grandmother to post to my Facebook Wall.

But everybody else, thanks for thinking of me. Your thoughts, messages and notes made me feel like I had friends with me all day.

Facebook gives me superpowers

When I was a kid, there were two recurring fantasies that kept me fascinated for years and years:

  • What if every moment of my life were being recorded by my glasses so that everything I saw, said and heard was documented for future archivists to explore and piece together the meaning of my existence?
  • What if I could know where my friends were and what they were doing all the time?

Those would be kinds of super powers. I was a strange kid. Now I’m 37, and I’ve been given those powers. Its called social networks.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social networks recently – what they are for, how they connect us, how they isolate us, how they can make life seem simultaneously more intimate and more remote.

I did an inventory of the social networks I use:

    Google Plus

And I just joined Pinterest, which apparently is more intended for 20-something ladies planning their weddings.

I don’t use these networks all the same way but they all give me superpowers.


I check Facebook at least 5 times a day. I check in when I am someplace interesting. I post pictures and videos of my daughter. I post articles and I like stuff. Timeline may or may not be a huge violation of my personal privacy but I think it is pretty great that it can aggregate data from my day and put it all together in one neat, well-organized, more or less sequential line. Some of my friends do the same. That’s both powers: the power to document my own life — mundane and sublime — as well as the power to know where my friends are at any given time and what they are doing.


I’ve become a bigger Tweeter just recently. Mostly because it is the most compact, information-rich way to find out what people you are interested in are thinking about. The biggest difference: you “friend” people on Facebook; you “follow” people on Twitter. Reading someone’s Twitter feed can be like peeking inside their brain. People unfollow me from time to time. I don’t get offended. When people “unfriend” me it hurts just a little.

Google Plus

I’ll be honest. I don’t actually use Google Plus very much. I haven’t taken the time to figure out what it’s for. I do like the concept of Circles where groups of friends can share posts but I haven’t had a “group” of friends since early high school. I’m pretty much an everybody or nobody kind of guy these days. So, maybe Google Plus doen’t actually give me superpowers, yet, but if I had a superhero outfit I could do worse than the nifty +1 logo.


I will have to save LinkedIn for another post. I have a passive-aggressive relationship there. I love the ability to see who I know that knows somebody else I know in a completely different context. Superpower: omniscience. The ability to directly perceive how everything is related. Unfortunately, LInkedIn fails to satisfy my kidhood fantasies as I rarely check in and keep meaning to update my profile with all the Important, Serious Stuff I am doing at work. If I’m not updating my basic profile, am I really present?


I underuse the social aspect of this network. I use GoodReads pretty much just to list the books I’ve read and keep track of books I want to read. I do keep up with what a few of my friends are reading there, but, to be honest, my favorite part is posting GoodReads updates to Facebook because that’s where the people are.


Very few comments on my blog so far. To be fair, I very rarely read other WordPress blogs, let alone comment. So, I don’t know for sure that I am actually using WordPress as a social network. But I do get a thrill when people read and tell me they read what I wrote. Superpower: back to the documenting my existence for future scholars. Its the Quotidian in Ubiquitous Quotidian.

PInterest and Tumblr

I’ll leave both of these alone for now since I haven’t used them much. I suspect I’m too wordy to connect with these image blogs much.

I can see that this post started out as one thing and has become something of another. Back to the beginning, Facebook gives me superpowers. That idea deserves another try again soon. I should slow down a bit and notice how I really use Facebook.