More than forty (yikes!) years ago, I wrote a presentation about the dangers of becoming too reliant on technology. The technology of the time was the pocket calculator, and my concern was focused on the tendency of garbage in to become garbage out.
I was writing for high-school students and my point was that we need to know the basics in order to catch our keyboarding errors. Type 5 times 7 into the calculator and your answer should be 35. (Really, I checked this.) But enter the information incorrectly and you might get 28 or 40 or some other error that you wouldn’t recognize if you didn’t spend so many hours memorizing multiplication tables.
It was a brilliant argument and, of course, every student who heard it threw away their calculators and bought a gross of #2 pencils. JK. Instead, they all assumed they would be company presidents and their minions would do all the heavy lifting, and addition.
Fast forward four decades and I find I must sound the alarm again, this time in response to a more insidious danger of technology that comes in the form of masters who look like servants. Yes, I’m talking about you, Siri, and your co-conspirator, Alexa, and whatever Google calls its viper at your breast.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone is going nuts about Siri taking notes when your kids sing that baby shark song, but that's just a head fake. Our internet gods will announce the end of eavesdropping and we'll lower our guard once again. That's when they'll pounce or, more accurately, devour our paychecks from ambush.
That's because you might have paid to have Siri live with you, but Siri doesn’t work for you. Siri works for the companies who buy advertising and positioning opportunities from Apple. Alexa serves the highest-margin clients of Amazon. They reply to your commands, but their hearts belong to someone else.
In-home assistants are the avant garde of the robot revolution, the takeover of our lives by artificial intelligences that smile and smile while being villains. These devices are undermining the consumer’s advantage online, and eliminating the race to the bottom that is the design flaw—and consumer edge—of the internet.
Search engines enable us to find exactly what we want at the lowest total cost. We can see which offers are promotions paid for by advertisers and we can check the reviews of the low-cost offers to find out if anyone actually received the products they bought. We can take the offer that’s highest on the page, knowing somebody paid Google for the placement, or we can take a few minutes to refine our search and determine the best overall value for ourselves.
Delegate those decisions to Alexa and you might as well declare that money is no object. There is no simple way to ensure that she or Siri or the Google thing will get the best deal for us. We own the device, but we are absolutely not the customer.
When we buy a house, we don’t confide our maximum offer to the real estate agent because the agent works for the seller. We engage the agent, but the seller pays her, so her duty is to them, not us. We apply similar skepticism with insurance agents, stock brokers, lawyers and doctors, because we know they get paid more for certain advice and less for other recommendations.
We’re inclined to lower our guard, though, when the same servant that’s making our buying decisions is also playing our songs and ordering our pizza. She sounds so friendly and servile and efficient. How could you not trust her to get you a deal on humidifier filters?
The more we rely on counter-top assistants to handle our day-to-day activities, the more we’re likely to pay for everything we buy. Trust me on this. I was right on target with my prediction 40 years ago and I am overdue to be right again.
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Am I the only guy who decided to change his birthday?
I’ve always hated my birthday, and for good reason. My chronological bday is May 13 (Uh, oh, did I just give too much info to the dark websters?), which means that my birthday will be within spitting distance of Mother’s Day five years out of seven. By spitting distance, I mean the weekend we would recognize my birthday would also be the weekend we recognize mom.
First, there was mom and grandmom; later, mom and grandmom and wife; then mom and wife and daughter-moms and, oh, yes, I think Michael has a birthday this week, too.
I don’t suffer particularly from fear of the number 13, but you run into all kinds of paraskevidekatriaphobics who want to rain on your parade.
“Your birthday’s this Friday? The thirteenth? I hope a black cat doesn’t cross your path, Ha Ha Ha. Hah. Snort. Chuckle.”
Where was I? Oh, changing my birthday. When the girls got into high school, they joined (insert jazz hands) SHOW CHOIR (insert jazz hands) and their big show, appropriately titled Big Show, was…wait for it…Mother’s Day weekend. So, for six years, I spent most of my birthday weeks in the dark, videotaping the rehearsals and the shows, followed by dinners with other parents or the moms in the family.
At some point, it occurred to me that I could follow the example of America’s Presidents, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, and Jimmy Thanksgiving by “observing” my birthday on a date when I absolutely was not born.
Picking the right date, though, is a tough job. As far as I know, there is no Idiot’s Guide for Changing Your Birthday, although this is clearly an untapped market with huge potential. First, I had to find a date that didn’t put me into the cross-hairs of another holiday, so anything too close to Father’s Day or the Fourth of July or Arbor Day was off the table.
Likewise for dates that might conflict with major Jewish holidays, since I would hate to be unable to have birthday cake due to Passover or any food at all on Yom Kippur. It couldn’t be a date that was within a week or so of someone else’s birthday or anniversary, either.
And, being a Druid at heart, I wanted a date before the summer solstice, so my birthday would come during the time of year when the daylight is growing. That pretty much narrowed the opportunities to a month between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, plus a few weeks in the winter.
I’d put the quest on the back burner and then….drumroll…fate stepped in to solve the problem. The day we sold our house in the suburbs, planning to move into the city, all the tension and adrenaline of the process drained from my system. Unfortunately, I was driving downtown on the Kennedy Expressway at the time. As the arms of Morpheus enveloped me, I rammed two other cars. Luckily, nobody was injured, including me, and I found the date that would become my new celebration of birth.
So Facebook announces my birthday each year and I get the perfunctory good wishes from many of my "friends," but insiders know the real date to send me a note. It's almost like being president of a secret club, without the initiation fees or the felt hats.
Am I the only person who has done this? I’m okay with being the only one, since that would make me unique and clever, but surely someone else has taken this road before.
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Despite all my experience as a dad, a grandfather, and occasionally competent human, I’m under-qualified to give a walking tour in Chicago or change diapers at a daycare facility, among other items we learn this week…..
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Even though I’m keeping my reference age fixed in my 40s, I get to feeling old every now and then. And when I do, nothing makes me feel younger than going to a 3 p.m. play and a 5:30 dinner. I might not be young, chronologically, but I am a toddler when you grade it on a curve.
I’ve always been a fan of live theater, for the same reason I give extra cred to anyone who performs without a net. When you see a movie, everyone has had a chance to do each scene over and over and over yet again, and then the editing team gets a shot at making everything fit and, when it doesn’t, insert enough mood music to push home the point. With live theater, they get to do it once and it will never be done the same way again. Different production companies and directors will stage the shows differently, which is a Rohrshach test for them and an opportunity for new perspectives for me.
The biggest thrill about going to the theater, though, is feeling young again. I’ve been to hospitals with fewer oxygen tanks. Nationally, the average theater goer is in her mid-40s, although I think the number jumps to 80 when you exclude Hamilton. At matinees, it’s about 82.
Theater companies bemoan the steady aging of their demographic, but they cater to it as well. Why wouldn’t you do a revival of South Pacific for people who served during World War II? How can you pass up Oklahoma when your audience remembers that great territory becoming a state in 1907?
Theater companies are fans of recycling because old musicals pay the rent and newer stuff mewls and pukes before it dies. Most new stuff deserves a painful death, though, because almost all of it is pretty crappy. Jill and I go to a dozen plays each year and, about 80% of the time, I am ready to leave after five minutes. My rule is simple: If I don’t care if any of the characters lives or dies, I am gone.
Jill and I are pretty hip for old farts, so occasionally we end up in some place that appeals to a slightly younger crowd. We’ll scan the room as we enter and Jill will say 27, which is the difference in age between us and the next oldest person in the room. Being in a room with younger people makes us feel younger than sitting in the theater with even older farts than ourselves.
They say you should hang out with people who are younger than you are so that you stay fresh and energized. Sounds good, but I started thinking about our friends and….wait a minute…for most of them, WE are the younger people making THEM feel good about themselves. Thank God for grandchildren. Otherwise, we’d be screwed.
Right now, I’m thinking about building a roster of younger people to buddy up to in order to renew my Qi (great WWF word), even as I plan on rationing my availability to the octogenarians who have been draining the life force from my faltering soul. And, I really need to book more time with the grandchildren.
Who knew aging could be a competitive sport?
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I know we’re supposed to be raging against the storm and convincing ourselves that wrinkles are really “laugh lines,” but there are a lot of things to enjoy about getting older. Getting older, by the way, is not the same thing as aging. Aging is about losing vigor and getting weaker and stapling “out of order” signs on your knees and ears. Getting older, though, is a positive thing, and not merely because it means you haven’t died…yet.
For one thing, you’ve been there and done that, which means you don’t have to do it again if you didn’t like it the first time. You panic less, because you’ve been through more false alarms. People offer you discounts without being asked, and you get a pass from fads like the ice bucket challenge, snorting Tide pods, and kale.
But the best thing about getting older is never, ever, ever being at a loss for conversation when you meet other people in your age group. Any time I connect with other guys over 60, I know the first half hour of small talk is guaranteed. And all I need to do is ask…
How are you?
Not so hot. I finally got the second knee replaced last month and it’s much easier to get around, but now that I can sit, the hemorrhoids are killing me.
Sorry to hear that.
Not a big deal. I can’t sit long, anyway, because I have to go pee every three minutes. Damned prostate.
That sounds like a challenge.
It’s hell. I just stand there and sing a few show tunes while I wait for something to happen, and then I need to do it again ten minutes later. I had to stop at three gas stations on the drive over here, and they all made me buy those pine-tree air fresheners before they would give me keys to the john.
Got it. Now I’m even more grateful you made the effort to meet for lunch. Have you been here before?
Yeah. Maxine and I came when they first opened last year, but I got some reflux from the corned beef sandwich and we haven’t been back since. Maxine says I shouldn’t be eating all the fat and salt, anyway, but that’s what makes it taste good.
Would you rather we go somewhere else for lunch?
No, no, don’t make any changes on my account. Anyway, I’ve got this pill for cholesterol and this one for blood pressure, and this one for reflux, or maybe it’s for my nerves. Doesn’t matter. I can eat anything now. The only thing I still need is a pill to let me sleep through the night without having to get up every hour to pee. Crazy. I can’t go from one end and I can’t stop from the other. You’d think it would even out somehow, but nope.
Well, yes, thanks for sharing that. How are things going otherwise?
Ya gotta love it. When you dine with old people, there’s never a lull in the conversation, never a search for topics and never an awkward pause. The conversation itself is hugely awkward, but it never slows down, either.
Next time you’re feeling low, take an old guy out to lunch. It’s a very uplifting experience, in a warped kind of way, and you’ll never lack for fascinating topics.
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Spoiler Alert: If you’re under the age of 16 or you somehow made it through high school without reading Young Goodman Brown, you’re about to learn the surprise ending of the story. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
So, you know the scene in Young Goodman Brown, when the young, good man discovers all the elders and leaders and saints of the town are really devil worshipers? Yeah, Facebook is kinda like that.
I have hundreds of "friends" on Facebook and, I am so proud to say, I actually have met at least 28 ¾ of them. (Long story.) They look human, many hold down full-time jobs, pretty much none of them has a criminal record, and I have actually seen a few of them have a civil conversation with someone who is, um, not their kind.
But, late at night, under the cover of darkness and a taped-over webcam, they commune with evil and, like that young, good man of lore, I am caught by surprise, stripped of the innocence that I never thought to be a burden until now.
OMFG, did you just post a photo of our president looking like a simian? (We’re into our third term with this meme and the POTUS has changed, but this joke never gets old enough to die.) WTF, how are you still posting that story about the Jews who created AIDS to distract everyone from their plan to destroy the World Trade Center and get trick-or-treaters hooked on LSD tattoos? OMG, did you just demand the death penalty for (FITB)?
It gets worse, though. As bad as it is to see the oozing, rotting, grotesque, putrefying moldering masses of my friends’ souls online, I actually have to spend time with them IRL. There we are, at a dinner where they have been given knives, and I search frantically for the list of trigger words I must avoid. I know I can never say Obama or Trump, not if I hope to survive, but can I say black or Christmas or cis or fat or homeless?
On my daredevil days, or when life seems to have no meaning and I just don’t care, I am tempted to ask one of those questions that is sure to bring out the horrendously evil soul that lurks below the surface by day.
Nancy Pelosi’s still pretty hot, don’t you think?
Did Hillary erase her server before or after she killed Vince Foster?
I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but isn't it just a bit suspicious that you never see Charles Koch and George Soros in the same photo?
Is Donald Trump already our greatest president ever, or is Reagan still number one?
I think the meeting facilitators call these “ice breakers.”
Discovering the black hole of decency in so many of my friends has an upside for me. Once, when I was much more naïve, I thought I was as racist and sexist and homophobic and xenophobic and cis-centric and privileged as the next guy. But it turns out the next guy is just a little bit satanic and I am not even on the list of dishonorable mentions. I am feeling much better about myself these days, mostly because I am thinking much less of my Facebook friends.
(If you happen to be one of my Facebook friends and you are reading this, I am not referring to you, of course. It's those other people; you know which ones they are.)
Meanwhile, I have to go back and reread Young Goodman Brown to see how he coped with his new insights into his Good Book friends. As I recall, he returned home disillusioned, feeling betrayed, and he aged very fast.
I know how he feels.
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Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.