Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Breath of Air

There are multiple reasons why human beings (in America at least) are more corpulent than they have ever been. Most of us don't need to physically exert ourselves the way that our ancestors did. Junk food is plentiful and cheap. Plus it tastes good. But an underrated factor is that it's not cool to smoke anymore.

I'm intellectually aware that it takes the brain a few minutes to realize that the body is full. But in practice, it's been hard for me to shut it down after a satisfying meal. It can be downright depressing to look at an empty plate where a once satisfying entree resided. Since we can't have our cake and eat it, too, we eat it and then look for another slice.

I imagine that it wasn't always like that. Back when it was okay to sit back and light a pipe it was probably easier to shove away an empty plate. And it was probably less of a temptation to snack when one could just "snack" on a cigarette. I've never been a smoker, but I had a smoker friend who once wistfully remarked that although he wasn't proud of being a nicotine addict, he appreciated that his habit always gave him "something to look forward to."

I would guess that most of us make it through life by constantly looking forward to something. I'm convinced that this is actually a bad way to cope with stress and pressure, that even bad times are more tolerable if we aren't mentally dwelling on the desire to be somewhere else doing something different. And if we are ironically looking forward to something that has the potential to kill us, all the worse.

What we need, then, is some kind of healthy alternative to take the place of smoking--some ritual that we can engage that will allow us to give closure to a meal, or to provide a momentary distraction as we transition from one task to another, a non-intrusive socially acceptable practice that does not carry health risks. So I took to the web to see if such an alternative might already exist, just waiting to fill this niche need.

It actually didn't take long. I started with the premise that rather than a product that sucks the life out of lungs, perhaps we could find something to stimulate lungs in a good way. I thought of the recent trend of "oxygen bars," and though there have been no proven physical benefits to concentrated oxygen intake, it just may fill the psychological needs that tobacco used to alleviate. Sure enough, there is such a thing as "bottled oxygen"

Not that I plan to invest in such a thing. But if it does catch on, you heard it here first.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Target's targets

Privacy, or lack thereof, is back in the news again. We've been hearing for a couple of years now how Facebook is destroying privacy, how you need to be hyper-vigilant about your "privacy settings" because otherwise Facebook will share "private information" with nefarious sources that will somehow use knowledge of your favorite bands and TV shows to destroy you.

Now in the last week we've been hit with two breaking stories about how corporations are collecting your personal data. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Google Chrome browser was built to track cookies so as to circumvent the iPhone privacy settings, already drawing the ire of members of Congress.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has revealed that the Target corporation has such an advanced data analysis system that they can diagnose pregnancies based upon purchasing patterns. This led to a situation where a teen-age girl was mailed baby coupons, leading to an enraged father confronting a local Target manager. A few days later the man called back and apologized to the manager, telling him that there had been "activities activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August."

The author of the Times article had had access to Target cut off, but for awhile he was privy to some of the inner workings of the corporation. He found out that when baby coupons were mailed to future mothers, the response rate was not as good as when baby coupons were sent as part of a larger coupon section of random items. The conclusion is obvious: when consumers feel like they are being "spied on," they freak out. When the appeal is more subtle, they respond to it.

But why do they freak out? Obviously, nobody likes the idea of being under surveillance. But do we fear surveillance for its own sake, or are we afraid of the judgment that might come from it? I'm inclined to think it's the latter, and that there is a certain cognitive dissonance about the nature of those doing the surveillance.

A corporation cannot judge you, because a corporation does not respect your integrity as an individual. Target was not praising or condemning the teen-age parent-to-be. A corporation regards you as a data point. And this is only fair, because you feel the same way about it. It's a relationship based upon mutual utility, not upon the mutual construction of identity. Granted, you regularly deal with human faces that represent the corporation (at least in the case of Target, if not Facebook or Google), but you are usually not called upon to respect their integrity as individuals, only as representatives of the non-human entity.

So I think it is generally logical to not be afraid of data collection, and if anything, to view the application of the interpretation of the data with enthusiasm. We supposedly value efficiency in business--what is wrong with being the beneficiary of a database's efficiency? As with any corporate practice, there may be unintended consequences, such as the case of the father who found out his daughter was pregnant only after Target did...but you can make the case in that instance that data analysis expedited a conversation that would have to take place eventually, and one that arguably should have taken place already.

But I think there is another factor that leads to our antipathy for such corporate practices. We want to be respected as individuals. We want our choices to be evaluated and judged, including (perhaps especially) our consumer purchases. Sometimes we ostentatiously display our choices, often in settings where we could be judged, for good or ill. I think we resent it that corporations regard us as just a data point, as if they can predict our nature and preferences independent of our free will to assert ourselves.

To such a concern, I would advise this: if you don't want to be treated as a data point, don't act like a data point. If you would prefer not to be a target for marketing schemes, maybe you ought to consider the nature of a corporation named "Target."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Passwords

In order to write this blog post, I needed to enter in a password. I've had the same password for the six years I've been on blogger. It's hard to recall specifically, but it may be the original password I first started using back when being a participating member of society required the formation of passwords. While the emergence of the World Wide Web has obviously changed much about our lives, one aspect that I'm not sure I've ever seen discussed is the rise of the password. Twenty years ago, unless you were in the military or worked in some security field, or perhaps belonged to a secret lodge, you didn't need to commit any passwords to memory. Now, most of us walk around with a head full of so many passwords that we struggle to keep them straight.

Despite growing up in the pre-password era, I went through childhood with a favorite password. Actually, it's more of a passphrase than a password, which precluded me from using it as an entry into digital realms. And really, I never got much of an opportunity to use it in any realm, given that 10-year-olds usually don't get to exercise the use of passwords (I did once use it to exclude the lone girl at a family gathering from participating in a boys' activity, before a sympathetic cousin provided her with the not-so-secret password).

And now, I choose to make the phrase public: "Frogs in Winter." If that seems to be too random for a pre-adolescent to be able to generate, that's because it is. I stole it from an episode of G.I. Joe. In the subsequent years, the only occasion I had to exercise a verbal password was at a Milwaukee spy-themed restaurant ("I'm looking for a safe house"). Still, what I have learned from these limited experiences is that saying passwords is a lot more fun than typing them.

It's somewhat ironic that technology has facilitated the return to relevance of the ancient practice of password protection, since an overall effect of technology has been the obliteration of the arcane. From how to do magic tricks to the closely-held teachings of Scientology to the troves of WikiLeaks, the trend has been away from cabalistic knowledge. Of course, the contemporary password is not something that is shared between people, it is shared between a person and processing unit.

I imagine someday we will not have to worry about passwords anymore. Just when malicious hackers will master the art of password extraction, developers will come forward with cheap voice-recognition and/or fingerprint recognition devices that will once again thrust the password into obsolescence. But perhaps at that point, some combination of cravings for nostalgia and human interaction may lead to a sphere where social transactions can only occur after someone utters a word of phrase of esoteric significance. And if I am ever in a position where I demand a password, entrance will be admitted to those who know frogs in winter.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

What's Wrong With the Pro Bowl

"I learned that he's very competitive. He wants to beat you at anything he plays you at"-- Wayne State football coach Paul Winters, speaking about Ashland head coach Lee Owens

"He’s very competitive. He wants to beat you at whatever he does.”-- Carey Suddoth, golf coach at Muleshoe (TX) high school, on then-senior Tyson Turnbow, a state qualifier in both golf and tennis

"She wants to beat you. Lexi is just a competitive little girl. That’s just her personality and that’s what we’ve instilled in her and I continue to see it manifest itself"-- West Ranch (CA) volleyball coach Troy Clewis on his daughter Alexi, noting "it doesn’t just apply to volleyball. [He] remembers his daughter showing the same kind of fierce desire when she was 6 years old playing chess, and again when she took up soccer, softball and basketball a few years later."

"Derrick Rose's competitive streak is always present. No matter what the game, the 22 year-old wants to beat you ... badly. 'I don’t [trash talk] in basketball, but any other thing, I’ll be talking smack, especially like ping pong or something like that...I could be playing cards, anything, I’ll be yelling.'"-- blog post on the Chicago Bulls guard

"That’s one of the reasons he is successful – he is just so competitive. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he just wants to beat you."-- Nevada high school basketball coach Greg Walker on then BYU guard Jimmer Fredette

"The thing I admire most about Joe is his competitiveness. He wants to beat you even if you're playing dominoes. Don't laugh. I've seen him keep a mutual friend of ours up practically all night playing dominoes because he wouldn't quit until he'd won"-- Pittsburgh Pirates star Willie Stargell on future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan in the December 1975 edition of Baseball Digest

I found all of the above quotations in just a few minutes via a Google search. I have followed sports most of my life, and I have heard some variation of the above quotation countless times. I grew up in the era of Michael Jordan's dominance, and got used to hearing folk tales about how he couldn't stand to lose, how he would bribe baggage handlers to make sure that his luggage came down the chute first. And so I internalized the belief that to be a successful professional athlete meant that one always played to win and couldn't stand to lose.

But this is completely bogus. Anybody who watched the NFL Pro Bowl last weekend could tell you that. The creme de la creme of professional football players played a game against each other, and it was apparent that few of them cared if they won or lost. Major League Baseball famously had the same problem of lack of competitiveness in their all-star game, and responded by providing an incentive to the winners (home field advantage in the World Series). There is a cash incentive for the winners of the Pro Bowl, but we are seeing that even that isn't enough to rile the supposedly competitive natures of these athletes. What happened to "he just wants to beat you at anything"? I think there are a couple of factors at work.

I look back on a now-embarrassing blog post that I wrote six years ago, in which I defended the Pro Bowl's honor, castigating the media for its false representation of the game. It wasn't always like it was this year. I'm not sure how much time and nostalgia have obscured my memory, but I honestly remember entertaining, competitive Pro Bowl games in the past. So does former coach Tony Dungy, who had this to say in response to this year's game: "I can remember the first one I coached in 1984. We had Kenny Easley and Howie Long and there were no free passes in that game. The defense came to play. Offensive guys knew it was like a regular game. I coached again in 1999 and (for) Randy Moss, it was I think his second Pro Bowl. He wanted the show the world he was the best player in football. You just had that competitiveness. I didn’t see that the other night, and I do hope that changes because it can be a great game."

But for the last several years the media narrative around the game is that it is a farce, that it doesn't matter, that nobody takes it seriously. I'm inclined to think that this became a prophetically fulfilling narrative. If you grow up hearing that a game is irrelevant, and then you are chosen to play in the game, what are the chances you will exert a competitive effort?

But one might question one element of my interpretation. Why would the media lie? If this truly was a good game, why did it receive the reputation that it was not? I think the key word is "narrative." I don't think sports fans are truly aware of the degree to which the sports media has forced them to contextualize the viewing experience. Is it possible to enjoy an NFL game in December between two teams that have been eliminated from play-off contention? What if it was a thrilling contest that saw four lead changes in the final two minutes? Of course it might provide a temporary thrill, but I think for most fans the overall effect would be one of emptiness. The game has been designated as "meaningless," since it no longer factors into the narrative structure that culminates in a Super Bowl. What this ignores, of course, is that all games are meaningless (which is why they are called "games" and not "life-altering contests").

The reoccurring debate about whether NFL teams chasing a perfect record should rest starters is not one that used to exist, because the pervasiveness of narrative did not used to exist. Even now, the debate is framed as a consideration of two competing narratives--whether a team should pursue an ultimate goal of a championship or of an all-time reckoning. But in the past, neither of these narratives would have factored. Each game was viewed as a singular entity, a competition in its own right, and that was enough intrinsic motivation to spur on competitiveness. The increased commercialization and media saturation of sports has conditioned participants to extrinsic motivations.

If we could somehow peel back the influence of context, if we could get back to an appreciation for the simple narrative of any one contest without needing to place it into some kind of overarching narrative, I think we would be pleasantly surprised by the product that would emerge (and not just in all-star games). We would truly see an environment where people on both sides of a ball would want nothing more than to just beat those on the other side.