Category Archives: Musings

Digital Echo Chambers

This article is longer than my usual blog, but please bear with me; the issues below affect all of us, and they are important to become aware of; after all, you can only keep an eye on something you see.

I watched a fascinating TED talk recently about an African American man, Theo E.J. Wilson, who went “undercover” online as a white supremacist.  He did it in order to try and understand where some of the internet trolls who were attacking him were coming from, and to try and discover where they were getting their “information” and ideas from.  His findings were insightful.

He discovered something that has become more and more obvious to me lately, and that is that we all live online in “digital echo chambers”.  The definition of echo chamber is “A room or other enclosed space that is highly conducive to the production of echoes, particularly one that has been designed and built for this purpose.  An insular communication space that is of no interest to outsiders or refuses their input.”

The echo chamber is harmless, though annoying, when it comes to shopping or interest feeds; but it can be catastrophic when it comes to life decisions and social or political views.

“If you surround yourself with voices that echo similar opinions to those you’re feeding out, they will be reinforced in your mind as mainstream, to the point that it can distort your perception of what is the general consensus.”

Alan Martin, Wired

Echo Chmaber

Big Brother

The question growing in my mind is, am I telling algorithms online what I want to see/hear/learn, or visa versa?  I’ll give a few examples of what I mean:

Sitting at my dining table chatting over a tea with a friend, our cell phones sat off to one side.  We were chatting about holidays, and she spontaneously mentioned Mallorca (Spanish islands).  The next time we looked online, we both had ads for Mallorca.  This has happened many times – that a live conversation in a private home, with no online searches previously made, have resulted in ads, or articles popping up in suggestions; the conclusion is that Google is listening in on your life.  If you don’t have your phone on airplane mode and your cameras blocked (I keep small post-its on both front and back cameras on my phones, as well as my laptop’s camera), chances are you’re giving away a lot more than you want to.  If you tend to say your passwords out loud as you’re typing them in, you may be giving them away.

Facebook & co.

Facebook, theoretically a social media site to connect with your friends, in reality decides what it is you see, and whose activities you see in your feed.  I haven’t been on Facebook regularly for several months now as I removed it from my home tabs on my browser; that one move has saved a lot of time otherwise being wasted!  Now, when I look on Facebook, I literally see the home feed activities from only a handful of friends out of 300+; most of what I now see in my home feed is Facebook ads, FB suggestions, memories they’ve selected, and unrelated video stream suggestions.  They’re trying to draw me in; but they’ve missed the memo that I’m only there for real connections with friends, and I intend to keep it that way.  Maybe I should turn on my phone’s Wi-Fi and say that out loud… [Keep in mind that Facebook, or Amazon, or Google are not “they” as in human faces seeing your information; they are algorithms designed to harvest it.]

The more time you spend online, the clearer your digital fingerprint becomes; the more the algorithms know about your likes and interests, the more they will feed you just that information.  The dark side of this is that, if someone has temptations in a particular area, they will be bombarded by tailor-made algorithmic choices, guiding them toward the thing they may be trying to avoid.  A recent article in our local newspaper stated that, according to Netzsieger, a comparison portal, 25% of all searches online are related to pornography.  Let that statistic sink in a moment.

.Com is not .Com

And were you aware of the fact that, if you are outside of the borders of the US, a certain monopolistic shopping portal beginning with “Amaz” has been discriminating against you?  The prices you see are not the prices an American within the borders of the US are seeing.  I found this out recently when I was running a sale on one of my books; the sales price was 99 cents; the usual price is $2.99.  But when I went on (I am a registered kindle customer at .com) to see if the sale had begun, the only price I saw was $3.56.  That’s nearly a 20% price increase; no sale in sight.  When I asked them about it, they gave a fluff algorithmic answer, but did not address the real issue.  And they never answered my question whether I, as author, am being paid commission on the higher price or not.

It makes me wonder what else they’re not telling me as both author and as customer, and what else they’ve been charging me more for (likely, everything) than if I lived within the borders of the US; as a result, I’ve taken my online shopping elsewhere.  I will be doing further investigation into this, and if you do online shopping, I would recommend you do the same, and call them on the carpet about it – write complaint emails, and make your voices heard!  Have friends in other countries check out the prices on the same website and product, and compare.

[Now I have another example of the digital eavesdropping:  I’ve been typing up this article in my Word program on my laptop – not directly into the WordPress blog; when I went onto Google to refresh my memory about percentage calculation, I began typing in, “how to calculate” – and it filled in “percentage” – with NO previous such search on my part… they didn’t choose “exchange rate” or any other more common option of mine…]

Breaking Out

So, how can we break out of our digital echo chambers and mess with the results of algorithms?  There are quite a few ways, actually:  Below are a few links to articles about that very topic.  I would encourage you to get informed, and put into action various methods to burst the digital bubble, and breathe in the fresh air outside your echo chamber.

Five Ways to Break Out of Your Online Echo Chamber

You can break out of your echo chamber – and here’s how

How To Break Out Of An Echo Chamber – Your Bubble

 Escape the echo chamber: How to fix your Facebook News Feed

5 Super Easy Ways to Eliminate Your Echo Chamber

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Under-researched and overhyped

 

Advertisements

17 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings, Research, Science & Technology, Videos

Quintus Quotes: Dreams

C.S. Lewis - Never Too Old to DreamDream, DestinyColin Powell - Dream, Determination, Hard WorkDream, No Expiration Date, Try Again, Never Give UpRalph Waldo Emerson - Problems vs Dreams

Leave a comment

Filed under Images, Musings, Quotes, Writing Prompt

Living in an Algorithmic World

Back in the good ol’ days, we just shouted at the photocopier that we were sure was out to get us, as it ate the only hand-typed copy of our document.  Then dawned computers – albeit without luxuries-cum-necessities such as Windows.  I remember writing business letters in DOS.

Now, our lives are controlled by machines, and to a large extent, like proverbial frogs in a boiling pot of water, we don’t even recognize the fact – or if we do, we simply don’t know what to do about it.  But we have an advantage that we didn’t have way back then:  A voice on an international platform… blogs.

What’s brought this topic up recently is a string of frustratingly pointless emails back and forth with algorithms.  Around Christmas, Pinterest introduced a new feature – sections within boards.  It’s a great feature, theoretically, especially if you have tons of boards or tons of pins in said boards.  Theoretically.  While migrating my massive collections of pins to new sections, Pinterest constantly blocked me with their “spam filter”; when I did get things done, after the fact, they simply LOST three entire sections (not all at once… one here, one another day, one two days ago)!  Now comes the useless algorithmic runaround.  They have a limited number of options which you are required to choose from among; if your query is out of the “beginners problems” categories, you’re out of luck.  I have never, not once, reached an actual human on Pinterest Help.  I did once receive a response from some “one” named “Charlie” – but from the response, it was not human – just another algorithm.  They neither help solve problems, take responsibility, or offer an apology.  It is what it is, take it or stuff it.

2001 Hall Pinterest When did “customer service” become pointless?  The moment companies realized that they could make money off of the masses without actually bothering with them, that’s when.  If that sounds cynical, it probably is – and I don’t often let things ruffle me, but honour is one area that will always get up my nose, as I have a strong sense of justice:  When companies or people stop honouring those around them with common courtesies, they will hear about it from me.  If Pinterest refuses to add customer service (not just “customer processing”) to their list of skills, it will only be a matter of time before someone comes up with an alternative service with that issue as their strong point; and every disgruntled person of the “mass” will leave Pinterest in the dust, including me.  Because despite what some of these online upstart companies seem to think, humanity and human customers should always be the top priority; after all, we can and will make our own decisions, and we will go where we feel wanted, and taken care of.

Algorithms are everywhere; some are more intelligent than others.  If you have any amount of online presence, chances are that mega-sites like Google know more about you than your own mother.  So what can we frogs do?  Unless you’re willing to jump off-grid and become a cyber recluse (which isn’t an option for authors, writers, or most people in the civilized world these days), then let your voice be heard:  Write about it on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook – wherever you have a voice.  When we’re loud about it, we will be heard; it will stir others to action; it may be a single drop of water, but it may be the one that eventually causes the dam to burst.

If you don’t want to make those waves, then I’d suggest you just pour yourself a piña colada, topped with one of those little bamboo umbrellas, lean back and enjoy the sauna while you can.  And if you decide to go for a swim while you’re in there, just watch out for the phishing lines…

frog-in-a-pot

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Story

For me, Christmas has never been about the commercialism or the food or the decorations; we do things low-key here in Switzerland, though we do decorate and exchange gifts.  It’s about family, time together, specific gifts that the receiver wanted or needed (not just purchases to stuff the stocking or load the base of the tree).  As a Christian, the true meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with Santa or sitting around a dead tree in the living room eating candy out of socks.  It has to do with the single greatest event in the history of humanity, which was simultaneously a “non-event”… nothing like the people of the times had been expecting, and so most of them missed it altogether.  Those who have ears to hear, or eyes to see, will hear and see; those who don’t, or who choose to remain deaf and blind, will do so; it’s that simple.  So it is that many people today repeat history and miss the point of Christmas altogether.  They get bogged down in materialism, commercialism, superficiality or social pressures of one form or another, and forget about the historical and spiritual aspects of the holiday.

Personally, we will continue to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree, gifts, Christmas music and time together with loved ones, all the while remembering the true Reason for the Season, for the greatest demonstration of sacrificial love next to the act of Jesus’s obedience to the point of the crucifixion:  That of coming to Earth in the vulnerable form of a baby, born into a family with no status, no wealth and no social power, becoming a human in order to identify with us in every way, and to eventually pay the ultimate price on our behalf so that, if we accept what Jesus did for us on the cross, we can know him intimately – on the deepest level of connection possible to humans in our limitations of time and space:  That of the heart, the soul, the mind, and the spirit.  The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling it is; the events that we celebrate at Christmas were set in motion for you and for me.  It’s that simple.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a Blessed New Year!

Chalkboard - Christmas 1

13 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings

Gibberish, Urban Legends & Life Hacks

Crypto NerdsAs I was surfing recently, I thought – as I frequently have – that most of the phrases and idioms used today would be incomprehensible 100 years ago.  Surfing, as related to the internet, came into use in 1993; Google (verb or noun form) would make no sense, nor would anything larger than a byte (bite), or (proxy) server, software, bandwidth, broadband, wireless, W-Lan, binary, bit, blog, blogosphere, browser, cookie (within the virtual context), cyberspace, domain, download, Email, Ethernet, intranet, extranet or internet, FAQ, firewall, network, GIF, hit, home page, host, and the list goes on!  I’m sure people at IT meetings could carry on entire conversations that would be utter gibberish to someone from the Roaring Twenties.

There are also phenomena that have arisen with the dawning of cyberspace and virtual reality; while the internet has opened up the world to those who know how to use it wisely, it’s also given room for things like nonsense gone viral or video tutorials by everyone and their cats and dogs.  Another consequence of the internet is the rapid dissemination of (mis)information; this is how urban legends arise:  Before verifying authenticity, people pass on the gossip, fake news or report; soon it’s been seen so often (and refined along the way, like any good fish tale) that people begin to believe it as proven fact.

Urban Legend Big FootExamples of urban legends are:  Alligators in the sewers of New York; Facebook privacy notice (that by posting a legal notice on your Facebook wall, it will protect your copyright and privacy rights); Giveaway hoaxes (usually someone wealthy, like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg), and that Facebook will start charging for use.

handkerchief-aomAnother thing that has arisen is actually an old habit gone virtual:  Life Hacks.  Before the dawn of the Cyber Age, such tips and tricks were passed down through generations, or from one neighbour to the other.  Now in the global village in which we live, life hacks are taught to us by people in Moscow, Sierra Leon, American, Japan, Argentina, and everywhere in between.  You can learn how to peel an entire head of garlic in 1 minute (it works, too!); how to turn a tin can into a camper stove; 50 ways to use a plastic drink bottle besides holding liquid; how to turn drinking straws into mini sealed containers for travelling; how to use pop tabs for anything from keychain loops to picture frame hangers to jewellery, and a thousand other hacks for the kitchen, household, wardrobe and travels.

If you’d like to learn a thing or two, below are a few links to life hack videos on YouTube; I’ve watched each one, and found interesting tips myself:

48 Must-Watch Life Hacks” (23:00)

12 Brilliant Things You Can Do With Your Devices” (9:50)

40 Smart Repair Tips to Make Your Life Easier” (15:00)

There are hundreds more where those came from!

My point?  Appreciate the fact that you understand most (if not all) Cyber Age gibberish; check your facts and avoid passing on or believing urban legends, and enjoy the benefits offered by such modern teaching tools as life hacks, instruction videos and tutorials online!

9 Comments

Filed under Articles, Links to External Articles, Musings, Research, Science & Technology

Life, Calvin & Hobbes

Hi everyone!  In case you’re wondering, yep, I’m still here; real life has been busy, busy, busy!  By the time I’ve gotten time to write anything this past fortnight, I haven’t had the energy to do so.

I’ve been busy preparing my manuscripts and graphics for publication, in the midst of preparing and then sitting at a crafts fair for 2 days, selling my wares, and then bringing home a bug that stayed for a couple days as an unwanted guest.  I’ve also had more blood tests (all-clear on those, thank goodness!) in connection with the surgery I had in October; thankfully, the medication that I now take seems to have found an accurate balance from the outset, so that’s a relief.

In between the publishing process phases, I’m preparing my other books in various ways – adding new blurbs, etc., so I’m working with several checklists at once, and, I must say that the motivation is approaching “Christmas break” in my mind… it’s like teachers trying to motivate kids to focus in the week before holidays – ain’t happenin’ all that effectively!  But, just one step after the other, and I’ll get there eventually.  Before Christmas, that’s my only goal right now…

Speaking of Christmas, here’s a few Calvin & Hobbes cartoons to bring a smile to your face!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Articles, Cartoon, Humor, Musings

Face it

I’ve been thinking about faces recently; a friend of mine will be having reconstructive surgery on her face to restore the tissue and structure that was eaten away by a rare condition, and we were talking about the psychological effects of such a procedure, and the influence it could have on one’s own sense of identity.

After that talk, I did a bit of research online about the psychology of the face, and I found a series of photo montages called “Facial Expressions Reference Project” (just search that phrase on google images to see what I mean).  What I found interesting about that series is that, though they used the basic range of emotions such as sad, or amused, confident or embarrassed, nearly every person’s interpretation was different.  It highlights not only the differences of opinions when it comes to labelling particular facial expressions, but also potential misunderstandings that can arise from the varying interpretations of this key form of nonverbal communication – especially when in a cross-cultural situation.  For example, when I lived in the Philippines, I had to get used to the fact that shaking their head side to side meant “yes”, and wiggling their head up and down meant “no” – the wiggle was to make “no” less direct, so as not to lose face or cause the other person to lose face.

This train of thought led me to wonder what kinds of English idioms refer to the face; there are dozens of them:  You can have a long-, poker-, fresh-, or a straight face, or a face that would stop a clock, or conversely, traffic, or have a face that only a mother could love; you can be (not) just another pretty face, put on a brave face or be blue/red in the face, have egg on your face, or be two-faced.  You can face the facts, consequences, the music, time, or, let’s face it, you can be in someone’s face, lose or save face, show your face (or not), stuff it, fall flat on it both physically and metaphorically, and – well, the list goes on and on.

Below is a series of celebrity photos, in various characters; as a writer, I find it helpful to have visual references when describing physicality in the written word, and this fun montage gives a wide range to choose from.  Enjoy, and keep writing!

 

Actors in Character

Actors in Character.  Original source, unknown:  Pinterest

 

2 Comments

Filed under Images, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Writing Prompt

The Kintsugi of Life

I’m back!  My “loop” was successful, and I’m now back at home recovering, sans thyroid.  At the moment (due to the wound, bandage & internal bits & bobs), it feels like something’s strangling me constantly, but I try to ignore it…!  The hospital stay was mercifully short with a nice roommate and great care by the hospital personnel.  Now, I’m living on soup, testing the waters with vocal exercises, and resting my throat when it needs it – but need to challenge it as soon as the swelling goes down so that I don’t lose my vocal range.

When I let my friends and family on Facebook know what’s been happening, someone made a comment about the scar (hoping that it wouldn’t be visible long, for my sake); but I must confess that that aspect of the whole procedure was and is my least concern.  For me, scars mean that I’m alive; they mean that my body is healing itself.  They are a part of my history and have been instrumental in making me who I am.

The Japanese have a wonderful philosophy about the topic of scars:  Kintsukuroi (meaning “golden repair”) is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery using lacquer resin mixed with gold or silver.  They believe that when an object has been broken or suffered damage, it carries great meaning and history; its brokenness, when mended, makes it more beautiful.  The cracks represent events that took place in the history of the pottery and make it more unique by their very existence.  (Click here for a short but poignant video on the topic.)

In the western world, there is a shameful abundance of waste; if something gets broken, most people just throw it away.  But what if we were to adopt the Japanese mentality?  Chances are, we’d begin to look at the world around us through different lenses.  We would then begin to see the people around us from a different perspective.  Our modern media culture has become fixated on perfection (what they deem perfect changes over time; at the moment that standard tends toward the inane, the plastic, the uniform, and the anorexic, to put it bluntly); but this perspective can often blind people to the beauty of the unique and the diverse.

We should never be ashamed of our uniqueness; never be ashamed of grey hair, scars, or unique body features that make you who you are.  Eating right, exercising and treating ourselves with TLC are all that’s wanted; beyond that, we are what we are, warts and all.  We are all pieces of Kintsugi in the making, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Cracks just let your light shine through…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under Articles, History, Musings

Loops of Life

Roller Coaster Loops

Everyone’s got them; no one necessarily wants them:  Those moments in life when things go topsy-turvy and send us into tailspins.  I call them “loops of life” – like a loop on a roller coaster… they come up fast; you may dread the thought of it more than the actual experience warrants; and it’s over before you know it.

Life has thrown me a loop lately, and as it has affected, and will likely affect, my rhythm of posting blogs here for the next couple weeks, I’d like to thank you in advance for a bit of patience.

In the summer, I found a growth in my neck; I knew it was the thyroid gland, as I’d had one in the same spot 30 years ago; by the time life got back into swing here after the summer holidays, it had grown further; long story short, they found three large, benign masses which have completely consumed my thyroid gland – miraculously, however, they seem to have taken over its function and are working perfectly fine.  But it’s getting harder to speak, swallow, breathe, etc.  So, in 10 days I’ll get to check into a luxury hotel, aka the hospital, and undergo a 4-hour surgery; the surgeon will take her time, especially as I’m a singer and the vocal cords / nerves are extremely important to me, as you can imagine!

Since beginning this process, I’ve heard from so many people who are having (or have had) the same problem; it’s comforting to know I’m by no means alone in this, and others have come through it well and whole.  I may not post regularly for the next fortnight or so – but keep your eyes open!

Before the surgery, we’re going away for a much needed week’s holiday in Lugano, and are looking forward to it!  Our cats are looking forward to being spoilt by a live-in flat sitter, too, so it’s a win-win!

15 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings

Feeding the Right Wolf

Two Wolves

There’s an old Native American proverb about two wolves:  One is a black wolf, and the other, white.  The black wolf is everything that is bad, and the white one is everything that is good.  These wolves are constantly at battle inside each one of us:  Which wolf wins?  The one you feed.

This story has truth at its core, and we can apply this principle to any area of our lives:  Thoughts; diet; exercise; writing; speech; relationships; habits, and anything else you can think of.  Another adage comes to mind:  “Garbage in, garbage out” – what we feed ourselves (any part of our trinity, whether mind, body or spirit) is what will come out of us.  There are all kinds of sayings around this truth – roots and fruits, and all that.

Each one of us has a daily routine; it may vary greatly from person to person, but it’s there.  We all probably have habits we’d like to break; they could be things that are time- or energy-wasters, or habits like smoking or overeating.  I’d like to focus on the habits of writers.

Creativity, like caffeine, is a legal addictive substance; an addiction is formed from repeated applications (i.e. habit).  If we feed the right wolves, we will reach our goals, whatever they are, but if we feed the wrong wolves, we won’t – it’s that simple.  For some, it’s finishing the first chapter; for others, it’s publishing; for others, it might be collecting enough poems, artwork, or other creative forms until there’s enough for release (art show, cookbook, anthology, etc.).

Each creative expression has its own unique pair of wolves.  One common black wolf is what I would name “NEDs” – Negative Energy Drains.  It can be expressed through negative talk about yourself or your writing (whether its source is internal from a lack of self-confidence, or external from unsupportive environments or relationships), or a pressure placed on yourself (again, internal or external) to complete a goal based on unrealistic expectations.  Another common black wolf is “Ambiguity”:  As long as we don’t know what concrete steps to take to reach a goal, it’s difficult to move forward; as long as we allow ambiguity to feed, it will paralyze us.

In this scenario, the white wolves would be named PEFs (Positive Energy Feeds) and Preciseness.  Those might simply manifest themselves as speaking positively to yourself every time NED tries to speak or putting up positive post-its of where you’re going with your goals.  For the second wolf, define the steps needed – set yourself an appointment for the purpose of researching the steps, and finding concrete resources to help you reach your goals, then take one step at a time.  Keep that appointment.

Which wolf do you feed?

TwoWolves-black-white

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, Musings, Writing Exercise