I Thync This Might Be Bullshyt

There’s been a little bit of curious excitement over a new product called Thync, a wearable module that is intended to reduce stress, induce relaxation, or energize through stimulation of the brain. Here’s how they put it:

Thync uses neurosignaling to activate specific cranial and peripheral nerves to influence this balance and shift you to a state of calm or give you a boost of energy in minutes. …

Neurosignaling is the coupling of an energy waveform to a neural structure (receptor, nerve or brain tissue) to modulate its activity.

Neurosignaling waveforms or Vibes consist of precise algorithms that bias activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so that you can enjoy a shift into a more energetic or relaxed state.

Why yes, in case you’re curious, I also think it sounds like bullshit.

Okay, maybe bullshit is too strong a word, especially since I’m not qualified to judge the science behind it. It wouldn’t surprise me if something like this could be expected to have some kind of relaxing effects, in a way that just barely stops short of a placebo effect. Heck, even I sometimes use those “binaural waves” apps on my phone, not because I actually think it’s manipulating my brain waves, but because it makes for good white noise when I just need to shut the world out and chill for a bit.

My guess is that, at best, Thync does something like that; distracting you enough with the fact that you have a svelte, expensive doohicky on your forehead that zaps you a little. If nothing else, it’s something to think about other than whatever’s bothering you.

Kyle Russell at TechCrunch tried it out, and certainly had some sort of experience:

While I was warned that Thync might not work the first time, a few minutes into my first session (using the Calm setting) I felt a wave of sluggishness pass over me. I had some difficulty putting words into a coherent question for [Thync CEO Isy] Goldwasser, and felt a strong urge to take a nap that lasted until I got home. While I may have cranked the settings too high for my first go, the impression I got was that it would be great for falling asleep, not de-stressing at the office.

There’s a big red flag for me right at the very beginning of that quote. Why woudn’t it work the first time? Either it’s “neurosignaling to activate specific cranial and peripheral nerves” or it’s not. Unless human brains have some sort of neurosignaling-callus that needs to be worn down first, and I’m going to assume they don’t, it should just work the first time and all subsequent times.

But how does one explain Russell’s sudden onset of sluggishness? The possible factors that have nothing to do with Thync are endless, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to me that the very fact (and, frankly, stress) of having a gadget on your head that you’re told is going to zap your brain would certainly cause you to expend some mental and emotional energy, and zonk you out a bit. Russell says that the device emits “a wavy, tingly feeling on your upper forehead and the front of your scalp” that “would definitely take a few uses before it stops feeling weird.” Again, this is what I’d say is “just short of” a placebo effect. Something is happening, but not what they say is happening.

Encouragingly, Thync posts an actual test it conducted on the product. However, from my admittedy strained and untrained gleaning of the results, it didn’t seem like the Thync product induced any states that were meaningfully different from “sham treatment.” There was definitely an uptick in test subjects saying they were more relaxed than not compared to “sham,” but nothing that appeared all that convincing to me, and certainly not spend-$300-on-a-cranial-dongle convincing.

(I’d post some images of graphs from the study, but they require permission to be granted for that, and whatever.)

And here’s another thing: It seems like what Thync’s CEO tells Russell at TechCrunch is a little different than what is being sold on the website:

During the demo, Thync co-founder and CEO Isy Goldwasser explained that the module wasn’t directly stimulating neurons in my brain (that would be too damn weird for me to try, to be honest). Instead, it uses tiny pulses of electricity to stimulate the skin at your temple, which then activates the instinctual fight-or-flight response in your brain to indirectly affect emotional response.

Well, there are lots of things that can stimulate skin and activate fight-or-flight, and most of them are free.

I frankly don’t understand the science or the published study sufficiently to make any kind of authoritative judgment, but it sure smells like some kind of ophidian secretion.

Righteous Irritation and the License to Bully

Yesterday, I tweeted:

Get really mad. Together.

Twitter.

Ha ha I’m so witty. Anyway, it’s an expression of my feeling of alienation from the mob-attacks that pass for “debate” on Twitter and other online outlets. Last year I put it this way:

There is plenty of argument online. But actually relatively little open disagreement. [It’s] really just agreement on the position that those other people (or that one poor dumb bastard) on the other side are wrong.

It’s people, astride very tall horses, agreeing at other people.

At Big Think, Jason Gots traces this phenomenon to annoyance, the power that being irritated by a person or an idea can have on us emotionally. And where do we go to vent our emotions? Twitter! Gots writes:

Irritation is a powerful force. It has the whiff of righteousness.

Think about how you feel when (if) you’re annoyed at a smoker, or the way someone drives, or how they dress, or how they parent. Admit it, you feel bothered by their wrongness, that a moral principle has been broken. Ugh, look at that person just lighting up like it doesn’t even matter. Ugh, look at that mother letting her kid behave that way. Most of the time, these things don’t even effect you. You just feel like they’ve violated something sacred rule even though it has nothing to do with you.

More Gots:

[Irritation] inspires dread in the meek. If you read old accounts of any society that eventually erupted in some form of ethnic cleansing or witch-hunting, you’ll hear people gossiping and commiserating about the annoying habits of the marginalized group, nodding their heads in agreement about the ways in which these people obviously don’t “get” the rules of society that are perfectly obvious to anyone with common sense.

Have you ever known that a romantic relationship was more or less over, as far as you were concerned, but couldn’t really justify a breakup with any ironclad offenses? They haven’t wronged you or cheated on you, you’re just done. So (and I know I’ve done this in my stupider days) you unconsciously begin to invent things that bother you about them, or the small annoyances that never mattered before suddenly become deal-breakers. Now apply that to one cultural, ethnic, political, religious, or any other identity group’s feelings toward another. (Android people can’t stand how snooty Apple people are. Apple people can’t stand how crass and tasteless Android people are. They are so annoying.)

Gots doesn’t just shrug it off, though. He wants us to stop it. And it’s harder than it seems to stop.

Words have power, and the line between opinion and fact is not nearly so clearly demarcated as it once was. So when your rhetoric suggests that something you’re saying should be completely obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot, you’re basically bullying people into agreeing with you.

Remember bullies in the classic middle and high school sense? Well I sure do! And they were always so annoyed by my existence. The fact that I was, well, the way I was, way over there, away from them, really irritated them. That feeling justified their ruining several years of my life. What I looked like, what I was into, the way I stood or sat or walked, it wasn't right, so I had it coming.

This happens all the easier if you, the hearer of a given annoyance, don’t know any better. If I’m an Apple fan, and I hear all this irritation with Android people, I’ll be pretty likely to share that opinion and that annoyance, even if I have no experience with Android or its users. If I know nothing about feminism, and a bunch of dudebros I follow go on about how annoying they are, what with their always asking for equality and whatnot, I will likely share this opinion of them whether I intend to or not.

Because you see I probably don’t know any better, and I certainly don’t want to be on the outs of my group, right? I can’t be sticking up for Android or feminism or whatever, because then I’m the one my group gets annoyed at. Then it’s open season on me.

Oh hey, it’s open season on Rachel Dolezal, isn’t it? We’re so annoyed and irritated that she thought it would be okay to just pretend to be black. She’s fair game. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why she does it, or what might have happened to her, or been done to her, to make her want to escape her identity, to turn away from her other life. Let’s make her feel even worse because we’re annoyed.

Arthur Cohen had an op-ed in the Times a few days ago about political hating, but it applies to all of these things. His advice:

Declare your independence by not consuming, celebrating or sharing the overheated outrage and negative punditry — even if it comes from those with whom you agree. Avoid indulging in snarky, contemptuous dismissals of Americans on the other side. And always own up to your views.

Imagine that.

Last Year's Crown Jewels are Still Crown Jewels: Old Flagship Phones versus New Mid-Rangers

2014's LG G3 and iPhone 5S Photo credit: Janitors / Foter / CC BY Unless you’re a smartphone power-user or obsessed enthusiast (like me), chances are you really don’t need to spend $600+ on a current-generation flagship device (currently speaking, phones like the iPhone 6 and 6 plus, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the HTC One M9, and the LG G4). Your needs, and far more, will certainly be met by “lesser” devices that cost far less. At Pocketnow, Adam Doud poses the question as to which category of device is your best bet if you’re not going for the latest-and-greatest – a current-generation mid-range phone or a previous-generation flagship?

This seems easy to me. You get the previous-generation flagship. (Almost always, and I’ll get to the exceptions in a bit.)

Doud himself leans toward a previous-generation flagship mostly for the fact that usually these have better cameras than mid-rangers, and that’s as good a reason as any. Doud is also right that, with the exception of Apple and Google Nexus devices, a year-old flagship is not guaranteed to receive major software updates for very long, and a more-recent mid-ranger may be maintained a little longer. But if you’re in this market, I’d say latest-and-greatest software features are also not your highest priority. Chances are, you just want a good phone that will perform well for a long time.

And that’s really why you want to err on the side of a flagship, even an older one. Yes, the camera is likely to be superior, but so is almost everything else about the device. The one exception might be internal specs, such as the processor speed or RAM. But the reason last year’s flagships were considered as such is because they were the crown jewel of that manufacturer’s lineup, and got the attention befitting a crown jewel.

In a previous-generation flagship, you’re going to get a device that was fussed over by the top designers and engineers of their respective manufacturers. One can assume the best components and materials were used, and they received the most attention to detail and optimization. As long as the device in question isn’t some sort of major blunder, it’s going to still be a tight piece of technology.

A mid-ranger is much less likely to be so. It will have been designed from its outset to be less expensive, meaning it will use cheaper components, and probably receive less TLC from its manufacturer (unless they specialize in this kind of device, like Asus for example). Corners are likely to have been cut wherever feasible. Yes, it may have comparable specifications, but if we learn nothing else from a company like Apple, we know that specs aren’t everything.

Here’s where it’s not as clear: Motorola starts its flagship Moto X at about $500, and sometimes less when they run a sale, which straddles the price divide. They also make highly-regarded mid-range phones (the Motos G and E) at low-range prices. Also, the OnePlus One made a credible claim as a “flagship killer” at the decidedly-mid-range price of $300-$350. It would be hard to go wrong with a Moto X, though the OnePlus One had some issues, hardware-related and otherwise.

So it’s not entirely clear-cut. But on the whole, I would almost always recommend a year-old crown jewel over a brand new piece of cubic zirconia. Case in point: The LG G3, which I've previously heralded, is now just such an old-news flagship, and a brand new one can be had for $400 or less, and it's an even better deal if you can get a used one in good condition. It’s still fantastic, it’s still powerful, and will remain so for a good long time.

(And I have a recommendation about where to get something nice that’s not $700.)

You're CPAPping it Wrong

A couple of sleep studies and an apnea diagnosis, and here I am in the midst of the CPAPpening. After the nasal mask failed to work out for me, it was time for something new. Tonight I try for the first time the nasal "pillows," which look like little blue earplugs or gummy candies that stick right on your nostrils. I recruited my boy, 5 years old, to help me figure it out.

At first, I was all, where does this tube go?

20150604_201718

That seemed to miss the point. Was there something I was supposed to be listening for?

20150604_201729

If so, I couldn't make any sense of it. So I brought the boy over, and I didn't trust what was going on in his head.

20150604_201634

And that's when it occurred to me that this was what this device was really for: learning more about what was in my boy's head! Through my nose.

20150604_201742

I'm sure this will all work out.

Amazon Threw Out My Stuff: Exiled from the Everything Store, Part III

And I'm done.

The saga of shame and betrayal that was my exile from Amazon took an uglier turn, as the company went from refusing to serve me as a customer, which they are well within their rights to do, to denying me my own property and even disposing of it.

You see, on top of being an avid Amazon buyer, I was also an active Amazon seller. I’ve been selling my used stuff on Amazon for as long as they allowed people to do so: CDs, books, cases, accessories, phones, laptops, everything. My rating was very high, and it was great for both me and Amazon. I got to make money on my old stuff, and they made money off of every transaction (more than they ought to, frankly -- and here's where you should be selling phones, by the way).

But when they closed my customer account, they closed my seller account as well.

Amazon offers the use of its own fulfillment centers for third-party sellers like me. The seller sends their merchandise to Amazon, and then it can be sold as part of Amazon Prime, and customers can get their free shipping and quick turnaround. It costs the seller a little more, but it can be worth it for the raw convenience of sending everything to Amazon at once, and having them deal with getting it to customers.

At the time that Amazon closed my customer account, I had eight or nine items still in Amazon fulfillment. Nothing valuable; a book, a couple of cases, a charging dock, headphone pads, stuff like that, which probably added up to about $50 worth of stuff, or so I guessed.

In order to get one’s stuff back, one is supposed to log in, and fill out a request to have it shipped back to you. But Amazon had shut down my account, which meant I couldn’t log in and make such a request.

Eventually, I got an email from Amazon’s seller program saying that I needed to specifically request to have my stuff returned or they’d dispose of it. I sent many, many emails and replies to various Amazon emails (many of which were to no-reply addresses, but most were not) to make clear the problem: You shut down my account and barred me from logging in, and therefore, I can’t log in to make my request. Please just send me my stuff to my address (which I provided, severally).

I never got a response that made sense. It was always some form response telling me the same thing over and over again: We won’t re-open your account, and please log in and request your stuff before we destroy it. It was maddening.

Finally, I got someone on the phone in seller services, and took part in what was one of the most absurd conversations I’ve ever had. (This agent was perfectly nice and even sympathetic, I should say.)

First, she couldn’t even find my account’s merchandise listed anywhere because my account had been closed, which shut it off from her view. I expressed how insane it was that Amazon was going to destroy my property without giving me any recourse to retrieve it first. It was a kind of theft, I felt. The agent said that somewhere in the finest of print were clauses about Amazon having the right to dispose of inventory if an account is closed or something, though she agreed that this was nuts and no one could be expected to know that.

Then she successfully tracked my missing inventory through the case numbers in the (many) emails, and listed off what there had been, which she said would have added up to about $35 in sales if all had been sold. I suggested that Amazon could at least compensate me for the items they were getting rid of without my permission. Then she rattled off all the seller fees that Amazon charges, including some I’d never heard of, and said at the end I’d be theoretically “owed” about $8. But, she told me, to even go through the process of transferring any money to me, it would cost Amazon about $10. The long and the short of it was that Amazon was getting rid of my stuff and there was absolutely nothing to be done about it.

She even suggested that under some ways of tallying it all up, I might owe Amazon 40 cents. “How will you be paying for that today?” she joked. Ha ha.

I believe personally that Amazon didn’t give me enough of a chance when they closed my customer account, though I also maintain that they had every right to do so. I am not entitled to do business with them, and they are not obliged to do business with me if they don’t think I’m a good customer. But it’s something else entirely for me to have entrusted my own property to them, and for them to block me from accessing it and then destroying it – particularly when my record as a seller was exemplary.

It wasn't much stuff, of course. Odds and ends that are of no real value to me beyond what I could sell them for, so I'm not "harmed" by this. But I do think Amazon is behaving abysmally in this situation, because it's simply not their stuff to do with as they please, it's mine.

After my call with the agent, I was sent yet another email, one asking me to rate the conversation, and indicate whether they had "solved my problem."

I clicked “No.” What do you think I got?

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 7.08.42 PM

So shall it ever be.

--

Once again, I’m not having comments on this post because I don’t feel like moderating them. Comments on the original post are still open. 

Mavericky Mars One

Image source.

Before getting into this, you might want to catch up with some of my previous writing on Mars One:

Okay, onward.

In an unfortunately puffy piece at The Guardian on the Mars One project, we do learn a couple of new pieces of information, which include the fact that a company called Paragon Space Development is under contract to build space suits for Mars One, and that Elon Musk has at one point expressed his willingness to sell his rockets to Mars One, but has no agreement with them (which Mars One used to imply), and Musk expresses only skepticism for the plan.

The rest of the piece more or less characterizes Mars One as a mavericky, ballsy adventure that, shucks, just might work. And it does give a sense of how the criticism of the project in recent months has only served to harden the resolve of its would-be astronauts. If any part of the Mars One scheme irritates me, it’s how it’s already tearing a rent in families and relationships over a voyage that almost certainly will never happen. And if any aspect of it disturbs me, it’s the cultification of the voyage that you can witness in the interviews with its true believers.

We also learn that the project has been almost entirely funded so far by angel investors (“30-odd rich individuals and three or four companies that don’t demand a return on their investment”), except of course for the money they squeeze from the Mars One candidates. (One bought a t-shirt!) The next round of funding, says the author, comes from the kind of folks who will expect a profit under a predetermined schedule. “The point at which Mars One can announce backing from these guys is the point at which we have no choice but to take it seriously,” the author writes, as though it’s a fact. “And that point, [CEO Bas] Lansdorp says, is close.”

Lansdorp says. He says a lot of things.

Lansdorp is still talking about “200,000” applicants, when that number has been revealed to be bogus, he’s still talking about technical limitations that “would be solved in time” with no explanation.

But look, I get it. When I first heard about Mars One, I very much wanted it to be legitimate. And who knows, maybe it will turn out to be, and I’ll eat my metaphorical hat. Or crow. Or my heart out. Whatever. And I agree with the author’s sentiment (never mind the association that does not exist between Lansdorp and Musk):

What Lansdorp, Musk and others have done is reopen a conversation that had died. Somewhere on Earth, right now, the first human to set foot on Mars is probably among us.

Now that excites me.

Frozen Worms = Immortality Around the Corner

Photo credit: Joneau / Foter / CC BY-NC

Cryogenics has long been the province of cranks, charlatans, and the easily-duped (I’m not a big This American Life fan, but the “Mistakes Were Made” episode is one for the ages), but its aims are right in my neurotic wheelhouse. I want the opportunity to extend my life as long as possible, but cryogenics was always a pipe dream, Captain America aside.

But hold on, folks. Because it’s not just enhanced World War II-era supersoldiers who can retain something of themselves after a lengthy deep freeze. Worms can do it too!

Here’s John Hewitt at ExtremeTech:

Two researchers, Natasha Vita-More and Daniel Barranco, have now proven for the first time that cryogenically-suspended worms retain specific acquired memories after reanimation. [ … ]

To do this, the researchers first trained the worms to move to specific areas when they smelled benzaldehyde (a component of almond oil). After mastering this new task, the worms were bathed in a glycerol-based cryoprotectant solution and put into to a deep freeze. When the worms were thawed, they remembered their job and moved to the right spot when benzaldehyde wafted in.

And this worked with two different freezing methods.

We clearly need to move on this. Fast. Defense of the homeland? The Mars program? Alaska? Forget them. Sell it all off, shut it all down, and let’s fund the shit out of this.

Then, as we continue to make Earth utterly miserable and uninhabitable, a select few of us can be frozen, and kept safe over the centuries until things, er, cool off. Then we’ll emerge from our slumbers, have all of our memories intact, and then, well, I guess we start killing each other over dominance and resources and mates and whatnot.

Wait, that went in a direction I didn’t intend.

Jettison the Brain it No Longer Requires (A Flashback to 2009)

Image by Nick Hobgood

In March of 2009, I discovered the perfect metaphor for the GOP in the animal kingdom. Now that the presidential race is getting going, and fools like Donald Trump and George Pataki and every other yahoo you can imagine is lining up for the big brawl, I thought it might be fun to revisit this six-year-old post, very much at Republicans' expense. (The original post itself is lost from the Web, but I found it in an old archive folder on my hard drive.)

Of course the references are dated (Bush was president, for one, and we still referred to the Tea Party as teabaggers), but I think the substance holds.

[Time-travel sound effects - March, 2009]

I am very much enjoying Natalie Angier’s witty science primer, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Little did I know that it would give me a brilliant insight into the decidedly nonscientific world of politics. Witness page 173, where she describes the curious behavior of one particular creature:

. . . the tunicate, or sea squirt, is a mobile hunter in its larval stage and thus has a little brain to help it find prey. But on reaching maturity and attaching itself permanently to a safe niche from which it can filter-feed on whatever passes by, the sea squirt jettisons the brain it no longer requires. “Brains are great consumers of energy,” writes Peter Atkins, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University, “and it is a good idea to get rid of your brain when you discover you have no further need of it.”

Now, am I crazy, or is this not the the perfect analogy for the modern Republican Party? After many painful years of having to “justify” “beliefs” and “policies” with “reasons” and “evidence” — all of which requires energy-consuming thought — now they have Fox News to tell them to have teabag protests for no discernible reason. The point was to be angry, not thinky.

Unfair? Okay, well, you can’t possibly argue with the sea squirt as analogous to the Bush presidency. Prizing the informational processing power of his “gut” over his brain, relying on instinct and faith over data and reflection. Bush (I assume) never physically ejected his gray matter onto the Oval Office carpet, but he might as well have. For a guy who slept as much as he did, you can bet he was looking for ways to conserve energy. What better way than to shut down a major organ he wasn’t using anyway?

There’s something sublime about this sea quirt metaphor. The GOP’s wholesale rejection of the intellect, their disdain for the educated, their anxiety over science, none of it because they are bad, per se, but because they have adapted to the environment in which they live. Finding that their brains were doing them no good whatsoever, that thoughtful, intellectual discourse was getting them nowhere, they hit the eject button and got Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and Glenn Beck. Now they need waste no more precious energy on building neurons and firing synapses. They are a miracle of evolution.

[End time travel.]

Demonizing the Point of View of a Delicate Snowflake

Photo credit: ImageLink / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Rod Dreher, who fears gay equality at a visceral level, is very upset about a lesbian couple in Canada who demanded a refund on their purchase from a jeweler when they discovered that said jeweler was displaying anti-gay signage in their shop. The jewelers acquiesced, and it’s all just too much for Dreher. It’s the end of all things.

You understand, of course, that this is not about getting equal treatment. The lesbian couple received that. This is about demonizing a point of view, and driving those who hold it out of the public square. Just so we’re clear about that.

Yes, let’s be clear about that. Happily, part of free expression is that it is entirely okay to demonize a point of view. (Better to demonize a point of view than a person or a group of people, right?) For example, I think Rod Dreher’s point of view is backward, paranoid, exclusionary, and archaic. I’m happy to demonize his point of view, because I think it’s a very, very bad one.

He goes on (and on and on):

I bought some olive oil not long ago at a tiny grocery store owned by an Arab Muslim immigrant. If I find out that the merchant supports ISIS, am I entitled to declare my jug of olive oil tainted, and demand a refund?

Yes!

Is a fundamentalist Christian permitted to send her osso buco back to the kitchen if she discovers that homosexual hands cooked it? Of course not.

Oh but yes! Yes they are. That’s the free market. Consumers can reject the goods and services they've been provided. That doesn't mean they always get their way, of course. The proprietors of these businesses are themselves free to say, “Get bent, you got what you paid for, now leave me alone,” and the matter can be settled however it needs to be between adults, between customer and business. Individual consumers are not public businesses, and can spend their money, and demand it back, as they like (again, "demand" doesn't always mean "get").  That means a group of individuals can also decide to use their economic power for political ends and refrain from patronizing a business run by those whose ideas they find abysmal. (Dreher calls this “the mob” because he doesn’t agree with them, but I’d bet Christians who do the same in any parallel circumstance would be exercising their religious freedom.) The businesses themselves are public, and have to play by public rules. You sell to everybody, or you stop selling.

And let’s be clear about this sign that offended these women. It wasn’t a refrigerator magnet in a corner somewhere with some flowery Christian message. It’s a big, honking sign that says in bold, charred letters, “THE SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE IS UNDER ATTACK” on a flame-orange background, right at eye-level for all to see, plain as day. It’s a declaration of hostility, an expression of overt enmity.

It’s not a mere “opinion” about musical tastes or tax policy, it’s a proud expression of bigotry. It is an idea that should be demonized.

Dreher’s title for his post is “Heads LGBTs Win, Tails Christians Lose,” implying that this is an unfair state of things, that the game is rigged (and that it should be 50-50?). But the “Christians” in his headline-scenario should lose! It’s not unfair, it’s just that Dreher-approved “Christians” (the ones afraid of gay people) are, in fact, losing. We win. Good.

As for Dreher, a man who’s so bizarrely terrified of gay people (if he were Russian he would consider voting for Putin for his "[defense] of traditional Christian moral standards") it’s laughable that he refers to others as "delicate snowflakes." I mean look at this from another post:

...the greatest threat to religious freedom in our present moment: the advance of gay rights. ...  it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the politics of religious liberty without discussing the pink elephant in the room.

He’s just about the most precious, fragile, feathery little ice crystal adrift in the whole cosmic flurry. It can’t be long before he just melts away.

Let's Build Our Own Gods and Hope They Like Us: Reservations about Transhumanism

"My fellow Americans..." Transhumanist philosopher Zoltan Istvan is “running for president.” No, he’s not a supervillain, but good-god-DAMN that’s a good supervillain name. Seriously, he’s not a crank, and he knows he won’t win. And I respect the transhumanist movement even if I’m not all the way on board. Here’s part of his platform:

I’ve only focused on one thing through it all—the same thing I’ve focused on with all my work for much of the last decade: I don’t want to die.

He’s already speaking my language! Tell me more.

Like most transhumanists, it’s not that I’m afraid of death…

Oh. Well, I am. Very much so. But please continue:

…but I emphatically believe being alive is a miracle. Out of two billion planets that might have life in the universe, human beings managed to evolve, survive, and thrive on Planet Earth—enough so the species will probably reach the singularity in a half century’s time and literally become superhuman.

This is where I run into problems with transhumanism in general. I think all things being equal, I could with very few reservations plaster the label onto myself: I feel very strongly about investment in technology directed specifically to the common good, and I believe that as the only creatures we know of who can contemplate our place in the universe, we have an obligation to overcome our burdensome meat sacks and aspire to become something more. And I love this part of his platform:

We want to close economic inequality by establishing a universal basic income and also make education free to everyone at all levels, including college and preschool. We want to reimagine the American Dream, one where robots take our jobs, but we live a life of leisure, exploration, and anything we want on the back of the fruits of 21st Century progress.

But this business about being “literal” superhumans within 50 years is an issue for me. Transhumanists espouse what they call an “optimism” about the future that sounds to me a lot like magical prophecy. Here’s Istvan again:

[T]ranshumanists … want to create an artificial superintelligence that can teach us to fix all the environmental problems humans have caused.

He might as well say he wants to ask space aliens to come and solve our problems with replicator technology, or he wants to pray to the angels to sweep away all our pollution with their fiery swords. This is not a plan.

Too often, when I hear the transhumanists look to the future, it sounds too much like they want us to build our own gods and then hope (fingers crossed!) that they, who are intentionally superior to us, will want us to somehow merge with them.

Look, no one wants an Immortal Robot Body™ more than me. Death scares me shitless, and the idea of transcending it is, I think, a highly worthwhile goal. But this sounds like something else. This sounds like an attempt to create gods where none exist. It’s becoming a cargo cult even though we know exactly where the cargo is coming from.

One Man's Blogspam is Another Man's Engaging Content

The truth is, folks, I don't maintain a blog purely for the joy of doing so. I do love to write, but one doesn't blog unless one wishes not just to write, but to be read. Even on a somewhat high-profile platform like Patheos, even coming with the cred of being the mouthpiece of a major secularist organization, and of having been the substitute-Friendly-Atheist a few times, this little blog simply isn't making much of a dent in terms of readership.

I'd like very much for that to change. There are surely lots of things I could do to make some progress: I could post more often, I could fashion my posts to be more in line with click-bait principles, I could write about things that interest a broader range of people, or conversely, write about things that drive a small number of passionate people nuts. But the fact of the matter is that I want to write what interests me, frame and express it in a way that reflects who I am, and do so as often as I am inspired to do so. Perhaps that mean I am an entitled and privileged. Go ahead, you can say it. You wouldn't be the first.

Given all this, the best way I have found to generate at least temporary spurts of traffic is to get my material posted to sites like Reddit or into active communities on Google+. But very often, these communities and subreddits and whatnot live by an ironclad "no blogspam" rule, which means simply that they don't want the authors of written content linking to their own stuff.

Which I get! I'm sure, given the opportunity, thousands of "bloggers" would clog up whatever feeds they could with their own material. That's spammy, and online communities are right to police this kind of thing.

But here's the situation I run into: I have a piece I've written and that I'm proud of, and I think it will resonate with a particular audience. I can go find the appropriate subreddit or Google+ community or what have you, and share it with them. But then I get a message from a moderator telling me that I've violated their rules against blogspam, that the post is being removed, and that I now risk being banned.

Now, if I made a habit of plastering my material willy nilly into these communities, they'd have me dead to rights. But is there no middle ground between never promoting your own material and spam? Shouldn't there be some allowance for an author deciding that a particular piece is relevant to a particular group and sharing it? It can always be ignored or downvoted if the community in question doesn't like it or isn't interested. Being immediately policed seems to me to be overkill.

Again, I appreciate and share the desire to keep unscrupulous self-promoters from sullying online communities. I have to think that when one of those people come around, though, it's pretty obvious, and that the occasional sharing of one's own material, when relevant, is equally obvious. But since I don't have that kind of community moderating responsibility, I could be missing something.

Maybe there's a better way, a way that allows me to do the work I want to do and earn the attention I think it deserves. Or perhaps that's the problem. Maybe it already is.

Beautiful, Beautiful Alienation: Walkmen, Phones, and (Not) Watches

Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was relatively late to the whole Walkman thing. It wasn't until I was in high school that I got ahold of my own portable cassette player, partly because I didn't discover a love of contemporary music until I was 12 or so, and partly because I never thought to ask for one. (I had pretty much exhausted my enthusiasm for my Weird Al tapes, they being pretty much the only thing I ever listened to.) I don't remember how I finally got one (a spare of my dad's? a gift from grandma?), but when I did acquire one, and armed it with Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless, my life was changed.

Suddenly, I could remove myself from the world around me, something I as a bullied, nervous, self-loathing teen was desperate to do. In place of the hurtful, disapproving world, I could immerse myself sensorially in a rich world of melody, pathos, cleverness, and imaginativeness. It's a cliché to say that "music saved my life," but it's no exaggeration to say that I was able to get through some of my most miserable years because I discovered the joys and the escape of music, enjoyed alone.

The Web and the larger online world have in many ways been the Walkman of my social existence. There was no Web to speak of when I was a teenager, but I did have Prodigy and later America Online (which I hear goes by another, shorter name now). These technologies -- which included things like chat rooms, message boards, email, and later social networks -- facilitated communication and interaction, yes, but from a much safer remove. There were layers of abstraction that conveniently hid most of who I was, and only let out the things I specifically authorized. I could speak, joke, argue, play, and even flirt, and never have to worry that I was being disqualified for my appearance, my clothes, or even how I simply held my body, all things that invited open mockery in meatspace. Like a personal cassette player, the online world let me enter a rich new world while also being blissfully alone.

Last month at The Awl, John Herrman wrote about "the asshole theory of technology," which I'll get into in a bit. He writes about the dawn of the Walkman:

Sony was worried that its portable stereo would be alienating. This turned out to be true. But the impulse to correct it was wrong: the thing that made it alienating was precisely the thing that made it good. The more compelling a gadget is, the more you use it, the more the people around you resent you for using it, the more they are pressured to use it themselves. (The fact that these devices are now all connected to each other only accelerates the effect.)

For me, I was already alienated. I needed someplace to be while alienated, a way to make use of my alienation. Music helped, and the advent of the online world was a significant leap (and iPods too). And then we got smartphones, and all of that and more became instantly available wherever I was, from a small rectangle in my pocket.

So back to this asshole theory. Herrman means to apply it to the likely success of the Apple Watch, as a new gadget for users to alienate themselves with, while simultaneously wooing the would-be-alienated:

This is the closest thing we have to a law of portable gadgetry: the more annoying it is to the people around you, the “better” the concept. The more that using it makes you seem like an asshole to people who aren’t using it, the brighter its commercial prospects. [ . . . ] It will succeed if it can create new rude exclusionary worlds for its wearers (this is why I wouldn’t underrate the weird “Taptic” communications stuff). It will succeed, in other words, to whatever extent it allows people to be assholes.

Maybe this is true for the Apple Watch, that the air of exclusiveness and elitism that it projects, and the in-crowd-only communications aspect of it, will drive its success. But the theory doesn't work for me in terms of personal stereos, iPods, the Internet, and smartphones. I don't care if they make me seem like an asshole (perhaps they do). I care that they get me away from all the other assholes, everywhere.

And a watch can't do that.

We Didn’t Find Any Type 3s Because There Aren't Any: Imagining Galactic Civilizations

Photo credit: longan drink / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA Where all the galactic empires at???

This is actually not a ridiculous question. Lee Billings, an excellent science writer who specializes in the search-for-aliens beat, had a piece in Scientific American last month in which he speaks to Pennsylvania State University’s Jason Wright, an astronomer who did a novel kind of search. Rather than listen for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, a la SETI, his team instead took the temperature of about 100,000 galaxies to look for evidence of Type 3 civilizations, defined as a civilization that harvests all the energy from all the stars in an entire galaxy.

For perspective, Type 1 on this scale, the Kardashev Scale, is a civilization that has harvested all energy and resources from its home planet, and a Type 2 being one that consumes all the energy from a star. (I think it’s been posited somewhere that the Federation of Star Trek is about a Type 2, the Borg approach Type 3 status, while we contemporary humans live in a Type 0.7 civilization or so.) One guess is that this would be done by use of a “Dyson Sphere,” encapsulating an entire star in some sort of structure that harvests 100 percent of its energy. A Type 3 would do the same thing, but to an entire galaxy.

You think you’d notice something like that going on, right? Right. And they can’t find any.

“On Kardashev’s scale, a type 3 civilization uses energy equal to all the starlight produced by one galaxy,” Wright says. That would equate to an infrared-bright galaxy seemingly bereft of stars. “We looked at the nearest, largest 100,000 galaxies we could find in the [WISE] Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] catalogue and we never saw that. One hundred thousand galaxies and not one had that signature. We didn’t find any type 3s in our sample because there aren’t any.”

Even if advanced civilizations do not build Dyson spheres, Wright’s null result also applies to any other energy-intensive “astroengineering” taking place at galactic scales.

I suppose this is somewhat discouraging, but it also isn’t all that surprising. My little brain can barely process even the imaginary idea of a civilization of such scope and power, so the fact that none turned up in a big survey doesn’t shock me. I don’t know if 100,000 galaxies counts as a statistically viable sample of all the galaxies in the universe, but I’d have to guess that if there were any Type 3s out there, they’d be so rare as to elude even such wide nets.

And, frankly, if there’s a civilization that’s powerful enough to eat up a galaxy, and close enough for us to detect it, I’d be a little worried that this civ might get an appetite for a Milky Way.

But Wright says they’re just not there, at all. Fine. But even if he’s right, it only rules out one kind of pan-galactic civ. There may be more than one way to rule a galaxy:

Drawing from Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quip that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” in 2011 the science fiction author Karl Schroeder coined an all-too-plausible reason for the apparent absence of aliens: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” In this view the future of technology would not consist of star-hopping civilizations spreading like wildfire through galaxies, disassembling planets and smothering suns, but rather of slow-growing cultures becoming more and more integrated with their natural environments, striving for ever-greater efficiencies and coming ever-closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. Simply put, profligate galaxy-spanning empires are unsustainable and therefore we do not see them. “SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products,” Schroeder has written. “Waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals—we merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.”

14782846905_fee65df786_oIf there’s anything about the idea of things like Dyson Spheres that doesn’t ring true to me as a prospect for future tech, it’s how utterly industrial it is. It comes from a time when what we thought of as high-tech was giant computer mainframes and huge, powerful rockets. Freeman Dyson came up with the idea before we even had Star Wars and Star Trek, which themselves imagined a future with behemoth city-like starships, gargantuan space stations, and near-instant terraforming of worlds (and, eventually, the hyper-industrial Borg). For the idea of a Dyson Sphere, we have a massive industrial enterprise, the ultimate public works project, with structures of presumably enormous size and power forming a lattice or shell around an entire star or galaxy, sucking up the energy and venting out the waste.

It just seems, well, a little low-tech, doesn’t it?

I can’t speak to its relative probability, but Karl Schroeder’s view of a an advanced civilization integrating with, rather than consuming, its habitat makes more sense, especially if said civilization has managed to last long enough to get to this advanced stage. Any civilization that’s been machining its way up the Kardashev Scale might be more likely to exhaust its available resources more quickly, as opposed to a civilization that emphasizes equilibrium over growth. In this scenario, tech is small, geared to consume as little energy as possible, and population levels are more or less static, and there exists no drive to be fruitful, multiply, and conquer.

For Kardashev’s sake, how would we distinguish these two lines of civilizational ascent? Perhaps the numbers (Types 1 through 3 and so on) represent a Kardashev Industrial Scale, based on production and growth, while the other is the Kardashev Integrative Scale (or the Schroeder Scale?) based on ecological equilibrium and cultural advancement, signified with letters (Types A, B, C, and so on, where we modern humans would be very much sub-A).

Of course, we’d never be able to detect civs advanced on the Integrative Scale, unless they wanted to be detected, or reached out to us themselves. And since a hallmark of their advanced state is their utter lack of waste, it’s hard to see why they’d want to.

Smug hippies.

The Mouse in the Machine: Scientists Make a Virtual Mouse Brain

Wallpaper_19

In Switzerland, they've got themselves a virtual mouse (like, a rodent that exists in a computer, not like a peripheral that controls a cursor), complete with a software reconstruction of a mouse brain. Remember how mere hours ago I was writing about how New Zealand's new law declaring animals to be sentient was tied, in my mind, to what we might have to consider in terms of artificial intelligence, or put another way, software-based animals? Well, it's all here.

Reuters reports:

Scientists around the world mapped the position of the mouse brain's 75 million neurons and the connections between different regions. The virtual brain currently consists of just 200,000 neurons - though this will increase along with computing power. [Scientist Mark-Oliver] Gewaltig says applying the same meticulous methods to the human brain, could lead to computer processors that learn, just as the brain does. In effect, artificial intelligence.

GEWALTIG: "If you look at the neurobotics platform, if you want to control robots in a similar way as organisms control their bodies; that's also a form of artificial intelligence, and this is probably where we'll first produce visible outcomes and results."

For shits and giggles, let's say this isn't in Switzerland, but in New Zealand. You know where I'm going with this.

At what point is that virtual mouse no longer "virtual," but sentient...sentient under the law?

Is it already?

Animals Declared "Sentient" in New Zealand: Hard Questions Sure to Follow

Now who's sentient?Photo credit: quinn.anya / Foter / CC BY-SA

New Zealand has passed an amendment to its animal welfare law stating that animals are “sentient beings,” and the amendment seems to strengthen some measures that define how or in what situation an animal can be used for various purposes, such as medical experimentation. That’s good!

Though it’s not clear from the bill itself (as far as I can tell) what it means by “sentient.” No language in the wording of the bill spells it out, nor does it specify which animals possess sentience. The little bit of bloggy news coverage I’ve seen (all of which might as well be copy-and-paste jobs of each other) suggests the simple definition of the ability to percieve things, having feelings, and the ability to suffer. That doesn’t help me, really. I don’t mean to presume that this hasn’t been flushed out by the relevant parties, I have no idea, but I sure as hell don’t think I could say for sure to what degree, say, a mouse feels or suffers versus, say, a chimpanzee.

Because there has to be degrees of sentience, right? If sentience were a binary thing, then we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands, with trillions of members of millions of species all now declared to have “feelings” and “perception” just “like humans.” So I have to assume that New Zealand is not now offering asylum to fruit flies or making illegal the squashing of ants. We can be mostly certain they don’t have “feelings” (like, I dunno, jealousy?), but don’t ask me whether or not they “suffer.”

I don’t mean to make light of this, truly. I do think this is a good thing, but it strikes me as vague and ill-defined. The group Animal Equality (equality? really? you sure?) calls it a “monumental step forward for animals,” and I think that’s overselling it. We’re not talking about personhood, but rather what sounds more like a general sense-of-the-government quasi-resolution kind of thing, saying that we all need to be way more mindful about how we treat the other animal species we share the planet with, particularly those we breed and harvest and manipulate for our benefit.

That stipulated, its very nebulousness may be its saving grace. By virtue of being vague and undefined, it may force some very difficult and very necessary conversations, questions, and debates. For if there’s a questionable practice that seems to inhabit a grey area, or something being done to an animal whose “sentience” is not terribly clear, this new law may spur some very crucial arguments. Regardless of how those arguments are resolved, the conversation about our fellow creatures is suddenly elevated, given more gravity. All parties, then, get the benefit of having thought harder and longer about something we’ve had the privilege to take for granted since we first started domesticating.

One small step further, if you’ll allow, because with this discussion I can’t help but be reminded of the hearing over Data’s personhood on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard tells the Judge Advocate General:

[T]he decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?

The bill specifies animals, so this line of thought is probably moot for the news at hand, but think of artificial intelligence. At what point to we consider a machine or some software to be capable of “perceiving.” Don’t they already? When do we consider them to be “feeling”? When they tell us? When do we consider them to be “suffering”? Ever? As long as that’s never written into their programming?

One day, and maybe one day very soon, we’re going to need some law for that. And unlike animals, the artificial intelligence might ask us for it.

The Digital Wins Over Digits: Our Tech Becomes More Valuable Than Our Bodies

Photo credit: Todd Jones Photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Because I'm morbid, weird, and a pessimist-fatalist, I often find myself thinking about which sense I'd rather lose if I had to: my hearing or my sight. During the time I thought I might make it as a singer-songwriter (that worked out), I obviously leaned toward keeping my hearing. Today, as the father of adorable children and compulsive Internet-user, I think I'd choose to keep my sight. Plus, if I were deaf, I would not need to hear my children whine about their dinner, which really places a thumb on the scale.

Speaking of thumbs! No wait, let me get to that in a minute.

I've also fantasized other forms of debilitation (again, pessimist-fatalist), such as which limb(s) I might do without if need be. Could I get by with one hand? (Sort of.) Would I be alright without ever being able to walk? (Probably.)

But these are all questions about what physiological aspects of myself I could do without. But there are of course parts of our lives we more or less take for granted that could be equally or more upsetting to lose.

For example, my dad (a musical genius whose brilliance is criminally ignored by the industry) is a cable guy, the good kind, and he's told me about customers who, after big weather events, when power goes out and water stops running, will do all they can to get their cable TV back before anything else. It's a troubling Maslovian flip.

That's another story though. Let's get back to the thumbs thing. Ready? Three, two, one...

Speaking of thumbs! There's this survey that came out recently from Cable.co.uk, a British website for understanding telecom options, and it reports that almost a third of respondents, 29 percent, said they'd rather give up a finger than lose their broadband Internet access. Another quarter weren't sure.

Now, I think the expected, conventional-wisdom response to this is supposed to be something along the lines of, "Oh, how awful/ridiculous that is, and how indicative it is of a social illness/disconnection from humanity/shallowness." But I bet you can guess what my response it.

Damn right I'd rather lose a finger than Internet access! No question. Hell, two fingers. As gruesome and tragic as it would be to lose said digits, and as much as I'd curse my fortune and make my wife nuts and drop stuff a lot, I'd still have access to and use of the great global network that facilitates my work, my creative pursuits, and the one means of connection to humans that I can actually stand. It's no contest.

I don't see it as an indication of some kind of personal or societal problem, but, if anything, it's a sign of incredible triumph for our civilization. We've managed to create something that, while it does not directly feed, clothe, or shelter us, is so plainly and massively beneficial that many of us would trade body parts for unfettered use of it. Good for us! Go us!

But look, I need enough fingers to use my big-ass phablet. I mean, let's not be barbarians here.

Photo Management on the Mac Just Sucks

Photo credit: blentley / Foter / CC BY-NC There are no good photo management solutions for the Mac anymore. Yeah, I said it! At least, I've seen none that satisfy the few but crucial needs that are specific to me. And it’s my blog, so I don’t see what else could possibly matter.

Here’s what we’ve got now. Apple has recently released the first version of its new Photos app for Mac, and it’s not working for me. First, it’s been developed with the assumption that you own at least one iOS device, and its syncing-through-iCloud feature is marquee. Marquee, and inapplicable to me as a happy Android user. This emphasis is not technically a "flaw," but I presume they’re aware that not all Mac users are also iPhone or iPad users. I also presume they just don't give a shit. And from all I’ve read, the iCloud syncing aspect of it is a black box. It allocates what photos live on your local hard disk and which don’t in order to preserve space, but not in any way that users have any direct control over. You just have to trust Apple to get it right. Ahem.

But seriously, it sounds like a time bomb of sadness to me.

That aside, how does it function simply as a photo management tool for my machine? Meh. It’s got some nice features, it’s clean and fast, and all that’s great. But its editing features are strangely tucked away. They’re very good editing features, but you can’t remain in an editing mode once you’ve finished with an individual photo. You can click edit, do your adjustments, save them, and then you’re booted out of editing mode. You can’t just advance to the next photo and keep working. I think that stinks. It’s a huge waste of time that serves no purpose other than Apple’s overall philosophical stance that normals shouldn’t even bother editing photos. You shot them with an iPhone 6 after all, right? They’ll be perfect anyway. Ahem.

Also, it began geolocating many of my photos, taken at home or close to home in Maine, as though they were taken in Afghanistan. I shit you not. A bug, of course, which is fixable, and we all know how good Apple is at fixing bugs lately. Ahem.

So I don’t like it.

I’ve migrated back to iPhoto, which I also don’t like, but at least it’s the devil I know. It’s godawful slow, and its editing features are sparse and clunky, but at least once you’re editing you can stay editing. But it’s also a black box, storing everything in a package file called “iPhoto Library” which you can technically crack open from the Finder, but you really shouldn’t.

There’s also Google+’s photos feature, which I really, really like, but it’s not a desktop photo management app, it’s a web service more akin to Flickr. There’s no file system, and everything is stored on the cloud. I love its editing features, I like the interface, and I like the stuff it does automatically. But it’s not an application on my computer, and it doesn’t manage my local copies. So that’s not it.

There’s Google’s Picasa, which I have switched in and out of at various points. It’s closer to what I like, giving you an eye to the file system your photos live in, but presenting them in a manageable and mostly-friendly way. Editing is very easy, and it’s pretty fast. But it’s also a little byzantine if you have a large library with photos spanning various directories, and it’s easy to get lost. It’s very hard to share outside of Picasa, and you can’t even drag a photo out of its viewer to do something with it outside the app.

Oh, and it’s been more or less abandoned by Google, despite the very-occasional maintenance update. It was intended as a desktop interface to the Picasa web service which, of course, nobody uses, and has also been abandoned. It’s a very old app, and it looks it.

There are more “pro” apps like Adobe Lightroom, but I don’t have the scratch for that kind of thing, and my limited dabbling with it and similar apps lead me to similar conclusions: Too complex for what I want.

Here’s what I do want. I want something that uses the existing file system as its basis, something that doesn’t tuck all the photo files away in a mysterious package that will explode if you touch it. I want to know what is and is not on my computer, easily and obviously. I want editing features that are easy to jump in and out of quickly. This one will be controversial: I want destructive editing, meaning I don’t want multiple versions of any photo I work on. If I change it, I want it changed, and not have other versions taking up space (save for temporary caches for those “oh shit I didn’t mean to do that” moments). I want the system to be mirrored on a cloud-based service so that I can use the app mostly full-featured from a browser. I want it to be easy to share to any social network or app I choose.

Nothing I know of does all of this. This doesn’t mean such an app-service combo doesn’t exist, but I’ve not found it. I’m sure a lot of my wish list betrays my age and the baggage of 90s-era computing, but again, this is my blog, not yours, you damned millennials. But you could say that what I want is a well-maintained, prettier Picasa-Google+ hybrid with free and open sharing capabilities.

This may be too much to ask in a world where both Google and Apple are doing all they can to lock you to their ecosystems through a mobile-first paradigm, where the phone is the primary actor in all things photographic.

I could maybe be happy just with circa–2005-era iPhoto. I know I was happier with it.

Exiled from the Everything Store, Ctd.

Much to my surprise, folks have been far more interested in my banishment from Amazon than I expected, and my post has generated enough discussion and debate that I thought I ought to clear up a few small points that I didn’t directly address, if for no other reason than some folks are making assumptions about this and that. Whatever, it’s not a big deal, but it can’t hurt to clear up some things. I did not intend to imply at all that I thought Amazon was in the wrong for closing my account. The post was meant to express my sense of alienation at the sudden turn of events, not a rant against Amazon. I mean, I’m not happy about it of course, and I wish they’d given me a warning before this happened, but it’s a business that they’re free to run as they choose. I operated under what I understood to be their rules, maximizing for myself what they allowed. And they didn’t like it, and they kicked me out. Shapow. That’s their right. I didn’t think I was doing anything unethical, though I have no problem with people who think that I was. I also don’t at all begrudge Amazon for doing what they did. I do not at all feel “entitled” to do business with anyone.

And as I mentioned, there was no warning. But, curiously, they did send me an email early on that I can only paraphrase as, “We see you returned a bunch of things, is everything okay?” To which I said, again paraphrasing, “Yes. Is everything okay on your end?” To which they replied, paraphrasing, “Yes.” I suppose now that their check-in was intended as a veiled warning, but it sure didn’t translate that way to me.

There’s been some noise in the comments about my hurting third-party sellers by returning their merchandise. If it helps, and whatever if it doesn’t, the only third-party devices I returned were those that were damaged on receipt or simply the wrong item. Two HTC One M8’s in a row arrived damaged, and the third was the wrong color.

Also, I think some people thought I was doing this in order to procure review units, to, like, write reviews. I mean, I do write reviews (well, more essays and reflections), but no, this was to find the right phone for me. That’s all.

And this isn’t a clarification, but some new data: I saw that there was a sale on a Kindle book I was interested in, and I assumed I couldn’t buy it. But on a lark, (remember I still have access to all the digital things I’ve bought), I tried, for shits and giggles, to buy it from the Kindle app on my phone. And it worked! I bought it! I have it now! I don’t know if that will last, say, past the expiration date of the credit card I have on file, since I won’t be able to update it since I can’t log in to my account anymore. But it’s a little something, I guess. And I guess my pre-order of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves will still go through. Maybe.

Oh, and I’m not having comments on this post because I don’t feel like moderating them. Comments on the original are still open.

Update, June 2: Nope, I can't buy Kindle books, and I can't get Seveneves from Kindle. Bought it on Google Play instead.

The Best Way to Buy and Sell Phones: Swappa

Let’s say you want to sell your used phone. Most ads you hear on podcasts will tell you to use Gazelle, and that’s fine. But you won’t get as much money for your device as you would if you sold it yourself. Let’s say you want to buy a used phone, either an older phone you can get for cheap or a newer device for less than something fresh from the manufacturer (or carrier store). You could go to eBay, but that’s very noisy and can be kind of shady.

You could go to Amazon, of course, for either of these things. I can’t, but you could.

But if you don’t want to go the route of Amazon or eBay or Gazelle, I think the best way to go is through a website I found called Swappa.

swappa_seal_200x176The idea behind Swappa is dead simple. People who want a device buy it directly from the person selling it. Swappa sets up a sales template for each item, asks for certain information about your device, and has you post pictures (along with an identifying code so a buyer can be sure the images are legitimate). The usual drill.

The cool thing is that there’s no worrying about what huge percentage a company like eBay or Amazon will take out of the sale. If you’re a buyer, you don’t have to worry about the markup. Swappa charges an extra $10 on top of every sale, and that’s it. The end. If the seller sets a price of $200 for their device, Swappa adds $10, and displays a price of $210 for the buyer. That’s it. Since these are usually fairly expensive items, Swappa presumes that sellers pay their own shipping, which of course can simply be factored into the price they’ve come up with.

And it’s remarkable what better deals you can get as a buyer, and how much simpler and fairer it is for sellers. I’ve bought and sold a number of devices on Swappa as I’ve gone through my great journey of phone-trials, and it’s been excellent every time. My only issue has been when a phone arrived with a single dead pixel, and I was able to come to a very fair agreement with the seller. Because you’re dealing with a single human being with no corporate barriers between you, you can make things work on a case-by-case basis.

Typical Swappa listing

It’s easy to find exactly what you want. You can browse by carrier or manufacturer of course, but you can also get very granular. If you are only interested in, say, a mint condition or better Moto X, unlocked, with a white back, a red front, and 64 gigabytes of storage, it’s easy to specify that with a few clicks. You can even subscribe to your wished-for item and get alerted every time a new one comes on the site. Yes, I have found browsing this site a little addictive.

(There’s another part of the site called the Boneyard, which I haven’t used, which is specifically for phones that might have some kind of problem, either straight-up broken or simply having a problem with the carrier. I can’t speak to it from experience.)

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So how do you know you can trust these sellers? Swappa of course has its own rating system, where buyers rate sellers on the usual criteria. But you can also link your Swappa account to your eBay seller account so that a buyer can see how trustworthy you’ve been on eBay. In other words, you get to bring your online-seller resume with you to Swappa. PayPal, the only means of paying for things on Swappa, has built-in buyer protections, and Swappa support pounces to address any issues that might arise. It’s been great, and almost entirely worry-free.

Even if I weren’t banished from Amazon, I’d be using Swappa for all my used device transactions (and new ones, for that matter, for often brand new items are for sale). It’s simpler, it’s fairer, and it’s just a little more human.

Exiled from the Everything Store

Ha, banishment! be merciful, say 'death;' For exile hath more terror in his look, Much more than death: do not say 'banishment.'

- Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene III

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What if one day you heard from some nameless representative at Microsoft, and they told you that you were no longer allowed to use any of their products or services? No more Office, no more Windows, and for that matter no Xbox or Minecraft. Or what if Google forbade you from using any of its services? It gets tougher, doesn't it? Not only would you have to use a different search engine, but no more Gmail, no YouTube, no Google Maps, no Hangouts, oh, and don't plan on buying an Android phone.

Even taking this out of the realm of the purely-digital, you can imagine how many walls you'd run into if, say, you were prohibited from using products made by Proctor & Gamble, or consuming anything made by Kraft or the Coca-Cola company. You'd find yourself constantly having to rejigger your thinking, and rule out items and services you'd never had to give a second thought to. Kraft foods, Google services, and all the rest, they were always just there.

Over the past few months, readers of this blog (all seven of you) will know that I've been experimenting with smartphones, on a long and emotional quest to find The Perfect Device for me. I would buy a phone, try it out for a bit, and if it didn't suit, send it on its way. Sometimes this meant selling again on eBay or Swappa or some such. But quite often, it involved buying devices from Amazon (either new, direct from Amazon itself, or from third party sellers on the site). And as you probably know, Amazon has a lenient and simple return policy – one of the many reasons I've been a delightedly happy Amazon customer since its beginnings in the 1990s – and I made liberal use of it. I would buy a phone off Amazon, give it a go, and when it didn't work out, neatly send it back within the allotted return window for my refund.

I did this several times.

And you know that when you have a new phone, you want to protect it, right? Especially if you might return it. So I'd often buy cases for my trial devices, sometimes more than one in order to try a couple out and see what suited me. The ones I didn't use, I'd return. If I returned the phone for which the cases were purchased, well, of course the cases would go back too.

Again, I would always return things in the condition I got them, and always within Amazon's return window. No lines were being crossed that I knew of. Though I used to joke, “I bet the folks at Amazon's returns department have a picture of me hanging up with a bullseye on it.” Ha ha.

A couple of months ago, I got an email from Amazon customer service telling me that they were closing my account, that I would no longer be able to make purchases from the site or purchase digital content. The reason: excessive returns. I had been exiled from Amazon.

It was dizzying at first. There was the internal flagellation I put myself through (Why couldn't you just pick one phone and be done with it???), and the embarrassment I felt (My wife will leave me over this). But the most striking feeling was that of alienation, of feeling lost.

I buy everything off of Amazon. Since it first came into being, I found excuses to buy from them over any other outlet. The reasons should be obvious: price, selection, customer service, speed and price of shipping, etc. Over the years those things have only gotten spectacularly better, from having the most books of anyone to having the most of everything of anyone. My wife and I have a Prime account, of course, because why wouldn't we? My Amazon wishlist is a sacred space for me, where I keep a carefully curated list of the things for which I pine.

I am also a Kindle aficionado. I have had just about every model since the second generation, and even owned the first Kindle Fire, and I kind of liked it! I own a glut of Kindle books that I've yet to even begin reading, and at the time of my exile, I had just gotten a Kindle Voyage.

But now, I can't shop on Amazon, not for phones, books, movies, music, gifts for my family, anything. I can't get free two-day shipping. I can't get hassle-free returns. I can't maintain my special little wishlist. I can't buy Kindle books, and I can't buy Amazon MP3s (which are usually priced better than Google Play or iTunes, of course). I can't stream Prime movies or shows. A powerful, robust hub of not just my online life, but my life, was now inaccessible. Like I said, it was dizzying.

I tried to make my case to anyone at Amazon who would listen: I'd promise not to return any more items, I'd agree to have my account specially monitored, I'd go on a temporary probationary period so they could see me on my best behavior. I wrote emails to countless Amazon addresses, I called on the phone, I chatted online with representatives, and I even emailed Jeff Bezos himself.

Here's part of the response I got to that email. I'm removing the person's name:

I'm […] of Amazon.com's Executive Customer Relations team. Jeff Bezos received your e-mail and asked me to respond on his behalf. [ … ] The decision to close your account is a final decision, and won't be considering further requests to reinstate it.

I realize you're upset, and I regret we've been unable to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we'll not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters, and any further inquiries on this matter won't receive a response.

We appreciate your understanding.

Regards, […]

And so there it is. I am exiled from the Everything Store.

In the grand scheme of problems one could have, this is certainly no crisis. But Amazon is one of those companies, like Google or Kraft, that entwines itself into your life to such a degree that you rely on it like it was a utility, like it was air. It's one thing to decide to wean oneself off of a given company's service, like deciding to avoid using Google or Facebook if you don't like their stances on privacy, for example. But to be kicked out, to have the door slammed in your face, is quite another.

Now, to be clear, Amazon hasn't taken anything from me. The Kindle books I own, for example, I continue to have access to. The same goes for music and movie content I've bought through them. Their system is smart enough, I suppose, to allow me the use of the things I rightfully own without allowing me to do literally anything else. But given the fact that I (finally) settled on a big-screened Nexus 6 for my phone, and given that I could never again purchase a new Kindle book, I quickly sold my Kindle Voyage. Why bother keeping it?

There are countless alternatives to what Amazon offers. Stuff can be bought anywhere. Alas, it means looking in lots of different places for stuff instead of defaulting to one site, and no shopping site is nearly as easy to use or as, well, familiar with me. But I adjust.

I buy books over Google Play, for now anyway. I'm looking at the latest e-reader offerings from Kobo with some interest, but it's a very grudging interest. (I could consider a Nook…kidding! I'm kidding. That's ridiculous.) The selection will be lower, the price will be higher, the long-term viability will be questionable. But once again, I'm not really wanting for anything. It's not really that big a deal.

But I can't help it. As stupid as it sounds, my feelings are hurt. This seemingly-benign juggernaut of the digital age has shunned me for an infraction I wasn't even aware I'd committed. The rest of the world will go about their online lives, breathing the air of Amazon, taking for granted that it will always be there. As they should, as it is supposed to be. But I'll be that one guy at the party who's allergic to everything he's offered. No, thank you, but I'm not allowed to have any. (Come to think of it, I often am literally that guy.) Whatever services or products Amazon might offer up, I'll be that one guy who doesn't get to play. And it feels crappy.

But it's also fine. It is disorienting, certainly, and I'm still working on getting all my digital bearings. I try to remember what Friar Laurence says to Romeo as the young lover panics and tantrums over his banishment from Verona.

Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.

And so it is. Goodbye, Amazon. I'll be moving on, now. Jeff, if you change your mind, you know how to contact me.

And hey, Kobo folks, I'd love to take a look at a review unit. I promise I'll return it.

UPDATE May 9:I've got a new post with some clarified points and a little tiny itty bitty smidge of decent news.

UPDATE: Lee Cutrone's artistic rendition of me outside Amazon HQ:

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Original unmodified header image from Foter.com