Un-bullshitting.

Over the past 10 months, I have carefully examined the role of technology and social media in my life. On the balance, I have determined that most social media—Facebook, blogging, commenting on news stories, Snapchat and legions of others—is way too much work and actually denigrates an overall quality of life. I took a long hiatus from writing this blog, because doing so makes me feel vulnerable to crazy and pathetic people that “live” through their existence on the internet, rather than actually existing in “real” life. 

One of many changes.

About a year ago, my father gave me a stack of coupons for Harbor Freight. I had never heard of the store, but apparently, their schtick is giving away merchandise. Each week, the store publishes about a dozen coupons that entice potential customers to come in to the store and grab freebies. Curiously, I took the bait. Standing in a line of about 20 customers, all with the same free merchandise in hand (a multimeter, a small Philips screwdriver set, a package of 2mil drop cloths and a package of zip ties), bored out of my mind, I began to study the fellow standing in line in front of me. He had on a hat from a local school that had his first name embroidered across the side of it.

√ First name 

√ University student or grad, and university name

√ Approximate hight and weight 

He waited patiently, free products in hand, and wallet in the other. His wallet was open, so I could see both his license and Visa debit card.

√ Last name

√ Middle name

√ Home address

√ Bank (and if he had a Visa debit, that meant that his account is likely a checking account at that bank.)

√ Visa card number

√ License Number (and NYS License restriction B, which means that he is a contact lens wearer, because he wasn’t wearing glasses at the time.)

√ Date of Birth

He approached the counter, and the kindly older cashier (who was clearly having some difficulty with the archaic computer) asked him to type his phone number into the keypad on the credit card terminal.

√ Phone Number

That didn’t work, so the cashier asked him his e-mail address.

√ e-mail address

After the cashier entered all of his merchandise, the fellow removed the Visa debit card from his wallet, and swiped it. He chose to pay as debit (as opposed to credit) and I watched him put in his PIN number. I also noticed the work ID card that was in his wallet underneath his Visa debit card.

√ Workplace

√ Occupation

√ PIN for his debit card, and likely the same number used for withdrawing cash at the ATM.

That’s a huge amount of information to garner by a casual observation over the course of about 7 minutes. I didn’t look him up online, but a cursory search online will reveal more information like the names of family members, partners, ex-partners, and neighbors, and their ages. Facebook usernames (which are plainly evident in the web address for each and every Facebook profile), and scads of other data are available through a quick Google search (a company that also captures information about what I’m searching for, how frequently, and draws conclusions about me based on my activity… I’ve switched to Duck Duck Go who pledges not to track you). It’s a scary proposition to know that that information is not only bought and sold by companies like Facebook and other “data aggregators” to compile a comprehensive profile of our consumer behaviors, our propensity to make charitable donations, and our personal habits. I’ve said many times on this blog that we are not the users of social media, we are the commodity product that is used by giant corporations to make more and more money at the expense of our privacy. These same corporations have eviscerated our economy, our communities, and are changing the social fabric of our country and the world. Yes, social media provides a means to stay connected, and that’s a great thing… but at what cost? What good is staying connected if the means of doing so makes us lazy, disassociated consumers of the lives of our family and friends rather than active participants in the vivid tapestry of life that surrounds us. Our reliance on social media is translating into a twisted trope: helicopter parenting our own social lives, insulating ourselves from dissent, debate, and dimension, padding ourselves with simplicity, similarity, and safety. Meanwhile, we’re being stalked and used by corporations collecting data about us as they use our behaviors to manipulate us, destroy the commercial fabric of our cities and towns, and fleece us into believing our lives are “easier” as a result.

After some significant reflection, none of this is something that I want to contribute to.

Life is difficult, disorderly, messy, and complex. Simplicity, convenience, and leisure come at a cost. It’s time for me to stop blindly participating, and start actively engaging.

So, moving forward, you’ll notice a few changes to this blog:

Facebook has been iced. No more commenting through Facebook, no more publishing posts to Facebook. If you’re too lazy to check this blog from time to time, then you probably don’t deserve to read what I write.

Amazon links are no more. As Amazon continues to rot our consumer economy from the inside out, I have taken a 6-month hiatus from Amazon, and I’ve never been happier (look for a separate post about this soon.) 

Privacy is key. Feel free to comment. Remember that what you post in comments is available to the world… all the people that like you, and all the people that you don’t. Moving forward, commenting on this blog requires you to sign up for a WordPress account. I find WordPress and Automattic to be a reasonably responsible company. 

So, if you’re in, you’re in, welcome back. Bookmark this site and check back periodically. You can also subscribe by adding your e-mail address to the little “subscribe” box on the left. We won’t use your e-mail (or even look at it) for anything except to send you a copy of the newest post to this blog. You’ll find some thought-provoking writing, and less bullshit, and if that’s too much work, then it’s been nice having you as a reader.

Tile. A Disppointing Scam

A few years ago, I became interested in Tile, a little white tracking device that—in theory—helps you to locate and find lost items.

A little over a year ago, I bought four Tile devices through an offer that one of my credit card companies was running — I had wanted to try Tile for a while and was really excited to give it a go. The Tiles showed up in my mailbox, and that’s when the excitement evaporated and the disappointment set in. A year later, I’m more than convinced that Tile is a bit of a scam. Here’s why: The authors of the Tile website are really crafty and the language is parsed VERY carefully. What the descriptions actually say and what they imply are worlds apart. This isn’t a case of things hidden in fine print, indeed all the damning details are spelled out in clear (and large) text. A quick or casual read of the website implies that Tile can: “Never lose anything again.” However, here’s where the whole experiment becomes an exercise in semantics that rivals the intellectual slipperiness of any of my graduate-level classes on Deleuze. Like Deleuzian analysis, reading the Tile website requires excruciating and miserable effort to wade through bullshit and figure out just what it is that is really being said. Let me save you the effort: it’s never what you think it is. 

Let’s do a quick fact check the Tile website.

Front and center the Tile website shows the following graphic:

Now let’s take it step by step.

Never lose anything again.
False. This is a ridiculous and nonsensical claim antithetical to the main purpose of the Tile device. If you will never lose anything again, then why would you need this device. Patently, you will lose things. The implication here is that you will never need to search for things, becasue if you cannot locate them, Tile will help you find them, which incidentally, is also false.

Tile is a tiny Bluetooth tracker and easy-to-use app that helps you find everyday items in seconds.
True and False, but mainly false. Tiny: no. Bluetooth: yes. Tracker: no. Easy-to-Use: no. App: yes. Helps you: no. Find: rarely. Everyday items: no. In Seconds: definitely, positively, not.

Attach to anything. Designed with a convenient hole, easily hook onto keys or stick to anything.
Again, some really slippery wordsmithing here. Could you attach it to anything? Technically, yes. Does it sport a convenient hole? Yes. Could you easily hook it onto keys or stick it to anything? Yes. However, again the problem lies in the implication that by attaching the Tile to something, that you will be able to find it in the aforementioned “seconds.” This claim is patently false.

See it. Ring it. Find it.
See the last place you had it on a map and make it ring when you get close.

Here’s where the BS really gets mixed with mud. The Tile website provides several “use cases.” These include: Keys Finder, Wallet Tracker, Luggage Tracker, Remote Control Finder.

Again, the implication made by the Tile website is that when lost, Tile will help you to locate these items in “seconds.” This is untrue… and here is why:

Though the Tile website implies that you simply open the app and find your missing items, this isn’t at all how Tile works. The app associates a Tile device with a particular object. I put one on my travel backpack, one on my cat’s collar, and one on my keys. The other one remained in the box, unused. Within ridiculous proximity of about 20 feet of any of these Tile devices, I can see in the app that these items are somewhere within 20 feet of me. Where? Tile offers no clues, kind of like the childhood game of Warmer! Colder! … only Tile doesn’t even give you that much information, just a vague “warm…ish.” 

So, for example, let’s say you misplace your keys, Tile device attached, somewhere in your home… looking at the app tells you “yep… last I checked… your keys are at home.” But, the app gives you no clue as to where your keys might be. That’s a pretty major fail. The “Find my iPhone” app that locates my Apple devices is scary accurate and you can judge from the location of the dot, exactly where the item is in your home. This refined level of accuracy is definitely not the case with Tile.

This is where the “ring” comes in. Allegedly, you can “ring” a Tile from the app. I found that this worked about 8% of the time over the course of the past year. Sometimes I would be standing immediately next to the Tile-d device, but it was under a piece of paper or otherwise obstructed from view, but the ringing feature didn’t actually activate any ringing sound on the Tile itself. So, that, as far as I’m concerned is a major fail.

So, let’s say instead, that you lose something away from home… like your backpack or keys. Again, the Tile app will show you where it last remembers you having it. Now, that in and of itself is a significant problem, becasue the Tile app isn’t constantly in contact with your stuff. It kind of checks in from time to time, and let’s you know where it last remembers seeing it. That is only helpful if you never move. It’s the equivalent of looking for a friend in a small town. Someone might say, “yeah, I just saw her at McDonald’s… but that was about 4 hours ago.” Dashing over to McDonalds would likely not help you to locate your friend (unless she really likes McDonalds), becasue she probably moved since the last time she was spotted there. This is a MAJOR fail on part of Tile, and the part that I feel is most misleading. While you may be able to track some movements of a Tile-d item, the information is not real time, not linear, and not even sequential. Which makes the information not only random but utterly useless. 

Devices also need to be in range of a Bluetooth enabled device. That’s not clearly explained on the website, and means that if you are out to dinner and want to double check to see if your Tile-enabled cat is home or not, that you are out of luck… unless your cat has a spare iPhone sitting around that you have “shared” the Tile with. The only problem is that the “share” feature worked exactly 0% of the time for me when shared with family and friends. So, that was a major fail too.

So at this point, if a Tile won’t ring when I’m standing next to it, won’t actually help me to zero in on the location of a missing item, and can’t tell me where my item is unless I am right on top of it…what is the point of this product?

Allegedly, when something is *really* lost, you can mark it “lost” in the Tile app. That reportedly activates a network of other Tile users and borrows Bluetooth bandwidth and battery to scour the earth for your item. Keep in mind that these unsuspecting Tile spies would need to be within 20 or so feet of your item and have their app active (which most people deactivate, becasue it’s such a battery hog) to have any chance of finding your lost item. Then, once it’s found, you get a message indicating that Tile “last saw” your lost item in a specific location. Again, the location is incredibly vague, comes in hours after the spy app actually pings the Tile-d device and the information is all but useless. Without exaggeration, I tested this feature eight times in the past year, as I traveled from North America to Europe or from Europe to North America. Of eight times, I received two notifications that my “lost” item was located. (Hardly scientific, but enough to know that it doesn’t work.) The problem is that (despite my Tile app being active and working, and within 20 feet of my “lost” item), my lost items were reported “last seen” more than 6,500km away. So, needless to say, not very accurate and not very timely, and again a major fail.

To add insult to disappointment, after using Tile for 6 months, I received an e-mail telling me that my Tile devices were getting old and would expire soon. Apparently, the battery life is poor, and Tile de-activates the Tile devices one year after they are activated. This information isn’t prominently displayed anywhere on the website, and while its unrealistic to expect a Tile device to last forever, it seems like a bit of a scam to disable it exactly one year after activation. 

Not to worry, though, because the constant pop up notifications that you will receive on your iPhone (even when notifications are turned off for the app) will never let you forget that your useless Tile devices are about to be killed by Big Brother. 

So, in short, Tile is a great idea that comes up horrifically short on execution and perhaps a bit before its time. What Tile really strives to be is a GPS tracker AND locator and sadly it is neither, but instead a clever idea that grossly under delivers. 

My advice: hold off until the technology is actually in line with your basic expectations. 

Today, I became an e-resident of Estonia! 

Estonian e-residency card

I’m one of a very elite group of Americans (there are about 500 of us) that now holds e-residency for Estonia. Estonia, as some of you know, is my adopted home away from home, largely a product of my partner’s research activities there. Over the last eight years and seven visits to Estonia, I have come to love the country and its amazing history. The very short version is that Estonia has been inhabited for a very long time, by very resilient people who have worked diligently and seriously to maintain Estonian culture, despite odds that seemed constantly to the contrary.

Flag of Estonia

Whenever we mention Estonia to our North American friends, we get a blank look. We’ve had “the conversation” so many times, we literally carry around a little map showing the placement of Estonia and have a whole spiel all sorted out to educate our North American friends. The inevitable conversation goes something like this:

Person: Where? Astoria?

Us: No, Estonia. Astoria is a neighborhood in Queens, New York. When we were kids, it wasn’t on the map, it was part of the Soviet Union.

Person: Oh. (This is where the blank look intensifies.) So… you’re going to Russia?

Us: No, Estonia. It’s a little country on the Baltic Sea.

Person: Oooooh! The Balkans!
Us: No, the Baltic Sea. It’s just under Finland and next to Russia. (This is where we show the little map.)

The little map that we carry around to show folks where Estonia is.

Person: Oh, right. So you’re going to Russia.

Us: Actually, Estonia is a pretty cool place. It’s where Skype comes from!

Person: Oh wow! Yeah! I know Skype.

No joke… we’ve had that exact conversation about 10,000 times.

About 1 in 30 people actually pique their interest after “the conversation” and for the other 29, it’s their loss. Estonia is one of the coolest countries I’ve been to. Throughout the last five centuries, Estonia has been occupied: by the Swedes, the Danes (and in fact, it was in Estonian where the current Danish flag was “discovered”, the Swedes again, the White Russians—and then Estonia became independent—until it was invaded by the Nazis, then the Soviet Russians, and then again in 1990, Estonia became the first republic to cede from the United Soviet Socialist Republics, or The Soviet Union. Since then, Estonia has been free and amazing. Despite years of oppression, Estonians kept the Estonian language, culture, and traditions alive, despite the fact that all were illegal under 50 years of Soviet rule.

Estonians have a national tradition of song and dance, and in fact, won independence the second time through song (not a bad approach, considering that most countries earn independence through bloody wars.) The story is chronicled in the outstanding documentary The Singing Revolution.

As Estonia set up its new independent government, it had an eye on the future. It’s the only country in the world that doesn’t have a paper version of its constitution. It all lives online, and it makes for very interesting reading. Estonia is also the only country in the world to offer e-citizenship that allows e-citizens to start companies, bank, pay taxes, and fill prescriptions (among other actions) online. The idea is to foster creativity and help to secure a strong position for the future of Estonia as a home to entrepreneurs, inventors, and other creative people.

Estonian e-residency welcome kit

As a country used to doing business in a different manner, I am thrilled and honoured to be an e-resident and part of such a great society.