Amazon Is Stupid

I found out from a guy I follow on Twitter (the excellent Chicago Sun-Times general columnist Neil Steinberg, for the record) that Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, has a new book out.

This post isn’t about that book, although I’m gonna burn a graf or two here on a recommendation; the new book is called Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas, and I’m recommending it even though I haven’t read it yet and it doesn’t even come out for a few more weeks. Why? Well, because I read his prior books, Cod, Paper, and Salt, and greatly enjoyed each of them.

In case you can’t tell by the titles, he picks a single thing that is immensely important to human history and development, and then writes about the how and why of that importance. He’s a great writer, finding ways to work in all sorts of fascinating and interesting little human vignettes into these long-arc stories of the history of physical things. The books are highly entertaining, and I’ve learned a shitload I didn’t know about the topics from them. Go buy them.

That said, I want to bitch about, well… how I found out about this book.

You see… I’ve been an Amazon customer (don’t get me started on their evilness and how much Bezos sucks; they are, he does, but there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under Capitalism so it is what it is) since they were still just an amazing online bookstore. My first purchase there was in 1998 and, natch, it was a book.

I’ve since bought, let’s see… checks Amazon account

Jesus Christ.

I’ve bought, um, five hundred and fucking seventy books on Amazon since then.

Sure, some were gifts, but most of them were for me, me, me. There’s also been at least a few hundred books I didn’t buy on Amazon as well, given that I blew a few paychecks a year at Borders until they closed, and also was a steady user of the Chicago Public Library throughout this period, too. But, point being: Amazon has 570 points of fucking data on me regarding what kinds of books I buy, who my favorite authors are, etc… they have thousands of points of data on me if they’re tracking which books I’ve added to wishlists but not bought, which books I’ve spent time looking at the store pages of but then neither bought nor wish-listed, etc… and I’m sure they ARE tracking that data, too.

I bought each of the three Kurlansky books I’ve read previously through Amazon as well, just to be clear.

And yet… in no way, shape, or form, did Amazon figure out a way to say “hey smr, that guy you’ve bought all of his previous books from from us, usually immediately when they come out? He’s got a new one coming soon; interested?”.

This has happened recently with other authors, too. Authors I love, whom I’ve bought tons of books from Amazon by, and they have huge, important new works come out and I find out about them via sheer happenstance because Amazon’s algorithms are apparently as smart as a three-year old on a sugar high who just got kicked in the soft spot of the skull.

This seems kind of insane to me. Everybody touts these algorithms, that Amazon and Google and whoever can predict what we want before we even fuckin’ want it, yet the most reliable ads I get from them are, like, for toilet seats but only after I JUST FUCKIN’ BOUGHT ONE and in complete ignorance of the fact that modal number of toilet seats an individual purchaser on Amazon probably buys per decade is without a doubt: one.

You have way north of 50% of the data on my book purchases for the last two decades. You also own Goodreads, which I’ve been fairly well-integrated with for years, too. You know exactly how much and how quickly I’ve read each of these fucking books, because I read them in your apps or on your e-reader. So you know if I’ve punted on a given book after 20 pages, or if I’ve devoured a given author’s huge door-stopping brick of a book in a frankly embarrassingly short period of time right after it comes out.

In short: YOU KNOW WHAT BOOKS I LIKE, AMAZON.

So why in the fuck don’t I get an email or something from you, or a prominent ad or placement on your website during my basically weekly visit to the book part of your website telling me that this guy has a new book dropping very soon?

You’ll happily show me books by authors I’ve never read before but who’ve written books even vaguely related to subjects I have read books about before.

You’re MOST likely to show six books on exactly the same exceedingly narrow topic I just finished a book about, even though you have my ENTIRE ADULT READING HISTORY and therefore could easily determine that one thing I don’t do, ever, is read two books about basically the same topic back to back, ever, ever, EVER. That’s NOT HOW I READ. AND YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT ME.  As much as I may love the topic of Roman governorship during the Principate era, nobody who ain’t paid professionally to study that shit is gonna read TWO books on that topic in the same year. Yet the most prominent placement I get when I go to the History Books section of your website while I’m reading a book on that exact topic will be six more books on the exact same goddamned thing.

But a brand-new book from a guy whose every other book I’ve bought the instant it came out and read basically immediately in a very short period of time? All of which are facts you have in your data about me?

THAT book, you never tell me about.

Apple Music figured this out, and I haven’t been using that service even a year yet. Every week I get an email that basically says “you have albums by these artists in your library, and they all have new shit out this week. Click here to get it, enjoy”, and it’s sorted with the artists I have the most of and listen to the most upfront.

But this is somehow beyond Amazon. The closest they can get is “hey man, you bought a mattress last week, want six more right now? Are you sure? Are you SURE SURE?!?!?!? Okay, that’s cool, don’t buy one now, but we’re going to show you nothing but mattress ads across the entire internet for the next, say, oh, six weeks. That cool? Cool”.

I don’t get it.

Nationalize Facebook

This Cambridge Analytica brouhaha is finally waking some people up to the idea that Facebook, in its current form, is probably a Bad Thing. This realization is GOOD, but I don’t think the assumed follow-up of: “delete my Facebook/shut Facebook down” is the best possible one. I say this because, whether or not anyone admits it, there ARE things people like about Facebook. Let’s tally them up:

  • Staying in touch with friends, family (many of whom we otherwise wouldn’t keep up with at all)
  • Getting the news (well, that it gets people to read news who otherwise wouldn’t at all is a good thing. The KIND of news they’re reading is mostly bad; more on that later)
  • Seeing funny videos (let’s be honest; this is what most of us are on the platform for, and that’s a fine END but FB as its constituted today is a terrible MEANS for this purpose. That can be changed; more on that later as well)
  • The dopamine hit of getting likes on our own posted content (we’re all whores for the likes, and I don’t expect anyone to apologize for or bemoan that fact)

What’s bad about FB:

  • The ads (some are useful, most aren’t, and it leads to the following bullet, which is much, MUCH worse)
  • The invasion of privacy that leads to our FB activity being turned into a ridiculously micro-tuned and precise profile of who we are and what we like that is then sold off to advertisers in a fashion we, the end user, have absolutely no visibility into, much less control over (and the stated protections FB takes on our behalf, allegedly, are routinely violated without penalty, as seen in, again, the current Cambridge Analytica mess)
  • Their algorithms are essentially designed to drive you to look at ever-more extreme versions of the shit you actually like (YouTube has this problem as well, but way worse). So, if you’re mildly in favor of gun ownership and click on and engage with every post that supports gun ownership, eventually your feed will be filled with people demanding that any gun control advocates be gassed in camps. This isn’t ideal.
  • They’re destroying every media outlet in existence by forcing them to pay to reach their users on Facebook even though FB does nothing to create the content that people actually want to see. Why the fuck should The Onion, for example, have to pay FB to promote its own posts when FB users clearly want to share The Onion’s posts on their own on a wide scale, for example? It’s not the Facebook part people want, it’s The Onion’s content. Yet the only person making any money on that transaction is Facebook. Fucking ghouls.

The vaunted Market offers no solution here, as it demands constant growth and Facebook is running out of new conquests to gain. Effectively every American who’s willing to use the service already is. So they have to up the average user’s engagement instead. Which they do through increasingly shitty ways. Sure, there’s still a few billion Third Worlders who can be enticed to join FB but they don’t really have any money to spend so they’re not that valuable to FB’s actual customers, who are the advertisers, so the engagement thing has to take precedence. Why on Earth FB can’t just hit a stable state of making billions of dollars reliably every year instead of being forced to grow by the insatiable maw of Mammon is something Capitalism pimps will tell you Is Just Because That’s The Way It Has To Be, but whatever, it’s going to lead to FB’s utter destruction the way things are currently going.

So: What can be done here? Some options:

  • Facebook charges users so it can rely less on advertisers
    • This ain’t gonna happen; FB still gets waves of its dumber users reposting terribly artifacted GIF memes claiming FB is gonna starting charging $5.95/mo. or something for access and THEY AINT GONNA PAY FOR THIS NO WAYS NO HOW and, well: I believe them. So FB knows this is a non-starter; one of the most-impossible acts in business is to start charging for something you originally gave away for free, so this idea is stillborn.
  • Facebook offers a Pro tier so that those of us who really can’t stand the ads can opt out of them
    • Yeah, no. FB makes more off of the ad profiles than it could ever charge even from ALL of its users, much less just a willing subset. And those of us with the disposable income and the willingness to pay for an ad-free Facebook are precisely the people Facebook’s advertising overlords most want to reach. So this, too, is a non-starter.
  •  Facebook gets increasingly user-hostile to the point that people just stop using the service. Remember mySpace? Yeah, me, neither. It can happen, but again, that’s not the goal I want. I want FB to be friendly and usable for its original purpose, not destroyed entirely.

The answer that comes to me to square all of these circles is: Nationalize Facebook. Facebook can serve a social good in providing communication channels for people who would otherwise be isolated. This is an increasingly huge health issue in the United States (and all developed nations), so the government providing an easy way for people to stay in better contact with each other would be a Good Thing.

The nationalized Facebook can also have all of the ads, tracking, etc., stripped right the fuck out of it. Fund the infrastructure and support costs out of taxes, like all necessary social services should be funded. Brands can fuck off, nobody ever signed up for Facebook out of a burning desire to have eight different Internet Mattress companies badger you six dozen times a day to buy a new bed.

But what about all those awesome cat videos and recipe smashups that you so joyfully consume all day on your feed now, how would you get them? Good news! It’ll happen the old-fashioned way (by “old-fashioned”, I mean the way it worked like a whopping five years ago); people will see shit on the greater, open Internet that engages them enough to want to share it. They can put a link in their feed on public Facebook that doesn’t containerize that content WITHIN FB itself, to where only FB can monetize it, but gasp instead you’ll click the link and it’ll take you to the ACTUAL CONTENT CREATOR’S WEBSITE. Where they can choose to monetize with ads, a paywall, or not, as their choice decides.

What a fucking idea, eh? Solves the current, vicious problem of Facebook cannibalizing the business of every company that actually makes the shit that people want to see, saving the media industry from its continuing consolidation into bland, cross-marketed mush for like four different companies. Would allow all the great indies that made the early/mid-00’s Internet a real fun place to be and do things on. A win-win.

“But… but… without the algorithm, I might run out of stuff to look at! What if my friends are being kind of quiet one day?!?!?!”

That would be good for you. Staring at a feed all day isn’t healthy; oh, there’s nothing new or interesting in your government Facebook feed? Great! Go do something else instead! It’s an opportunity! Come back tomorrow!

You’d have an easy place to go to see what all of your friends are up to and even engage with them if you so choose! I’m ambivalent about letting brands be part of it at all; if someone truly wants to see what, I dunno, Wendy’s or the Los Angeles Clippers have going on, sure, let them have a strictly opt-in-only gov’t FB account that people can choose to like and follow if their lives are sad enough. What they WON’T be able to do is pay in any fashion to promote their content into the feed of anyone who didn’t explicitly choose to see their shit. And we would make them pay heavily for the option, which would also help pay for the system’s upkeep.

I mean, we REALLY need to find a way to rollback advertising’s influence on our lives and choices. Everybody thinks they’re impervious to advertising, but the science proves: you aren’t. This shit affects everybody. It’s disfiguring the synapses of a whole new generation of children right now in ways we’re not even gonna realize for another decade. So, a government-owned Facebook would allow us to strip that horrible aspect of it right out of the system entirely or, in a begrudging nod to America’ raison d’etre (selling shit nobody needs to people who can’t afford it), we allow them to participate, but at a high-cost, strictly-regulated way. If it’s not worth it for them, great, they can fuck off and nobody gets hurt. If it’s worth it to them, they can pony the fuck up.

Think back to the mid-aughts when FB broke out of its .edu ghetto and really became mainstream: If you’re old enough, you remember that people signed up for Facebook long before it became the algorithmically-controlled, ad-laden cesspool it is today. I genuinely liked it when it was new-ish and its primary purpose was to show me a chronological list of what my friends were posting, with some static ads at the side of the feed that were obviously ads and separated as such and therefore basically ignorable. And, wow, that year or two where I reconnected with folks from my past, many of whom I had genuinely wondered about and wished I could reach out to in the years before Facebook, those were downright magical (I know this isn’t going to make any sense in like 30-40 years when everybody will have been used to being able to stay in touch with everybody at all times with ease from birth but man, it was really something for those of us who didn’t grow up that way). There’s no reason, other than capitalism, that it can’t go back to that and just be a modern version of the USPS, used by people to just stay in contact and maintain those human connections necessary for people to be healthy and happy.

We’ve got to get internet-enabled algorithmic advertising the fuck under control, it’s murdering us, and it’s making everything the Internet makes that could be cool actually suck. Since FB is the dominant single-point of entry for everybody’s use of the Internet these days AND the vector for the worst of the advertising malevolence, nationalizing the former so we can eradicate the latter seems to me to be the wisest course.

Plus, who doesn’t want to see Zuckerberg dance at the end of a noose?

I’m Just Not That Into You

So, some asshole at our Ohio office blind-forwarded a call to me this morning so I answered it, thinking it was a co-worker. It was, instead, a sales person. My first “not interested” was polite, but accurate to the situation and the product she is selling. The next two “not interested”s before finally hanging up on her were increasingly less polite. Just now, I get this email:
 
Shawn,
 
Thanks for speaking with me this morning. I know you did not have time for my call this morning, so maybe email works better for you. I know you currently do not have any hiring needs about your team. That’s great, and I am glad to hear you are all staffed up. I would love to swing by either way, just to quickly introduce myself to you and learn about what skillsets you usually hire for. Are you free sometime this week?
Thanks in advance! Hope you have a great week. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Sigh.

Now, mind you: I’ve never been in Sales. I have a conscience and a morality system, so that employment track has never appealed to me in the slightest. That said, I sympathize with what must be the grinding, “what have you done for me lately?” millstone nature of their jobs, in which they’re not allowed to coast on that one cool major outage-ending hack they came up with on the fly three years ago like, um, some of us.

But, fuckin’ c’mon. This isn’t a torrid college romance or something. I’m not that into you. Fuck off, accept the left swipe, and move on before you trigger my incredibly petty revenge instincts and I start hunting you down on LinkedIn and telling every single connection you have what a clingy, unethical shitrag you are.

Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey

Babylons_AshesA solid entry in the series, but starting to strain the suspension of disbelief that the same six-seven people are constantly at the center of these epochal, shattering moments for humanity. So, on that note, I’m glad that they’re moving into the “final” trilogy of The Expanse with the following book, Persepolis Rising.

As for THIS book, it brings a generally satisfactory conclusion to the story of Marcos Inaros and his Free Navy’s rebellion against Earth/Mars/OPA. I’m basically just glad to see Marcos go away (spoiler, but c’mon, you knew it was coming) because he’s a paper-thin caricature of an evil bad guy who was never really developed much beyond being a necessary plot agent. His background with Naomi was rather insubstantial, his relationship with their child almost Darth Vader-ian in its comical abuse… what he did to Earth is genuinely disturbing, and I almost wish they spent more time dealing with the effects of the attacks, but the background info we get via Avasarala does a pretty good job of conveying just how fucked things are.

That said, the fact that the 1300 new worlds and many new colonies that we know are out there spend this entire book basically out of sight entirely is distressing; I get that we have to settle our home solar system’s story here, but Jesus Christ do I hope that the final trilogy takes place amongst these new worlds already (I know the first book is already out and thus I could already know if that’s what’s going on, but I’m saving the entire final trilogy to binge on once it’s all released, inshallah).

So, while not quite as cool as the first trilogy (Marcos is no Miller in terms of being Holden’s primary foil), Babylon’s Ashes does a solid job of fulfilling the usually-difficult mission of wrapping up the middle act of a series. If you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, I doubt you’ll not enjoy this entry as well.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

IstanbulI’ll be blunt: this book is a goddamned triumph.

I liked this book so much that I read all 800 pages of it even though the e-book had a glaring processing problem that caused it to insert a space after every double-f in the text (and some other cases I couldn’t pin down a precise cause for). So, every time like “offered” was in the text, which was a surprisingly large number of times, it showed up as “off ered”.

This was AMAZINGLY distracting. And normally the sort of thing that would cause me to bail out and wait for Amazon to fix the copy or something, but not in this case. The book, from Page One, was just too good.

Admittedly, I’ll basically read anything even tangentially related to the Byzantine Empire. But even if you don’t particularly care about that narrow topic, say you’re just a “history buff” in general, this is the sort of work you absolutely should read.

Why? Well, Ms Hughes pulls off the herculean task of integrating classic history of the “which ruler sent what general to fight which enemy for what reasons” type, with the more modern aspects of “and how did that affect the culture, economy, mores, religion, etc., of the common man/woman/eunuch/slave of the polity?” type, AND does it all with a measure of style and competence that few authors are able to pull off successfully.

The book moves roughly chronologically through the “Three Cities” of the title; starting with the ancient Greek polis of Byzantion, then moving through the long epoch of the Roman/Byzantine Constantinople, then wrapping up with the world capital of Ottoman/Islamic/Turkish Istanbul. For such a long book, it moves remarkably briskly, helped along by economical chapter lengths and a vibrant writing style that generates that almost novel-esque sense of “just one more chapter” that few works of non-fiction ever achieve.

While firmly a history book, each chapter tends to start off with a wonderful and personalizing vignette from the author’s own experience of researching for that chapter, situating the historical time about to be discussed in the modern age, which really helps pull the reader in and serves additionally as just great color. It also forces the reader to occasionally consider the randomness of history at time; sometimes your ancient relic becomes the still-venerated Hagia Sophia hundreds of years later. Other times, you’re an equally-stunning ancient mosaic buried in the basement of a kebob joint behind a cell phone store. Such is fate.

VERY few histories give any nods to these also-rans of importance, and that Hughes does in this book jarred me into thinking for a bit about the caprice of history, the undeniable fact that what we today consider important about the past may not have been what the past considered important about itself, and that so much is left to the random chance of what managed to survive the millennia between a building or work of art’s original period of importance and the reignition of interest in that original period by a much-later time. Basically, how many Michelangelo’s “David”s are we missing out on today because nobody cared three hundred years ago and repurposed something beautiful into a roof for a barn?

It’s this effect of the book I enjoyed most; at times I would read something that would force me to put the book down and just let my mind wander down a path it never had before, to consider some arcane detail of 1700’s Constantinople that I hadn’t thought of.

The breadth of knowledge Hughes shows here is also commendable; being able to write authoritatively about how an ancient Greek polis organizes itself politically is typically an entirely separate discipline from say describing in detail the personal politics of a reform-era Ottoman Sultan’s harem. She handles both, and all of the other disparate topics that come up in a history of this breadth, with aplomb.

Bottom line, this book is just a delight. If you like good history, read it. If you’re a fan of anything Byzantine or Ottoman, read it. If you like just plain good writing, read it. It’s got that kind of cross-genre appeal few books pull off without being “lite” in their treatment of the topic, an accusation that absolutely cannot be laid at Ms Hughes’ feet here; it is that rare bird, the Serious Work of History that is also an absolute joy to read. It gets my highest recommendation.

News Is Not Something We Should Consume Every Hour: A Modest Proposal

You know what I think would massively improve everyone’s life?

Restrict Facebook and Twitter to something you can only interact with for about 45 minutes in one chunk in the morning, and another one hour chunk in the evening, per day.

That’s it. You can go balls-deep on the same nonsense you do today, but only in those two chunks.

Why those two chunks?

Well… think about how we used to consume news. You read the morning paper and/or flipped on the morning news show while you got dressed, or threw on your AM station of choice while you commuted to work.

Then… you generally did not consume any more news for the rest of the day until you got home, in which case you’d watch the evening news over dinner or the 10 o’clock news before bed.

There were occasional changes in this routine; say you were going out for drinks with friends after work. This generally meant that you would NOT RECEIVE ANY NEW NEWS INPUT WHILE YOU WERE OUT. Like, AT ALL. And nobody gave a shit. You’d catch up with the world tomorrow.

So, if I were allowed to do what was proper and nationalize Facebook and Twitter and regulate how they operated, my very first mandate to them would be: hard account time usage locks. You could start your first 45 minute chunk whenever you want, but, once it starts, it runs out in 45 minutes, whether you use it or not. You cannot pause it, it does not roll-over. When it is done, there will be a mandatory one hour minimum gap before you can start your second “evening” chunk of usage. And, again, once you start that one hour, it runs out 60 minutes later, no matter what.

Kid started whining about something and you had to step away and lost your evening hour? Oh well, start fresh tomorrow, you’ll live.

Had to work a late night and never got to start your evening news dump? That’s fine, there will be more news to suffer through tomorrow.

Running late in the morning, didn’t have time to pop open Twitter and catch up and which women they’ve banned most recently for daring to tell someone who said they wanted to rape their mouths to fuck off, while simultaneously also allowing 127 different Nazi accounts to demand you get in an oven? Guess what? That’s right: you’ll live. Catch up during your evening hour. Or even tomorrow.

Get the gist here? It’s not healthy to be tied to the news 24×7. The news media has zero interest in telling you “today’s basically fine, there’s nothing you need to be concerned with, go on with your day, citizen”, even though that is often the case.

Even when it’s NOT the case, such as now since we live in a Trumpian Geohell Late Capitalist Dystopia That Will Not End Until We Are All Gig Economy Serfs Or Dead, the human spirit simply cannot survive a diet of constant news refreshing throughout all waking hours. Yes, the President probably did or said something absolutely awful within the last hour. No, there’s nothing you can do about it, so there’s absolutely no benefit to knowing about that thing RIGHT NOW as opposed to in your next morning or evening News Time Allotment Chunk.

I really think this would be one of those social goods the government needs to get on top of, like banning smoking or cracking down on dads driving kids unseatbelted in the back of the wagon after six-seven scotches at a family dinner party. Nobody benefits from letting the media make us feel terrible all of the time, always. They just know they can wire our brains to want constant stoking of fear and/or pleasure, and they’re increasingly effective at that since we can now all be reached by them all of the time always, which, in retrospect, was a TERRIBLE fucking idea that I wish I had not spent my entire career trying to make possible 😦