Eggs and Scam

“Egg and Bacon;images
Egg, sausage and Bacon;
Egg and Spam;
Spam Egg Sausage and Spam;
Egg, Bacon and Spam;
Egg, Bacon, sausage and Spam;
Spam, Bacon, sausage and Spam;
Spam, Egg, Spam, Spam, Bacon and Spam;
Spam, Spam, Spam, Egg and Spam;
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam;
Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and a fried egg on top and Spam.”

The above is the menu bawled out by Terry Jones playing a waitress in a 1970 Monty Python restaurant sketch while speaking to ‘Mrs. Bun,’ a customer played by Graham Chapman—who emphatically retorts, “I DON’T LIKE SPAM!”  It seems that Spam, a canned meat product of dubious biological origins, was readily available in Britain during World War II, when rationing meant that many other less processed meats were not; thus the derogatory comment about the unwanted ubiquity of ‘spam.’

The term has of course subsequently come to mean any unwelcome, permeating internet messaging.  Although no one is quite sure precisely where that morphed usage began, its Pythonesque source is undisputed.

I mention this curious bit of etymology because this blog was brought down by a ‘brute force’ onslaught of spam two weeks ago, and the blitz continues even now, despite various efforts by myself and the good people at myhosting.com, where this blog ephemerally resides.  These messages are cloaked in language meant to convince me that the writer has actually read and much admired my post.  They are also riddled with links, and apparently poorly translated from Chinese, if the number of surviving Chinese characters is any indication.

It’s a new, and infinitely more pervasive form of scam that in the past would have manifest simply as, say, a ‘contractor’ knocking on your front door to offer a spiffy new surface for your crumbling driveway, or a well-dressed man accosting you downtown one night, telling an elaborate tale of losing his car, then his wallet.  I’m invariably given to wonder just what it is that motivates these obviously very capable, skilled people to pursue these nefarious practices, at such laborious length?

‘Money’ is of course the answer, that greatest of all motivators within a society where money may not always buy happiness, but where it most certainly buys status, power, creature comforts and pleasure, but then I’m given to note that people as determined and accomplished as these perpetrators could obviously earn money in less objectionable pursuits.  So why do they choose the scam as employment, why a vocation with only negative consequences for the ordinary, often less able scammee?

(More specifically, in the case of modern-day spam, it seems the goal is more links, with the attendant increase in search engine profile, which is of course to say the goal is money.)

‘Easy money’ might be the next answer; it’s a pursuit with greater payoff-per-hour than other less damaging endeavors.  It’s an essentially sociopathic activity, taken up by individuals who simply don’t care about the consequences for others, so long as it means money flowing to their own pockets.  And I don’t think the practice is then pursued by only those inherently conscience-free; I suspect there’s an incremental opportunity-reward process at work in the corruption of these scammers.  These folks simply find themselves one day in a position where they know they are doing no good for anyone, but where retreat to moral legitimacy is now difficult and costly.

As a younger man I aspired to making the world a better place, in the long term if not daily.  These days my ambitions may have retreated to a position best articulated by a wise friend of mine: “Do no harm.”  If each of us could simply get up each morning, then manage our day without causing any damage to others or the planet, the world would immediately be a far, far better place.  If the spammers would just change the menu, the internet café would be so much more enjoyable for all us customers.  Sadly, as another less wise but no less accurate friend of mine likes to say, “It ain’t happenin’.”

 

 

 

The Social Good

Aaron Sorkin‘s screenplay for The Social Network is, for my money, the very best of recent years.  Nothing better has been written (or at least circulated in movie form) since its release in 2010, and, prior to that, it’s the best since 2004’s Sideways.  Moreover, Sideways was able to operate freely within the unrestricted field of fiction, building upon more overt, invented characters.  The Social Network takes real people and history as its starting points, and turns a story without much visual dynamism, or exciting events for that matter, into a tale with great resonance for our age.

images-7It begins with a scene between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend from his Harvard College days, setting up what I think is the central question of the entire movie: ‘Is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole?’  I don’t mean to be flip or personally demeaning with this articulation, since I think the question encompasses far broader implied questions, all the way out to, ‘Is Facebook an evil force?’, or even, ‘Is the internet of overall benefit to humankind?’

Some have suggested that Zuckerberg so ardently pursued development of ‘The Facebook,” as it was then called, in a piteous attempt to overcome his nerdish status with his college coeds.  I don’t see this; Zuckerberg may not have been the Brad Pitt of the 2003 Harvard campus, but the screenplay is after a more nuanced, moral examination of his motivations and character.  As it adroitly points out in its final evocation of the Beatles tune, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” Zuckerberg saw the commercial and power payoffs possible in the expansion of Facebook from the get-go, and he so vigorously pursued expansion above-all—forgoing numerous opportunities for any early cash-in—because of that.

He and his Facebook honchos would disagree of course.  They had more altruistic goals in mind all along, they would claim, although no one should object to a hardworking entrepreneur seeing eventual financial gain from his efforts.  No, Facebook set out to positively change the world, to make our society more transparent and open, more supportive of the individual citizen.  The cause continues even today, with various Facebook campaigns purporting to ‘end loneliness,’ an admirable aim indeed.  As Charlie Chaplin once wrote, loneliness is “the theme of everyone.”

And in many ways Facebook has succeeded in changing the world.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a new medium now, serving almost one sixth of the world’s population, becoming the equivalent of what the telephone was to my generation.  My parents were never so generous, but I remember well the clichéd image from the 60s of the teenage daughter who had to have her own telephone line, such were the extended hours she spent in phone conversation with her friends each evening.

Zuckerberg has said that, “You only have one identity,’ and that may be true now, but it wasn’t always so.  In the past, it was far easier to reinvent oneself, if one needed to, by simply leaving town.  As others have pointed out, unlike the teenage girl’s phone conversation, your Facebook profile is neither passing nor private; there’s no more leaving the past behind if you’ve been a regular updater over the years.

But the change has not of course been evenly or fairly applied.  Just as with the industrial revolution, the accumulation of capital in the hands of the leading entrepreneurs of the day has occurred concurrent with many people losing their jobs just as many others land new ones.  One telling example pointed out by Jarod Lanier is Google Translate which has steadily poached from the work of air-breathing translators, progressively improving itself on the backs of these labourers, to the point where many of them are now obsolete.  And we may be sure no royalties were paid for the millions of translation samples pilfered silently, anonymously.

One of the more interesting moral questions posed in The Social Network script is whether or not Zuckerberg was guilty of stealing the idea for Facebook from that inherent in a software scheme brought to him by the Winklevoss twins, a couple of his Harvard cohorts.  The courts eventually said he was, and those cohorts too were then set for life, but Zuckerberg’s stated defense against the charge is particularly revealing: “I didn’t use any of their code!”  If only the moral question involved can be that narrowly defined.

The digital revolution has brought many benefits to many people, but again, just like the industrial revolution, there are painful adjustments involved, and those capitalists at the top of the new economic order will not be easily swayed to ensuring that they always do the greater good.  They will need to be restrained at times, on issues of privacy for instance, and no matter how fervent Mark Zuckerberg is in his belief that he is changing the world for the better, the change is neither guaranteed nor uniform.

 

 

 

 

 

Rich and Famous

Back in 1968, Andy Warhol notably said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”  Back then, the gates to fame were securely guarded by the sober keepers of what was referred to as ‘mass media.’  Few had access to any form of media beyond a ‘photocopier,’ and so it took great skill or achievement, or spectacularly bad luck or choices to gain a remote audience of more than a handful.

images-6

I think of Michael James Brody Jr., who in 1970 announced he would be giving away one million dollars, and who was then of course immediately engulfed in media attention, including an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he prophetically sang a less than distinguished version of Bob Dylan’s, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”  (Proving that opportunistic might be a more accurate descriptor for the mass media of the day than discriminating.)  Indeed, Brody quickly faded from the public eye, committing suicide in 1973; his life a sad comment on Warhol’s original pronouncement.

These days anyone who can turn on a computer has access to an international medium, and the average teenager on Facebook has more than 500 ‘friends’ providing an instant audience.  The average 22-year-old in Britain has more than 1000 Facebook friends.  Certainly it amounts to a ‘network’ of sorts, encompassing plenty of people who can’t be considered friends in any genuine sense, but who nevertheless, as the YouTube slogan formerly suggested, allow the individual to resemble a minor-league ‘broadcaster.’

Numbers still count of course.  Google Adsense does not come sniffing around any blog without a serious number of daily clicks.  (Google makes searching for an accurate take on this number remarkably unproductive.)  So when it comes to money, big dogs still rule the kennel, and in that sense not much has changed.  But in other important ways nearly everything has changed.  Now any ordinary mortal can ‘share’ everything from the breakup of her most recent relationship to, famously, unwisely, his participation in last night’s riot.  And with these changes, the very conception of privacy seems to have morphed for current 20somethings.  (The average 50something has roughly 50 times fewer Facebook friends than the 20something.)  Any smart phone now knows precisely where we are at all times, and, if we wish, it will happily notify all our friends of as much whenever they happen to be in the neighbourhood.  More ominously, if Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble is right, facial recognition technology will soon advance to the point where whomever—the government, your employer, your husband—will be able to search for you wherever security cameras may have observed you, which is just about everywhere, isn’t it?  The prospect represents a virtual paradigm shift in our public/private lives.  As Pariser, writes, “The ability to search by face will shatter many of our illusions about privacy and anonymity.”

Personally, I’ve never quite grasped the attraction of fame, at any scale, whether it be via The New York Times or Facebook.  Money, sure; it’s highly convenient.  Power, again sure, if you’re able to contend with its corrupting capacity.  Fame can obviously facilitate these other, more ostensibly desirable ends, but fame in the sense that you won’t be able to go out in public without being recognized, that strangers might approach you, looking for some sort of buzz of interaction—the very idea that anonymity will be gone for you—I just don’t see the payoff in that.

In June of 1968, Valerie Solanas, a marginal figure in Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘Factory’ scene, tried to kill him.  She very nearly did, and Warhol had to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life.  Maybe it’s just my perverse take on things, but the attempt seems to be the apogee of the dark side of fame.  A murder attempt is obviously not the sort of attention anyone needs, but then, the need for widespread attention seems to me to be something all of us should regard with suspicion.  As David Bowie has suggested, “Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.”