Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What I Learned Using "Alternative" Tech

Regular readers know that I recently decided to use alternatives-to-Google. I am not boycotting Google, and I am not so naive to think that other tech products don't have the same ultra-surviellance-you-are-the-product problems that Google has. I just feel like, if tech companies are going to be the man-behind-the-curtain while we live out our little Oz-lives, wouldn't it better to have a few of them rather than just one? So -- you know, the one couldn't rule the world?

Two practical steps I've taken are 1) switching my search engine to Duck-Duck-Go and 2) deleting Google maps on my phone. Oh yeah -- I also disabled location on my weather app, when I read that weather apps sell data location and I came home one day after shopping for physical shoes and was inundated with shoe-related web ads. I know: whatever. But also: creepy.

So: what have I learned so far?

1. People have a lot of opinions about other people's technology choices. 

This starts with a long story, so bear with me. As regular readers also know, while I often take the Greyhound bus between Toronto and Waterloo, I decided to experiment recently with the GO bus. Specifically, in this case, I took a 7:20 am bus from Toronto to Bramalea, where I would change to catch a different bus to Kitchener terminal, where I'd get a local bus to Waterloo. This schedule has a "timed transfer," which means that the bus in Bramalea is supposed to wait to leave until after the bus from Toronto has arrived.

When I got on the bus in Toronto the driver got up in front and said, "Is anyone going to Kitchener"? I raised my hand. As he acknowledged me, his face fell. "OK, he said, I'll have them hold the bus for you. There's an accident and long delay on the 401, so we're likely to be quite late."

As we started off, I sat in the pre-dawn darkness digesting this information and fretting about my responsibilities. If we were going to be late, should I ethically tell the drive not to bother, that I'd just catch whatever bus I could? But they only come every hour. How late would we be? This is the kind of small stupid thing that I can really get myself into an anxiety about, so I was thrilled when a guy, Mr. X we'll call him, got on at the next stop and said, "I'm going to Kitchener. They're going to hold the bus, right?" Out of my hands.

The trip ended up being epic and complicated along multiple dimensions. We were quite late. At first, the driver couldn't get ahold of the Bramalea drive to ask him to wait. At the last minute, he did, but the Bramalea bus had already left the stop, so we had to catch up to him along the service road. We were admonished "Do not run to catch the bus!" which I guess is because they're afraid people will fall. Then between Bramalea and Kitchener, an even more massive car crash had actually closed the highway, and our bus, along with a million other vehicles, got off and crept along the side streets.

As we'd made our bus connection, I had briefly engaged Mr. X in conversation about our situation. Turns out he was making this trip for the first time as well. Didn't know where he was going, was heading to some kind of business conference thing near Kitchener. He asked me for directions. I didn't know. He asked me what I taught at the university. I told him. He leaned in for follow up convo. I put my headphones on.

At something like 11:00, when we'd all been trapped on this bathroom-less bus together literally for hours, Mr. X asked me if I had data on my phone, and I told him yes, and he asked me to look up the location of his event, and I said why don't you just borrow my phone and look up whatever you need to. And he took my phone -- an iPhone -- and he stared at it, befuddled.

"Um," I said, "are you looking for the browser or the maps program?" And he said, "Google maps." And I said, "Yeah ... I don't have Google maps. You can use the Apple maps, or a browser." And he looked up, and -- honest to god -- started lecturing me on how Google maps was better than other maps programs, including Apple maps. He had a friend in tech. He knew all about it. There was research. Google was better. Way better. I'm sitting there, looking at this guy, a stranger to whom I have just lent my phone, a profound act of trust and -- he is fucking lecturing me?

I didn't tell him I was engaged in a complicated non-boycott. I didn't tell him I knew that Apple is just as bad as everyone, but that it didn't seem in the same world-domination business as everyone else which is one reason I feel OK using it. I just stared at him, and, eventually, took my phone back.

I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but it's just a relatively dramatic one. Often I'm in conversation, and some question or problem comes up, and I'm like "Oh, I'll look it up," and enter into the search bar and  ... hmm. And I say to my friend or acquaintance, "I can't find it..." and they're like "Wait, you can't find it? Really?" And I start to explain, "Well, you see, Duck-Duck-Go ... and etc. etc., ..." and they look at me like "What planet are you from again?

2. The surveillance bubble is the surveillance bubble

I am constantly taken aback by my search results on alternative search engines. On Google, I search for a philosopher by name, and I see a philosopher. I search for a Toronto bar by name, and I see a Toronto bar. I search for health and science info, and I see help sites and scholarly sites.

It's not like that out in the search wilderness. You type in a philosopher's name, you see a million links of athletes and celebrities and random people with Instagram accounts who have the same name. You type in the name of a Toronto bar, and you see a pub in Idaho. You search for health and science info, and you get some site like "mystichealthhealing.com"

It's bracing. I mean, intellectually, I always knew that Google was shaping my results to tailor them to me based on the vast data about me that they had at their fingertips. But seeing it in action is something else. For one thing, it makes you realize your part of the world is way smaller than you think-- a salutary lesson that probably most of us could stand to have reinforced every day. For another thing, it reminds you that the bad things about Google -- the infinite tracking, the knowing your favorite brand of toothpaste -- is essential to the good thing about Google -- the knowing just what you were looking for.

This means the conflict between convenience and privacy is an essential one. There's no magic world where we get the one without losing the other. It's always going to be a trade off. The surveillance bubble that tells you what you want to learn is the same surveillance bubble that keeps you trapped in the world of your own information.

3.  Google is a really good search engine.

Sometimes when I really need to find something, I go to the Google search page. It works amazingly well. I guess we all knew this, but still.

If they could ratchet back the dreams of world domination, and stop trying to make entire "smart" neighborhoods in cities I care about, Google and I might be able to get back together.

In the meantime, though, not finding the things I'm looking for is not really that big of a deal. Sometimes, I ask people, and we chat. It's nice.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No Post Today Because Grading

No post today because I got overwhelmed with grading and some other things. For some food for thought, however, here is a photo of a sign I first noticed a couple of days ago, in the Toronto downtown bus terminal. Note that this is the only elevator, and bathrooms are on the bottom floor. As we've discussed before, there are many mysteries to the Toronto bus terminal (update tho: one escalator is fixed). But 3-4 weeks with no elevator? I can take the stairs, but what about all the people who can't?


Monday, October 16, 2017

A Personal Perspective On Public Transit Commuting In The GTA


 As we've discussed before on this blog, I take the bus. If you're in the mood for a light-hearted and ultimately somewhat life-affirming post, may I suggest you go this older post instead of the one you're reading now? Among other things, you'll learn the phrase "Hobbsian logic of a traffic jam," which I now realize is something I should say way more often.

This post is just about my GTA commuting experience and ways it which the forces that control the universe have created outcomes that strike me as strange or surprising or whatever. If you know me, you know I spend a lot of time commuting between Toronto, my home base, and Waterloo, where I work. There isn't space here for the endless discussion of why I choose to do this, but let me just say it has less to do with "important culture" and more to do with the texture of big city life, which is something that cheers and comforts me big-time.

For a long time, I took the Greyhound commuter bus, and for a long time, it was a reasonable option. It goes right from downtown right to the university where I work, and it has a reasonable schedule. Lately the Greyhound has been a bit more annoying, with more lateness and added stops, partly due to traffic and factors beyond their control. And lately the GO system -- the public transit system for the Greater Toronto Area -- has expanded service to include Waterloo. Would the GO be a good choice?

The first surprising thing is how complicated the answer to this question is. Like a lot of transit, everything is set up for commuters who are living in the town and working in the city, so if you're trying to go from Toronto to Waterloo in the morning and back in the late afternoon, you are not their primary target audience. From this it turns out that there are zero straightforward ways to take the GO and at least three complicated ways.

I have an 800-word note on my phone outlining the options and I'll try not to bore you with the details. But basically if you're going from the University there are roughly three options: 1) you can take a bus from the University to a mall in Mississauga, and then wait, and then take a bus from Mississauga to Toronto. It's not a "timed transfer," which means if you miss the connection you're SOL. Also it takes about three hours, for a trip that is about an hour and twenty minutes by car.  2) you can take a Waterloo city bus to the Kitchener bus station, then catch a GO bus to the Bramalea station, then change there for a GO bus from Bramalea to Toronto. That is a timed transfer. Interesting fact: the Bramalea station is so large and confusing that the first time I tried this, I almost missed the connection despite a ten-minute layover. Takes a bit less time than option 1. 3) you can take a bus from the University to the mall in Mississauga, then take a Mississauga city bus from there to the Western-most point of the Toronto subway system, then hop on the subway to take you into the city. This takes the least time, but has the most unpredictable connections.

The most surprising thing to me in all this is how hard it is to avoid the insane traffic right around Toronto itself. The Greyhound and options 1) and 2) all involve getting to the edge of the city and then sitting in massive traffic jams with all the other people driving in and out of the city. Only option 3) allows you to to bypass some of this traffic by getting on the subway at the edge of the city. But weirdly, the express bus you'd take from the Mississauga mall to the subway takes the same congested route -- highway 427 -- that is part of the worst commuter chaos. This means when I take option 3), I take the local Mississauga. Which is fine -- but how weird is it that a commute makes most sense when it goes through tiny residential neighborhoods in a city that's just somewhere along the way.

Relatedly, it is surprising that there are not more options for connecting to the Western edge of the subway system instead of staying on a bus all the way into the city. If you live in the city, you know that once you're on a subway, things go like gangbusters; there's no traffic, you zoom along, it's great. Of course I would rather be on the subway for twenty minutes than spend fifty in traffic, even if it means extra connections switching routes or whatever. What makes this the most strange is that you'd think city planners would be interested and motivated in getting as many people off the road in the area of the city as possible. Why not have every bus drop off at the subway stop at the edge of the city?

Also, as I mentioned, it is strange that the local Mississauga forms a key component in the most efficient trip. The mall in Mississauga is a kind of transit hub for the GO system. There is, I think, train service that runs between this mall and the station in Toronto. But it only runs at certain times. And they are not the times that I am traveling. Given that traffic is one of the most-discussed problems facing Toronto, and given that everyone wants to incentivize public transit, wouldn't you think this route would be popular enough to have a train running all the time? Or at least some kind of improved express bus? It seems so weird.

I could go on and on, but those are my main issues. There's some talk of making Pearson into a hub, and then you could take the UP express in and out of the city, and as far as I'm concerned that would be awesome, so yes, please.

While we're talking about strange or dysfunctional transit situation, I'd like to close by discussing the trip from Kitchener-Waterloo, where I work, to Hamilton, a town about a fifty-minute drive away. I have friends in Hamilton, and I'd love to be able to go from work to see them. There used to be a Coach Canada bus that went this route reasonably well. But that folded for some reason.

Now, as you can see if you zoom in on the screenshot at the top of this post, that trip without a car is at least 2 hours and 40 minutes. I guess this is because no one wants to go between these places. But still, it seems sad!  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I Went Down The Ethical Cell Phone Rabbit Hole

Fairphone: modularity FTW.

I want a new phone. I don't need a new phone. I have a perfectly serviceable iPhone 6 that is about two and a half years old. But I never liked my iPhone 6. It's too big for me: I can't use it with one hand, which drives me crazy when I'm using it to read a book or when I'm trying to keep one hand in my pocket because it's freezing outside. When I got it, they hadn't had the brainstorm of the iPhone SE normal-size-phone concept. I also want a new phone because, like everyone else, I am a cog in the consumer paradise machine we are all caught up in.

I know that getting a new phone would be ridiculous along several dimensions. The most obvious is the negative impact that new phones have on the world. Some of these are obvious environmental impacts. But there are also issues related to conflict mines, where profits from minerals fund violence and war, children are working in dangerous conditions, workers sometimes handle toxic chemicals in contexts where workers have few protections. These latter impacts are negative impacts directly on people.

I often think about electronic gadget production when I'm teaching about theories of ownership in philosophy class. In one theory, ownership is historical. You have a right to what you get through voluntary exchanges, and the state of wealth distribution is just when it arises out of such exchanges. When exchanges are unjust -- through slavery or coercion or stealing or whatever -- the just distribution is the one that would have resulted had those injustices not happened.

As we've discussed before, it seems that if you take this literally, you'd end up with some dramatic conclusions, like the obligation for all non-Indigenous people to leave North America. But there are also smaller questions, like what about your phone?

I got my phone by paying for it in a voluntary transaction, but if you trace all the elements of the phone back, you get slavery and coercion and all the other things. What would it mean to truly own your phone under this theory of ownership?

Thinking about all this, I decided to see if there was an ethical phone available. I searched (with Duck Duck Go!) for "ethical cell phone." I found a lot of bad news, but I also found a phone. The "Fairphone." The Fairphone is an "ethical, modular smartphone." It's modular so that when it breaks, you can fix it easily, and use it longer, and recycle the parts. It's "ethical" in the sense of the supply chain and worker conditions

The complexity of the phone situation really comes to light when you see how many challenges Fairphone encounters. According to this article, they have sourced four out of thirty minerals in an ethical way. There is still child labor in the supply chain, because they get some minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tin mining is still hugely environmentally destructive, even when done in a better way. The article concludes that Fairphone is making great progress, but still the concept of "ethical smartphone" is an oxymoron.

I probably wouldn't love the Fairphone. It's not a very attractive object, which is not surprising given that there's no Jonathan Ive equivalent hovering over everyone insisting on beauty. But whatever. It doesn't matter, because, surprise, surprise! the Fairphone doesn't even exist in North America. It's only available for Europeans.

Obviously, the thing to do is to not get a new phone. Compared to a lot of people, I don't even use my phone that much, so it's a testament to the power of advertising and consumerism that I'm even finding that any kind of challenge.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I Just Bought An Official NFL Colin Kaepernick Jersey


I have almost no interest in sports, and particularly little interest in the NFL. But I've long admired Colin Kaepernick. When he started his protest of racial oppression and police brutality last year, I thought his idea of a sitting -- and later, kneeling -- during the anthem was brilliant: very visible, disruptive in just the way that would call attention to his point, and protesting about an issue of massive and immediate importance.

In September, I learned more about Kaepernick from this New York Times article, like the way he studied Black representation in popular culture in a course at Berkeley, knows a ton about history, culture and literature, gives away lots of money to charities -- especially small and lesser known ones, like the I Will Not Die Young Campaign, where the donation is a lifeline -- and traveled to Ghana to learn more about his African ancestral roots. I also learned about his "Know Your Rights" camps for kids, whose goals are "to raise awareness on higher education, self empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios."

We all know what happened with the protest over the last few weeks. A few more people were kneeling, the president said some racist and offensive things about the protest, and managed to insult the whole NFL at the same time, so then people were all upset about that. More players started joining in on the protest, a good thing, but then, as so often happens, the whole conversation stopped being about the thing it was supposed to be about in the first place, namely racial oppression and police brutality, and started being about people who were mad at Trump and people who were mad at those people and so on and so forth. Mind-blowingly, Sports Illustrated ran an issue with a cover depicting protestors and left Kaepernick off it.

Then a week or so ago, I read that Kaepernick's merch is some of the best-selling NFL merch. And I thought, how great would it be to have an NFL shirt with Kaepernick's name on it?

Two reasons argued against doing this.

One, by doing this, I would be paying money directly to the NFL, and thus supporting them. Since I'm lucky enough to be uninterested in football, I haven't had to grapple with the moral problem of supporting a league that won't give Kaepernick a spot, or the moral problem of NFL concussions. For me, boycotting football is the same as living my ordinary life. But wouldn't buying a shirt be the opposite of a boycott? Actually supporting the wrong people?

Two, as Kaepernick keeps emphasizing, the protest isn't supposed to be about Colin Kaepernick. It's supposed to be about the issues. Personalizing the whole thing is, in a way, contrary to the whole spirit of the enterprise. And what could be more personalizing than a person who never watches football and never wears game jerseys going out of her way to buy and wear and game jersey?

On the other hand, I thought it was great that Kapernick's merch was the best-selling merch. And to reinforce that fact, I'd have to buy from the NFL. Buying some cute but unofficial Etsy pins instead of a shirt wouldn't help make that stay true. How great would it be if his merchandise keeps being on top?

And also, I think in some ways, and maybe as time goes on, the shirt can be itself a symbol of the issues. It's a 49er's shirt. As I understand it, if he gets "picked up" by a team (is that the expression?) it's likely he'll be playing for someone else. So this shirt is about this moment in a place and in time as much as anything else.

Thinking about all this reminded me of how this whole yes-but-also problem is so characteristic of our modern age. Almost everything that we do is either complicated in some way, or bad in some way, or at the least plays into massive social structures that are, themselves, wildly unjust. I don't know in this case whether my reasons really balanced out in an OK way, or whether I just wanted the shirt because I thought it would be cool, and rationalized myself into it.

I think it's in Amazons, the mascot book of this blog, that the character of Murray Jay Suskind explains to our hero Cleo that his wife may have left him for a man, but she may have left him for another woman, or she may have left him for a man and then created some diversion making him think she left him for a man. And Cleo asks, from his point of view, which would be feel hurtful? And he doesn't know. "It's a real, modern, thumb-sucking dilemma," he says. I think about that expression all the time, because that is where we find ourselves.

When I got to the NFL online shop, they only had Kaepernick shirts in youth sizes, so I had to check out the sizing chart. And then I found myself in another ultra-characteristic modern condition: thinking about politics while also asking myself: if you start with this many inches in bra size, and you add this many inches in cup size, does that fit this many inches in "chest" measurement? Hmmm.

I took a gamble and went ahead and bought it.