Thursday, November 23, 2017

Addictions: Social Media & Mobile Phones Fall From Grace

Identifying social media and mobile phones as addictive is only the first step in a much more complex investigation.
For everyone who remembers the Early Days of social media and mobile phones, it's been quite a ride from My Space and awkward texting on tiny screens to the current alarm over the addictive nature of social media and mobile telephony.
The emergence of withering criticism of Facebook and Google is a new and remarkably broad-based phenomenon: a year or two ago, there was little mainstream-media criticism of these tech giants; now there is a constant barrage of sharp criticism across the media spectrum.
Even the technology writer for the Wall Street Journal has not just curbed his enthusiasm, he's now speaking in the same dark tones as other critics: Why Personal Tech Is Depressing.
The critique of social media and mobile telephony, has reached surprising heights in a remarkably short time. Consider this article from the Guardian (UK) which compares Facebook and Google's social media empire to world religions in terms of scale, and unabashedly calls them addictive and detrimental to health and democracy: How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy.
A decade ago, social media was considerably different. One of the first social media sites to break into the mainstream was My Space, which began as a forum for bands to post new songs and interact with their fans. This was a great tool for thousands of musicians who had few ways to publicly post their songs and establish public communications with their fans. My Space was a useful idea, and even I posted a few songs my friends and I had recorded.
Around the same time frame, Facebook was limited to college students. I recall reading about FB and going to the site to see what it was all about: the splash screen asked you for your college affiliation.
Mobile telephony featured tiny little screens and an awkward double-click method of texting that only teens could master.
Keeping up on mass-media related technologies is part of my job as a blogger, as bloggers inhabit a little village of the mass-media world that seems to be shrinking as social media expands. I joined Twitter in June 2008, about two years after its initial launch, and Facebook in 2009.
I was struck by this quote from the above Guardian article:
"The term 'addiction' is no exaggeration. The average consumer checks his or her smartphone 150 times a day, making more than 2,000 swipes and touches. The applications they use most frequently are owned by Facebook and Alphabet (Google), and the usage of those products is still increasing."
Wow! Do you check your mobile phone 100+ times a day? Even if this is an exaggeration, it still represents an addictive attachment.
I think we can safely call anything that people interrupt sex to do (like check their mobile phones) addictive.
What's the source of social media and mobile telephony's addictive power?
I think we can start with the innate attraction of distractions and novelty. The higher the density of inputs in our environment, the more quickly we become bored and fidgety. So we turn to our phones for distraction and novelty.
Being social creatures, we want to stay connected to our tribe, group, family, etc. Social media and mobile phones feed this desire directly.
But social media and mobile telephony have peculiar qualities that are unlike actual face-to-face interaction. They don't require the same kind of commitment or engagement; it's understood everyone can log off at any time.
It's also easier to dump on people in the safety of anonymity.
While many people form longlasting online friendships, myself included, as a generalization social media tends to superficiality because it rewards being "liked", i.e. receiving positive feedback, even from those we don't even know.
The broad reach of the dynamic of winning approval is explored in this Guardian article on the rise of "fake news": How did the news go ‘fake’? When the media went social.
As social creatures, we all desire a positive standing in our tribe, and the respect and approval of our peers. Social media is like a lens that can make us appear bigger, shinier and more deserving of respect than we might otherwise be.
The temptation to post self-congratulatory Christmas letters ("Josh just graduated with honors, Mia is on her semester abroad, my new painting won first prize, and we're all meeting in Barbados for the holiday"), or divulge TMI (too much information) to elicit sympathy is strong; it's also tempting to express righteous indignation to solicit "likes" from like-minded members of our ideological tribe.
I've commented previously on the relative poverty of opportunities to feel respected and admired in our society; most of us don't have a lot of power or control over our lives, nor do we have the high-status positions and signifiers that automatically earn respect in our centralized, hierarchical social structure.
I think we should acknowledge the power of our natural desire to "be somebody" in our social circle, and in the world at large, and acknowledge the attraction of social media in furthering this desire.
So by all means, we should honor the accomplishments of our loved ones, and proudly display our winning painting, and post photos of our fabulous family holiday. But we also have to acknowledge that "likes" online are not substitutes for the recognition and respect of a real-world circle of peers, or for the self-respect we all desire.
Social media is real enough in its own terms, but it is not a substitute for real relationships and positive social roles. Perhaps this is the addictive pull of social media: the idea that we can substitute a carefully controlled social-media substitute (avatar) for our less-than-perfect real-world self.
If Facebook vanished, our "real" lives would still be intact. If we turned off our phones and social media, how much would we miss them in a week, or a month? How much "smaller" would we become? What would we lose, and how much of ourselves would we lose? What might we gain that's been lost?
These are questions worth exploring, for identifying social media and mobile phones as addictive is only the first step in a much more complex investigation.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 45. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to subscribers and major patrons / contributors.


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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017: 21 Things I'm Grateful For

The realm of gratitude is boundless.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are 21 things I'm grateful for. This is a semi-random list drawn from the many things I'm grateful for, the most important of which are: after 48 years of work I still have my health and more work than I know what to do with; good friends; family; freedom, enough good luck that a few of the many stupidly high-risk bets I've made throughout my adult life paid off, and I have a garden and a library. ("The man who has a garden and a library has everything." Cicero)
We all have our lists; here's mine, in no particular order:
1. Dirt (if you like to eat, start by liking dirt)
2. Rain (dirt + rain + seeds + care = food)
3. Our home garden
4. Frugality
5. Handmade leis
6. Magic
7. Extended family
8. Friends
9. Homemade cookies
10. Rainbows (Honolulu mauka)
11. homemade pizza
12. Redwoods
13. Guitars
14. Siblings
15. Hawaii
16. Camping in national parks (Glacier National Park)
Yellowstone National Park (tent camping, first snow of the season)
17. Dessert
18. Parodies
19. My fellow fiercely independent bloggers, publishers and writers.
20. My readers, correspondents, subscribers, patrons and financial supporters. I couldn't generate all the free content and my books without you.
21. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (John 8:7-9)


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Beware the Marginal Buyer, Borrower and Renter

Bubbles always look unstoppable, yet they always burst.

When times are good, the impact of the marginal buyer, borrower and renter on the market is often overlooked. By "marginal" I mean buyers, borrowers and renters who have to stretch their finances to the maximum to afford the purchase, loan or rent.
In bubble manias, buyers of real estate reckon the potential appreciation gains are worth the risk of buying a house they really can't afford with the intention of flipping the home for a profit.
Workers moving to high-rent cities reckon they'll either make more money going forward or find a cheaper flat later, so they pony up the high rent.
When there's steady overtime or generous tips adding to the household income, buying a new car or getting a new auto lease looks do-able.
It's difficult to assess how many recent buyers, borrowers and renters are marginal, but given the stagnation in household incomes and rising debt loads, it seems reasonable to guess that a substantial number of recent buyers, borrowers and renters are one lay-off or one missed bonus or one unexpected expense away from being unable to pay their mortgage, loan payment or rent.
On the surface, home and auto sales and the rental market all look robust because there's no differentiation in sales data between people paying cash, qualified buyers/renters and marginal buyers/renters for whom every month is a stretch.
There have been times in my life when I was down to my last $100, and if things don't turn up very quickly and in a sustained fashion when finances are that fragile, then payments will be missed at the first unexpected drop in income or first unexpected expense. Budget-killers include medical emergency, illness/lost work time, major car repairs and a host of other everyday risks.
There's another layer of recent buyers who don't feel they're marginal--but their financial stability is more contingent than they realize. Their employment seems solid, but their employers sales and profits are more contingent and fragile than they realize.
When good times reverse to bad times, every enterprise with marginal sales takes a hit, and layoffs follow as night follows day. When times are good, layoffs are not even on the horizon. But when the economic tides recede, skittish, hollowed-out, and/or debt-burdened employers push the layoff button sooner rather than later because their own financial structure is so fragile.
Those laid off assume they will find another job quickly because in good times, there appears to be a labor shortage. But when the tide ebbs, the job offers dry up seemingly overnight.
The Grand Illusion being pushed by central bankers and conventional pundits is that another round of interest rate cuts and quantitative easing (QE) will restart the economy should it falter. This is illusion because it ignores how much of the market is dependent on marginal businesses, buyers, borrowers and renters who will not benefit from QE or a tiny decline in interest rates.
Conventional economists don't quantify marginal businesses, buyers, borrowers and renters, and so the rapidity of the next drop in the economy will come as a great surprise to them. There is little to no awareness of how many enterprises, buyers, borrowers and renters are hanging on by a slender thread--and how many who reckon their finances are robust are one layoff away from insolvency.
Bubbles always look unstoppable, yet they always burst. The symmetry in this chart of the Case Shiller Housing Index for San Francisco suggests the clock is ticking on markets being propped up by marginal buyers, borrowers and renters:



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Monday, November 20, 2017

Our National Madness

Fakery and trickery are not solutions; they are a form of self-delusional madness that destroys the nation's ability to face reality squarely and choose real solutions, no matter how painful the choice and path might be.
The nation has lost its common sense, its soul and its sanity. Can we summarize the source of this remarkably pervasive madness?
Our efforts are now focused not on solving core problems but on covering up core problems, as if covering up problems is a substitute for solving them. Down this path lies madness, for this substitution of false narratives for reality erodes our ability to distinguish not just between reality and fantasy but our ability to distinguish between moral rights and wrongs.
The efforts of those in positions of power are now focused on obscuring the truth, marginalizing critics, blaming malevolent external forces, cloaking self-interest with virtue signaling and staking claims to victimhood. These are the five dynamics that are powering the nation's descent into madness and dysfunction.
Consider Harvey Weinstein. Evidence is now emerging that Mr. Weinstein and his army of toadies, bullies, thugs, et al. put enormous effort and resources into obscuring the truth, marginalizing critics, and cloaking self-interest with virtue signaling. Next up for Mr. Weinstein's team of apologists: blame the Russians (or an equivalently malevolent Other), and claim to be a victim of all those testifying against him.
This is the model for everyone in positions of power. The only variation is which of the five will be spewed as a first line of defense, and which will be held in reserve for the last-ditch defense against the truth becoming public.
I'm sorry if this is a shock, but the economic "recovery" is nothing but smoke and mirrors designed to obscure the pillage of the nation's wealth and income by state-protected cartels. The central bank can't actually fix what's broken in our economy, but it can manually push the needle of the stock market higher.
So rather than actually fix what's broken, the "solution" is to make the stock market the primary measure of "prosperity." In effect, the stagnation of real prosperity is a problem that would require profound (and painful to those gorging at the feeding trough) changes in the status quo; so the solution is to label the stock market "the measure of prosperity" and then shove it higher.
This substitution of trickery for reality solves nothing. It is the exact equivalent of the student who didn't study and who learned nothing erasing his F grade and forging an A in its place. Nothing has actually changed in terms of the student's knowledge or skillset, but he has fooled the authorities focusing on superficialities: incompetent, self-serving administrators who then tout the student's high grade as evidence of their own success, the media which mindlessly accepts the fake grade as evidence that all is peachy-keen in the school district, and so on down the line.
If this happens often enough, the student actually starts believing he can get away with trickery as a solution for all problems: just BS your way through any challenge, and if that fails, then marginalize one's critics, blame malevolent external forces, furiously virtue-signal, and if all else fails, stake a claim to victimhood.
In other words, the student loses touch with reality and is lost. The USA has lost touch with reality, for its leadership has embraced the notion that trickery and fakery that covers up problems is a substitute for solving problems--and if this fails to convince an increasingly jaded and cynical public, then body-slam the public with the other four tactics: marginalize critics, blame malevolent external forces, cloak self-interest with virtue signaling and stake claims to victimhood.
Unfortunately for our nation, madness is repeating what's failed and thinking it will work next time. Trickery, maligning critics, virtue signaling, blaming outside forces and claiming victimhood no longer have the desired effect on all but the most delusional (or self-serving) supporters of our profoundly corrupt leadership.
Actions have consequences. Fakery and trickery are not solutions; they are a form of self-delusional madness that destroys the nation's ability to face reality squarely and choose real solutions, no matter how painful the choice and path might be.



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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Want Widespread Prosperity? Radically Lower Costs

As long as this is business as usual, it's impossible to slash costs and boost widespread prosperity.
It's easy to go down the wormhole of complexity when it comes to figuring out why our economy is stagnating for the bottom 80% of households. But it's actually not that complicated: the primary driver of stagnation, decline of small business start-ups, etc. is costs are skyrocketing to the point of unaffordability.
As I have pointed out many times, history is unambiguous regarding the economic foundations of widespread prosperity: the core ingredients are:
1. Low inflation, a.k.a. stable, sound money
2. Social mobility (a meritocracy that enables achievers and entrepreneurs to climb out of impoverished beginnings)
3. Relatively free trade in products, currencies, ideas and innovations
4. A state (government) that competently manages tax collection, maintains roadways and harbors, secures borders and trade routes, etc.
Simply put, When costs are cheap and trade is abundant, prosperity is widely distributed. Once costs rise, trade declines and living standards stagnate. Poverty and unrest rise.
These foundations characterize stable economies with widely distributed prosperity across time and geography, from China's Tang Dynasty to the Roman Republic to the Byzantine Empire to 19th century Great Britain.
I have estimated the realistic cost of a conventional middle class lifestyle, and found that only the top 20% can afford a middle class lifestyle. Needless to say, this destroys the notion of being "middle."
The squeeze on households comes from both the soaring cost of big-ticket items such as childcare and healthcare and from the stagnation of wages/income.
So your new TV cost $100 less but your healthcare costs $10,000 more: the big expenses are soaring, costing households tens of thousands of dollars more while cheap TVs and clothing decline a few bucks.
Labor's share of the economy keeps stairstepping down: every boom/bubble benefits the financier and technocrat class, but labor's share of the economic "boom" flatlines for a few years and then tanks in the inevitable unwinding/recession.
The third dynamic is the dominance of anti-competitive cartels and state guilds which are no longer accountable or competent. (The two are related, of course; when accountability is lost, there's no way to identify or weed out graft and incompetence.)
This report on the causes of the decline of New York's subway system reads like a summary of the entire U.S. economy: the politicization of public services, corruption that evades the legal definition of corruption, self-enriching guilds, cartels and elites and gross incompetence enabled by zero accountability.
As long as this is business as usual, it's impossible to slash costs and boost widespread prosperity.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
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