To all Non-Christians: We Won the War on Christmas.

When you think about it, it’s almost comical, because we’re not even aware we won.

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “how can you say we won when Christmas is everywhere.. starting from Halloween until .. well, Christmas Day!”

That’s exactly the point. Christmas has become a one-day holiday for the vast majority of Americans. It’s become the day we travel “over the hills and through the woods” to Grandmas, eat ourselves silly (like we don’t eat ourselves silly the other 364 days of the year), and give thoughtfully mass-produced gifts to one another completely devoid of any deeper meaning other than.. “here.”

If you think about it, all the traditions everybody celebrates on Christmas Day are not Christian. The gifts. The tree. The fire in the fireplace (Yule Log: they didn’t even bother to change the name on that one). The celebration of the birth of the Sun God.

Sorry, that one just leaked out.

But that’s the greater point. In all this talk of the Religious “Right” about a War on Christmas, nobody ever mentions the fact that very few people in the United States celebrate Christmas.. um.. “properly.” I drive around my appropriately festive upper-middle-class neighborhood and I already see my Christian neighbors dismantling the lights outside. It’s not even New Year’s Day yet and one neighbor had already put the tree at the curb for collection by the garbageman.

Don’t They Know It’s Christmas?

Maybe because I grew up in a staunchly proud quasi-German family that held on to the few traditions they felt mattered, but Christmas decorations went up on Christmas Eve (maybe a couple of days before in some cases) and came down on the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

You remember Twelfth Night, right? Surely, you’ve heard.. if not actually sung.. that “Five.. GOOOOOLDEN… RIIIIIINGS!!!!” song. The Twelve Days of Christmas? The Christmas Holiday starts on December 25th (or, in fine Abrahimic tradition, the evening of the day before) and runs for the Twelve Days of Christmas. Each day has some significance in the more orthodox Christian sects, including the Feast of King Wenceslas, ending at Epiphany (the day the “three wisemen came to the manger”) on January 5.

Of course, the entire “Twelfth Night” thing harkens back to Pagan Europe’s traditions of the Lord of Misrule and the traditions of Samhain and Saturnalia.

But the greater point is that Christianity adopted many of the traditions of the pre-Christian peoples of western Europe and adapted them into a wonderful story of their Christ, rich with symbolism, some of which was adopted of course. But some of it was meant to teach Christians what it means to be.. Christian.

And here comes the Religious “Right”, who wants department stores to use the words “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”, and gets offended when some non-Christian politely asks that we tone down the Jesus stuff, because we’re Not All Christian After All. Meanwhile, the very things they are arguing for serve to only reduce the meaning of Christmas to a secular holiday we celebrate on (or about) the Winter Solstice. None of these Jesus Junkies are out there telling people to go out there and celebrate the Divine Liturgy on the Saturday after Christmas Day, or to invite a (poor) stranger into one’s home for the Feast of King Wenceslas.. the latter being doubly ironic because these same people sing the carol attached to that day without actually listening to the words.

All of that has been lost in all the clearance sales, sports games, Doctor Who specials, and leftovers.

So, congratulations, my fellow Heathens. We won the War on Christmas.

Why Steve Jobs does not matter.

Steve Jobs is stepping down from Apple as CEO. He will be continuing on as Chairman. The news media has gone crazy over “OMG, what will happen now?”

Very little, in reality.  And it shows just how stupid a lot of people are about how all companies, even Apple, are run.

Yes, unlike most CEOs, Steve Jobs had a lot of input into design decisions.  More than any other tech company executive, Jobs seemed particularly prescient in determining high-level designs and even some low-level features.  But in the end, he had as much to do with the actual end product as the CEO of ExxonMobile has to do with the formulation of the gasoline you buy at the pump.

To be sure, Jobs made sure Apple hired the best, and set the overall tone for how the company is (micro-)managed.  And I have no doubt that for high-profile products he was in many of the design meetings ensuring that his vision was the one that was getting pushed.

But in the end, it’s more about the people Steve Jobs HIRED than about Steve himself.  Tim Cook is one of the people that Jobs has had a strong influence over.

As long as nobody panics and the Board of Directors stays out of everybody’s way, there’s no reason why Apple can’t continue for the next ten years being the same company they have been the last 10.

Party at the 7-Eleven…

What is it about the 7-Eleven stores in Seattle?

Okay, an admission.  I probably spend way too much money in 7-Eleven stores in general.  I’m found inside one purchasing snacks, soda, and/or XBOX Points at least four times per week.  Sometimes, more.

As a result, I purchase their “X-Treme Gulp” mugs and refill them.  At most stores, it’s a reasonable deal: it ranges somewhat, but 99¢ to $1.19 is the typical price range for a refill.  Not too bad.  I don’t waste a cup, get soda at a good price, and everybody’s happy.

A few days ago I stumble into the 7-Eleven store in Lynnwood and refill my tankard.  When I get to the cash register, the cashier proceeds to ring me up (manually, I might add: the cup has a barcode on the side to ring up the proper refill price, but he doesn’t use it) for $1.99.  I pull a bill out of my wallet and hand it over, and then start to go.. “haiwaitaminnit.”  Even given the higher costs in Seattle (and the Washington Sales Tax, which I will get to in a moment)  $1.99 seems way out of line.  And sure enough, as a squint to read the prices posted above the soda machine, the highest advertised price is $1.49 for a refill, $1.69 for a Double Gulp.

When I balk at the price, the salesperson behind the counter starts saying something along the lines of “that’s a big cup.”  Why, yes, I reply, it’s a big cup: but it’s one of yours, it’s clearly labelled “52 Fl. Oz. [US]”, and is heavily insulated.  Besides, your prices clearly state that the highest refill price is $1.49, for “53 to 100 oz.”, and even without the insulation this cup wouldn’t be 100 fl. oz.,  even though it’s clearly labelled as one of your cups as holding 52 fl. oz., which while the sign is vague (it says “less than 52 fl. oz. $1.19”, leaving you to wonder how much a 52 fl. oz. cup is to refill.. maybe it’s $1.99, I shudder to myself) one can probably safely assume that $1.19 is a reasonable price for a 52 oz. refill.

I can tell that he’s not happy about this, and neither am I, especially because this entire transaction reeks of irregularity.  I’m starting to ponder this as he hands me $18.51 in change that he also has not charged me Washington’s sales tax (9.5%, I believe, at least where I was standing) as I examine the receipt and it clearly says “Groc No Tax $1.49”.

I ask to speak to the manager.

At this point, the manager walks out, some words are exchanged in a foreign language (specifically, probably, to prevent me from actually hearing what is said) and suddenly the manager is saying that I was given the wrong change and to give the money back.

The only thought I have in my head at this point is that shit’s going weird.  Out of nowhere now he’s asking for me to hand the change back over.  “No dice,” I say in an irritated voice.  “I want to resolve the dispute over how much I’m being charged for soda,” because at this moment I still believe that $1.49 is not the correct price for me to be charged.  I should be charged $1.19+9.5% sales tax.  At this point, the manager starts yelling at me, and I decide that the best course of action is for me to leave, as this conversation is NOT going anywhere productive.

“You know what?  I’m leaving,” I declare, and start walking to the door.

At this point, the manager follows me out to the parking lot and blocks my departure with his body.  I inform him that I am leaving, and that he has no lawful reason to detain me, and to please get out of the way.  He responds by threatening to call the police, to which I reply, “call the fucking police.  Make sure to tell them how you initially tried to rip me off and only came up with this ‘change’ bullshit once I challenged you,” and managed to back out of the space and leave.

Remember how I said I’m a 7-Eleven regular customer?  Well, this isn’t the only time I’ve had something weird like this happen at a Seattle-area 7-Eleven store.  I never have any issues at any Portland-area stores, only Seattle ones.  There was the time I got sold an (obviously) used prepaid phone and couldn’t activate it (because it was used).  There’s the time I got hit with a sponge in the back of the head because a disgruntled employee overshot the bucket he was angrily throwing it at.  And I’ve noticed the sales tax weirdness before: part of my confusion over what is taxable in Washington comes from the fact that soda’s taxability seems to be fungible in the eyes of 7-Eleven employees.

Looks like if I move to Seattle I’ll need to find a different place to get my caffeine fix.  It’s not like there isn’t a chain of stores that’s known for selling highly caffeinated beverages, even if that beverage is a little more pricey, and considerably more caffeinated…

Why is there famine in my heart when there’s plenty on the table?

Last month, I made a post about the Hunter within me.  How it manifests in thoughts and actions.  And how even in an environment of relative plenty I feel impoverished and hungry.  I made that comment almost as an aside without realizing what was there.

I’m beginning to understand why.  The food we’re given is poison to the Hunter, and he knows it.  He picks at eggs that come from malnourished chickens, and begrudgingly eats potatoes full of antinutrients and partially defused toxins.. fried in vegetable oil that is full of Omega-6 fats.  He looks around for food he can eat that will make him whole, and is discovering that even what is supposed to be the “right food” is so deficient in the vitamins and fats his Hunter mind and body needs that he eats to survive, not to thrive.  He is sick, he is tired, he is dying under the weight of corn-fed animals slaughtered for meat and corn syrup poured into everything else.  The Hunter craves food that is healthy, food that nourishes his body, his mind, and his spirit.  Instead, all that he is fed is inappropriate.. quite literally bird seed and feces.

I could go on for pages about this.  I’ve ranted privately, and tweeted publically, about all the sloppy science and outright lies we’ve been told (example: did you know that there is very little evidence that shows cholesterol causes heart disease?  And in fact, cholesterol actually has net positive effects on cardiovascular ((Horwich, T.B. et. al, “Low Serum Cholesterol is Associated With Marked Increase in Mortality in Advanced Heart Failure”, Journal of Cardiac Failure vol. 8 no. 4, 2002, pp 216-224)) ((Jacobs D. et. al., “Report of the Conference on Low Blood Cholesterol: Mortality Associations”, Circulation vol 86 no 3, September 1992, pp 1046-1060)), but more importantly, mental health?  And that cholesterol is actually needed by our brains for neurotransmitter function, like seratonin absorption? ((Engelberg, H, “Low Serum Cholesterol and Suicide”, Lancet no. 339, March 21, 1992 pp. 727-728))  Yes, my friends who take SSRIs: that low cholesterol level your MD is proud of and prescribing medication to maintain may be making your depression worse.).

There are no easy answers.  As I discovered early in this search for knowledge, there’s a lot of entrenched “common sense” that is outright bollocks.  Many of you in my circle of friends have bought a whole lot of bullshit.  Conspiracy theories aside, the Food Establishment wants to keep you dumb and confused.  The foods they are feeding you are cheap to make, can be sold to you at considerable profit, and controlled as commodities by megacorporations and governments to rape both the planet and our blessed farmers who toil on Her surface.  By making statements like your form of diet is “better for the planet” you are in essence saying “this form of rape is more acceptable.”  And I’m not just looking at vegetarians here, although from my perspective as the Hunter you seem especially silly in this regard.

But, fundamentally it is still rape.  You don’t know any better, so as much as the Hunter wants to rage, he is just beginning to understand.  And he is beginning to feel sorrow for his world: a world that takes away individualism, replaces it with empty promises of a better tomorrow while virtually guaranteeing there will be no tomorrow.

One of the books I stumbled across in this quest was The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith.  Even though I never had the notion of vegetarianism as a “save the planet!” perspective, she utterly shatters any hope of me ever accepting that viewpoint.  She also rearms my feeling about eating “paleolithically” with more hard evidence that the modern diet of corn, potatoes, and other grains is fundamentally unhealthy.  But the strongest words of all were the ones that spoke directly to the Hunter within.

Somewhere inside you is an animal that wants to eat. There’s no dishonor in that animal. She’s the same animal who wants to curl up around her sleeping beloveds, to keep them safe and warm. She’s the same animal who comes alive at the smell of rain. She’s an animal who belongs here.

She’s four million years old. She’s in the shape of your teeth, the empty bowl of your one stomach. She’s in your stalwart heart, a hundred years strong, surrounded by animal fat. She’s in the folds of your brain, and the messages they can carry. Across four million years, these folds grew exquisite, until the messages needed an answer. Your animal found language, art. She answered. She drew what mattered. Go look. The pictures are still there. She left them for you: take, eat, this is the body we have made, predator and prey together. This is the pact, the prayer, our true first communion, not wine but blood: we are all part of each other.

Bow your head and take aim. Then take your turn.

This Hunter may finally be ready to take his. For the sake of brotherhood, for the sake of this planet, for the sake of the millions of years of evolution that has created every one of us, I hope others join me.

If you’d like to follow along with my “journey”, here’s a brief reading list.

  • the aforementioned The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith.
    Written from a feminist perspective, so some of the feminism might be hard to swallow for us men.  Very well researched, with tons of references and cites.
  • The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight… by Loren Cordain
    Written as a diet self-help book, and sometimes hammers a point into a fine powder, but a great launching point for research.  It’s worth buying just for the bibliography and citations.
  • The New Evolution Diet by Arthur deVany.
    Another look at the Paleolithic diet perspective.  Written more as a narrative of one man’s journey than a “how-to” book, but still very meaty and cite-rich.
  • Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand
    While not strictly written along the lines above, it is the book that is almost single-handedly responsible for getting me to question the mainstream “environmentalist” movement’s motives and ideals.  If Lierre Keith is written from the perspective of “burn it all down, civilization is a cancer” this book proffers the perspective that civilization and the environment can, in fact, peacefully coexist IF we are willing to accept the lessons civilization’s failures are teaching us.
  • Almost forgot this one.  Watch the movie King Corn.  It will sicken you how we’ve taken formerly proud citizen-farmers and turned them into corporate wage slaves.

Ham radio…

There was a story on Slashdot about selling off a chunk of radio spectrum that amateur radio uses as “secondary users”. The usual arguments back and forth were had, including somebody trotting out the old standby of ham radio will save us when all else fails!~!.

Aside from the fact that even I, somebody who’s a staunch advocate of amateur radio as a technical playground and resilient backup communications plan, don’t 100% agree with that perspective, it ignores the simple fact that ham radio as a hobby is dying with the generation of men and women who took up the hobby in the Baby Boomer generation.

My comment:

Increasingly, there aren’t enough ham radio operators in some areas to really depend upon when the fit hits the shan.

I’ve seen it in my own community here in Oregon. The RACES/ARES group that helps out at our Renaissance Faire with emergency comms now does not have enough healthy bodies to man a station 24 hours a day for three days. And you can’t get enough young people interested: it’s worth noting that between myself and a handful of other young folk, there are more hams on the staff of this Faire than the emergency comms group has in its active membership (side note: I’d be a volunteer for this emergency comms group, but I live 80 miles away). But we’re too busy actually doing Faire things to have our hands on radios… we can barely keep up with our “day jobs” on site and the radio traffic relevant to our immediate Faire Guild.

The past few disasters locally have largely been worked by a handful of dedicated hams, many of them working to exhaustion. As these men (many of whom are in their 60s or older) age, their ability to man a radio for 16 hours a day is rapidly declining. Soon, there may not be enough active, well trained hams with ready-to-go equipment to respond.

If you are a tech geek and don’t have a license, get one. If you have a license and don’t have at least a “scram kit” with at least an HT and some basic tools for building antennas, making electroncis repairs, and a couple of good maps (plus all the “usual” recommended disaster supplies) you are part of the problem.

So, to that, I’d like to issue a challenge to the geek friends of mine who are out there. If you do not have a ham radio license but would like to get one, talk to me and I’ll help you anyway I can. If you are an inactive ham who doesn’t have a “scram kit” built, or you feel you lack the skills or know-how to use it, seek me out and we’ll put one together for you and teach you basic emergency techniques. If you are an active ham with an assembled “scram kit” but have never had the opportunity to use it, let’s talk about a sked, where we both take our field kits out somewhere and try to work each other.

These skills are valuable not only to each other, but to our greater community. The more we demonstrate our value by keeping our skills current the more likely we can keep the hobby relevant and interesting to the next generation of geeks, not to mention society at large. If we lose our relevance, no amount of donations to the ARRL Spectrum Defense Fund can help us.

As above, so below.

I really don’t have much of a developed opinion over the verbal free-for-all presently going on in the pagan comminity over PantheaCon.  But, I do have this observation.

Any group that excludes based upon factors that do not take into account the holistic individual are doomed to exactly this sort of failure.  If, as Z. Budapest has had a quote regarding this attributed to her along these lines, one must have a period to be “female”, does that mean that a woman born female but had her uterus removed surgically before puberty (due to disease or injury) isn’t a woman?  What if medicine were to provide a way for genetically born men to have a uterus “grown” for them and implanted?

Where does one draw the line?  Sex and gender are rarely black and white.  I thought the whole point of this exercise was that we don’t have to be defined by stereotypical gender roles because we may have been born with one particular set of genitalia.  We are all capable of being divine, both feminine and masculine.

Oh, and other genders as well.

Privilege Escalation…

I’m noticing an odd trend on Android applications.

Increasingly, applications are asking for more and more “privileges”. Today, CBS’ TV.COM application is asking for “audio record” capabilities on the latest upgrade.

Um… okay. What? You want me to allow your app to record audio from my phone? How about a no.

It isn’t the first app I’ve seen that’s done this. There’s been a handful of such “privilege escalation” attempts done by a few apps. Groupon, for example, at one point wanted “fine” GPS location instead of “coarse.” Um… no, “coarse” should be just fine, thank you (a later version seems to have rescinded this requirement).. you don’t need to know exactly were I’m at, a coarse cell tower fix should be fine. Other apps have wanted access to the SD card for no discernable reason.

In most cases, I suspect it’s just a sloppy implementation of a new feature. But for the life of me I’m still trying to figure out what legitimate purpose TV.COM needed to record audio from my phone.

Maybe CBS is working on some new reality TV show…

Sometimes spam borders on poetry.

To wit, the following comment spam (the URLs attached to the comment were for something completely unrelated):

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*grunt*

I admire Summertime, my cat.

Yesterday, she managed to catch and kill a mouse that I knew had been scurrying about in my apartment.  And, as I was cleaning up the mess of blood and bone on my kitchen floor, I came to a conclusion about my beloved pet.  My sweet, adorable little ball of fat and fur that I cuddle up to on cold nights and have long, goofy conversations with is a killer.  I’m only spared because I’m bigger and viewed as a surrogate parent.  It is not my status as an “apex predator” that keeps her calm and docile in my presence… I’m more of a passive god-like being who does all the hard work (hunting for food and protecting “the pride”) for her.

But, as the occasional dead mammal or insect reminds me, she (even in her docile, “domesticated” state) is still a quite capable hunter.

And that’s something to admire.  I see it in her facial expressions looking out the window.   I see her lusting after birds and squirrels outside.  I see her instincts at work when she plays with me, chasing after a fur-covered catnip mouse.  Biting it at the neck, raking her powerful back claws at its belly to evisceration.  And after play is done, she sits on my lap purring, content with her role as a companion animal.  She’s safe and warm inside this tall pink monkey’s cave.

She has had the opportunity to leave.  Even now in my ground-floor apartment, I’ll leave the window open on warmer days.  So far, she doesn’t want to go anywhere.  When I lived in a suburban house and she had access to a large yard, she’d go outside on the pleasant days and play a little… but mostly wanted to sun herself on the cool grass, a pleasure I’d sometimes share.  On those winter days when I’ve opened the window, you can almost see in her facial expressions the thought process.  “Yes, I COULD go out there, but why would I?  It’s warm in here, and that big clumsy ape will kill one of those weird round things and give me the meat anytime I want, so.. *purr nuzzle* Hey, daddy, would you mind killing one of those weird round things now?”

She’s still a hunter, and even though she’s the result of thousands of years of passive domestication she still holds on to her true “cat nature.”  Hell, the big clumsy ape isn’t dumb: it is precisely her true “cat nature” that makes her a good companion.  She kills the occasional pest, and is otherwise agreeable company.  Even her biological processes are compatible with the way I live.. she’s learned to poop in the place I designate, so I don’t have cat turds in my oatmeal.  (Part of that bargain is I pee in a similarly designated place, so there’s no monkey urine in her meat.)

I can also see in her eyes part of me as well.  I’m a hunter.  As a human being with ADD, I’ve been told to not view my neurological tendencies as a “handicap”, but as a different way of interacting with the world.  I am one of the last of my species.. a hunter living in a farmer’s world.  Like my cat, I look outside the window of civilized existence and see the “prey on the horizon”, although for my advanced primate brain it’s less about killing meat for food and more about a yearning to be on the move.  Finding better sources of food and water.  Perhaps a nicer place to curl up and sleep.  And always on the prowl for more mates.  Definitely more mates.  Hey, in addition to being a Hunter, I’m also male.

Presently, I balance the desires of the hunter with my human need to be a functioning member of the society I was born into. I do not have any Hunter skills (at least, none I’m consciously aware of).  I have a skill that requires sitting in one place for long periods of time and interacting with a hunk of plastic with a wire coming out the back.  Not exactly the lifestyle my Native American ancestors would envision as “successful” and “rewarding.”

Yet, I find the frontier in the electronic world to be just as stimulating as any geographical frontier.  Like my cat plays with a catnip toy to keep her Hunter self amused, I explore Google Maps and Wikipedia, and keep a perpetual electronic watch on Reddit and Fark. Those who’ve been in my home have seen the constant stimulus: everywhere you look there’s a LCD display with some RSS feed or info-graphic on it.  I’m most comfortable in an environment where I’m constantly being bombarded by stimulus, and if there’s one thing on the electronic frontier.. it’s stimulus.

In the wild, my Hunter skills would be valuable.  Being a Hunter is a constant state of distraction, where every potential distracting detail demands split-second re-evaluation of your world.

What was that sound of a branch breaking on the ground?  Predator, or prey?  Or maybe a mate?  Now there’s movement over there.. but whatever it is it is too small to eat, eat me, or fuck.. so never mind.  Hey, that bird call sounds familiar.. I’ve heard those birds around water.  What direction is it coming from?  I’m thirsty.

This is what life is like inside the Hunter’s mind: all of that could have been in a split second, my body moving towards the bird calls even before the thought process has bubbled up to the awake mind.

Increasingly I feel like I’m sacrificing my birthright as a human being to be part of a society that holds different values.  I often feel like I see things that others can’t.  I can smell the foul air in the wind, sometimes quite distinctly.  My natural instincts often tell me something is wrong.  My body feels undernourished, my mind impoverished, my spirit deadened.. even in the center of a surplus of food to eat, of knowledge and culture to enjoy, and millions of potential mates within my prowling radius.  I want to run.

Why is there famine in my heart when there is plenty all around?

Every day I take a drug that has the effect of allowing the Hunter to sit down for a minute and stop hunting.  In those moments where my hunter brain is still enough that I can think (without being bombarded by Hunter Stimulus) there’s an unnerving calm.  And there’s amazing productivity.  But often times it comes at a price.  There’s less creativity.  Time moves at a different pace.  I can almost feel the change.

This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing.  The past year I’ve been taking drugs to treat my ADD have been a personal Renaissance.  I’ve gotten my feet back underneath me, and I’m re-learning  a lot of what it truly means to be me.

But it is also presenting me with a realization.  I have a birthright to be The Hunter.  It’s my true nature.  Regardless of how many pills I take or how I retrain my brain, I will never be The Farmer.. and it would be wrong for me to even try.

---==<o>==---

Not long ago, I started talking about following the “Paleo Diet”, and I got a lot of feedback.  Not all the feedback was good, but even in the bad there was something of value I could take away.  One of the “negative” points was, and I’m paraphrasing here, that I’m not a caveman, why would I eat like one?

My initial response to that was indignation.

I’m sure the friend who said that didn’t mean anything by it, but my response was very telling to me.  It was almost like something inside me was rebelling in that moment against the thought that I was anything but a hairy, smelly, feral caveman; knuckles dragging on the ground and monosyllabic grunts for speech.  My higher self (in a moment of non-caveman clarity a split-second later) said “Fuck you, buddy, maybe I am a caveman!”  It was almost an instinctive response, channeled through my layers of consciousness with considerable reverberation, only being amplified by The Hunter Mind’s need to defend his territory.

I now realize just how much of my true self came out at that split second.  There is, somewhere deep down, an “inner caveman feedle” that has been yearning to come out.

There are primal, very human needs deep inside me that aren’t being met by society at large.  Every once and a while, that part of me gets touched, and it feels wonderful.  It feels empowering.  It feels natural.

And I realize how many aspects of my life this manifests.  My diet (while not strictly “Paleo”, those are the foods I’m the most comfortable eating).  My spirituality (a blend of neopaganism, tribalism, and animism, with a huge dose of skepticism). My sexuality (bi, poly).   Even with all my affinity for technology and all my “forward thinking”, deep inside I feel like I’m a throwback.  I’m a very intelligent “caveman”, who has learned to put on clothes and “behave” with the “civilized farmers” out of necessity.

So, I want to substitute a different word for The Hunter.  I don’t really have the right word yet.  “Paleolithic human” is cumbersome, but it accurately describes exactly how I feel sometimes.

This increasingly looks like the beginnings of another life journey for me.  I want to find ways I can let the “paleo human” out, to let him explore the world the way he wants it to be.  To hunt, to eat, to explore the natural world in a way that allows those very primal needs to be met, while still holding on to the comforts of Neolithic civilization.   And, hopefully, to find other “Paleolithic humans” who are willing to show me the skills I haven’t learned yet to make me feel empowered.

*grunt*

 

Creepy Drug Store Privacy (and how I predicted it)

I had this wonderful rant all queued up about how a major drug store chain has crossed the line into “creepy” with their updated rewards card program. And then I realized that I already predicted this would happen over 20 years ago, and how many privacy advocates are closing the barn door after the cows have already left.

Let’s start with what’s relevant from the rant I had already typed out. Recently, I had the pleasure of having a run-in with a clerk at a national drug store chain. They are getting pretty insistent at signing people up for their “privacy-eliminating marginal discount card”, to the point that I actually got in a small argument with the clerk. The clerk helpfully (?) said something to the extent of “oh, I don’t give them my REAL information…”

As a quick sidebar, I found that personally humorous. Here is a clerk outright telling me that she’s committing an act of fraud against her employer, and all but encouraging me to do the same so I can save a dollar. Wow.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how this particular national chain was going about it all wrong, and how another chain (a national grocery store chain that operates a regional hypermarket.. oh, hell, I’m talking about Fred Meyer) seems to do it right. The differences were all academic, actually, because after thinking about it for a bit I even came to the conclusion that I wasn’t 100% satisfied with how Uncle Freddy does it, either; and there was plenty of privacy implications with the Fred Meyer approach.

So, here’s how the Fred Meyer Rewards program works, and why at first it seems like a much better way than most other loyalty card programs. When you shop at Fred Meyer, regardless of whether or not you have a Rewards card you pay the same price. There’s no “$1 off with our discount card” nonsense* and very few actual gimmicks: at the end of every quarter, they send you a coupon worth a small percentage of that period’s purchases.  They also give you points towards discounted gasoline purchases, and even keep track of purchases at the coffee kiosk for free coffee.

Okay, so that seemed like a better approach.  Until I unearthed a little piece of Commodore 64 code I wrote as a kid on a recent “storage unit spelunking adventure.”

Let’s set the wayback to the 1980’s.  A grocery store chain in Southern California had a novel way of handling checks.  Rather than have the cashiers check a master list for bad checks, or having the (primitive by today’s standards) cash register maintain a list, they had a stand-alone check authorization computer.  It sat in the front of the store, and you had a mag-stripe card that you’d use to get your check “approved” before you went shopping.  This system fascinated me, because it seemed like an elegant hack to an obvious problem.  I envisioned all kinds of wonderfully complicated approaches to granting approval: some probably predicting the fraud detection algorithms used by modern credit card processors to determine “iffy” transactions.

In the end, I simply started writing a small program to do the same thing using the C-64.  I did this mostly as an exercise in creating a simple database system that used CBM’s “REL” files (which were somewhat unreliable and REALLY slow, quite an accomplishment for the slowest disk hardware of any 8-bit micro).  All it did was assign a unique 12-digit number to every “customer”, kept a running tally (in tens of dollars, rounded down) of how much they purchased in a 48-hour period, and had a “bad customer” flag.  And then, I did something back then that today seems… prescient.

The “bad customer” flag was actually one byte in one version, later two.  It started out just being a “if this is present, decline the check” flag.  I then wrote a quick little routine that allowed for four “check customer” states: bad, approve for amount of purchase, approve for cash back, approve for cash only.  Then, somewhere along the line, I got a crazy idea: I added a “customer type” series of bits.  I envisioned initially four customer types: household, commercial, employee, and one I called “geezer”, which in my (then) 14-year-old mind I can interpet to mean “honored citizen” in our modern politically correct vernacular.

The last version of the program I edited took an interesting turn.  I can’t rightly say where I got this idea, but I apparently added a second byte to the field, and added a flag I called in a REM statement “alcoholic”.  In digging through the text file notes on the disk, here was my thinking:

Interesting idea: since the cashier is typing an approval number into the cash register (and we can cross reference the approval number to the check writer), we can probably write something to scan the cash register data at the end of the day and mark a particular customer if they purchase something specific.. say, for example, they buy a beer we can mark a flag that says “this guy buys booze, let’s send this boozehound some coupons for more booze!”  We can write flags for specific department keys or even specific items, and then set the flags at the evening reconcile based upon SKUs purchased or department keys.

I’d be remiss to not point out that this is in 1984.

We already have the makings of a great privacy-violating program right here.  This was on a primitive 8-bit microcomputer with dodgy disk hardware, a very limited BASIC programming language, and an architecture that was great for playing games, not so much for hard-core data processing.

In contrast, now that I have 30 years of computer science under my belt, and much more knowledge of what was available to a regional grocery store chain in 1984; I can see that this would have been trivial to implement using an IBM minicomputer (or, more likely, one of the clones made by NCR and the like) and the COBOL programming language.  It is likely that a minicomputer would have already been driving the cash registers: this is when bar-code scanning at the supermarket was now universal, and many of those point-of-sale systems were driven by some variant of that hardware.  Based upon my memory, I even think the “prototype” that got me thinking about this in 1984 was NCR cash registers.

Recently, a lot of people in the upper echelons of companies like Facebook, Google, and (the former) Sun Microsystems have made statements that all come down to “privacy is irrelevant.”  Looking back at what a kid with a C-64 was able to envision 25 years ago, I now totally understand what those words mean.

Okay, so you can try to live your life without rewards cards, frequent flyer programs, and no Facebook page.  In the end, however, you’re still trackable.

I recently had a conversation with a friend-of-a-friend who works for a regional retailer here in the Pacific Northwest (NOTE: not the aforementioned Fred Meyer).  I won’t mention them by name.  This retailer has a small “frequent shopper” rewards program, and also maintains a pretty impressive customer database and one wicked-cool data warehouse.  In their data warehouse, they can call up any transaction on any day anywhere in the chain in the past 10 years.  If they paid by check, there’s an image of the check.  If they paid by credit card, there’s the signature.  Every part of the transaction was captured.

What I didn’t expect was how much of the data was further mined beyond just what was on the surface.  He then showed me a pilot project that they’ve been working on that is being driven both by the marketing department and the buyers (the people who choose what products the store carries).  What they showed me proves that “privacy is irrelevant.”

They euphemistically call it ‘anonymous capture.’  What ‘anonymous capture’ does is to try to find patterns in non-loyalty transactions that allow them to identify individual customers and their buying habits without having loyalty data.  They claim that as many as 40% of these “anonymous transactions” can actually be identified to individual customers, and by closely analyzing the transactions they can collect the demographics information they are looking for without the loyalty program.

A lot of the way this system actually works is a closely guarded corporate secret.  But it’s all based on the fact that humans are amazingly predictable creatures.

He shows me the purchases of one particular anonymous customer.  He pulls up ten receipts over a two-month period, and explains which items on the receipts probably triggered the algorithm and why.  The algorithm said that these ten purchases are likely the same person: female, married, 30-45 years old, 1 or 2 children, upper-middle class income.  He then pulls a file folder out of his desk drawer of photos from the store surveillance cameras, taken at the time and date of the transactions.

Guess what?  They’re indeed all the same woman.  And in one or two of the stills, you can clearly see her two tweener children, making the age, marital status, and income bracket clearly within what the algorithm predicted.

These were cash transactions.  The system had nothing to go on other than the frequency of the purchases, the items purchased, and the times and dates of the transactions.

Then it got disturbing as he said “let’s go further down the rabbit hole.”  Now, granted, this was a demonstration: this was a repeatable result that my friend knew in advance would work.   But it is still scary.

He starts a process that mines the historical archives, looking for this “profiled customer” to see if he can ever find a name.  Sure enough, at a different store in the chain there was a debit card purchase from this same “customer” (according to the purchase profile), and it was confirmed by looking at store surveillance cameras.  The system predicted a lot more about this person at this point: once you confirmed the link in the software, the system now predicted that she worked near store #2’s location, and that she probably worked in health care.

Friend then showed me a couple of other printouts he had in the file: a Facebook page for the person (likely found by name) that clearly demonstrated these additional facts were true.

One customer, who never filled out a “rewards card application”, but has now been identified just as granularly as if she had handed this chain her Facebook page and said “go nuts.”

“But,” I hear you say, “we had to have a human involved!  Surely, that makes it not practical!”

Nope.  This was just done for this one customer (well, I’d gather, for a statistically relevant subset of customers) to “prove” the system “worked,” or more likely, to get a feel for how frequently the system “didn’t work.”

And that’s where things get a little creepy.  The system works, 100%, for gathering the data they need.

See, all they care about is the fact that this woman’s purchases give them an idea of what a 30-45 year old woman with a moderate income and two kids buys from their store.  To a large degree, even if the woman wasn’t the exact same identifiable woman with a Facebook profile it wouldn’t matter.  They’re looking for the trend, the mean.  The individual doesn’t matter.

And that’s why “creepy drugstore privacy” is a red herring.  Privacy advocates holler about their personal privacy, and they’re thinking that loyalty card programs care about capturing data about the individual. They probably couldn’t care less about you: they only want to know enough about you to figure out what bucket to put you in, and to make sense of your purchase data relevant to that bucket.

At the end of the day, there’s a huge upside to you, the consumer, of all this data mining.  I purchase probably 80% of the things I need at Fred Meyer.  I buy most of my groceries, a lot of my clothing, and all of my medicines.  I purchase the majority of my fuel from Fred Meyer stations now that I live near one.  I buy a small percentage of my media and electronics from there, but enough to give a reasonably clear picture of my entertainment habits.  From this, Uncle Freddy has a pretty clear profile of who I am and what demographics I’m in.  They probably know I’m single and male.  They know from my address I live in a modest apartment complex in a middle-income part of town.  They can probably surmise my income based upon the amount of money I spend in their store, and even what things I buy.  And my fuel purchases (mid-grade unleaded and diesel) gives them some idea that I own two cars, and they could probably accurately determine that one of them is older and/or an import.  They can probably also guess from my purchases in the Euro-food aisle (a unique feature at my Freddy’s that isn’t present at a lot of their stores) that I’m either a gourmand or of central European ancestry (and they’d be wrong there, but how wrong really?).

Point is in how this data is used.  From this data, they have a pretty clear picture of what Fred Meyer needs to do to keep my business.  Or, not keep it, if I’m not a desirable customer.  They can collect all this data from all the customers of their stores, and get a precise laser-guided missile of products to land at the store so that they have what I need at a price I’ll pay, and (perhaps more importantly) nothing I won’t buy.  Shelf space is expensive, demographics are cheap.

There’s a local legend that Fred Meyer (the man) offered to pay parking tickets for anybody who got one while shopping at his downtown store: all they needed to do was turn in the ticket at the Customer Service counter with their sales receipt and they’d be cheerfully refunded.  Meanwhile, he collected all the tickets and discovered exactly WHERE his customers were coming from, and how much they were spending at his store when they came.  Using this data, he opened a store in Portland’s Hollywood district, and became one of the Pacific Northwest’s retail success stories.

In the end, isn’t that a benefit to me?  There are downsides (and that’s a whole different discussion), but in the end, the store is there to serve me the customer.

If Fred Meyer can use the data that I’m diabetic and love chocolate to ensure that they carry more sugar-free chocolate bars, they can have that data.  Mine away, good merchant, mine away.

*: There is a system where you can load coupons onto your Rewards card and you will get the preferred pricing at checkout. At the moment, this feature seems under-marketed: it seems more like a perk for getting you to check the website than a feature of the Rewards card program, but it remains to be seen how aggressively they will market this in the future..