One Million Moms vs. the other Three Hundred Million Americans

One Million Moms is at it again against JCPenney. And it would be humorous, if it wasn’t so sad.

JCPenney, like most middle-class focused retailers, has been watching their classic demographic wither and die. They’ve already watched as many of their contemporaries.. once proud national retailers like Montgomery Ward.. and regional retailers like Mervyn’s.. have folded. Sears is a shadow of it’s former self. And even the upscale retailers have not been exempt, as chains like The Broadway and Meier and Frank have found themselves consolidated into Macy’s, while others have just simply vanished.

JCPenney is smart to be inclusive. Increasingly, as the next generation matures into adulthood, they already carry a much higher level of tolerance to alternative lifestyles. With each passing generation American society is becoming more inclusive and more open.

For the rest of us, let’s remind JCPenney that One Million Moms.. even if they do indeed represent “one million Moms”, is 0.3% of the population of the United States. We should not allow a small, hateful, bigoted organization to dictate terms under which we all should live.

It’s time for that minority to go into the closet.

Desert rain, and winter pains.

I miss living in the desert.

Spring appears to have arrived in Bend.  I’ve only lived here a few weeks and I can already identify the shift in the weather.  In fairly short order, the snow has turned to rain, and the rain has a.. dryness to it that reminds me of the monsoon rains in the Mojave and Sonora deserts.

It smells a little like home.  And it’s comforting.

I’m now surrounded by the odor of a desert coming alive.  This smell is quite different from the odor of the past three weeks.  It’s not as “cold” (even though the temperature still hovers around freezing at night).  It’s inviting.  It’s earthy.  It invited me to get out of my car in the middle of the desert today (some 40 miles east of downtown Bend) to experience the rain.

A lot of pain from the Long Winter I just lived through was washed away today.  Spring is finally here again.

It doesn’t mean shit.

You want to stop the RIAA and MPAA? It’s really this simple.

Stop buying RIAA-produced music. Stop buying movie tickets to MPAA-produced movies. Stop supporting the content industry in general, who produces vapid mind-rotting “culture” and abuses artists and technical people alike.

10% of us doing this would do more to hurt the industry than if every website opposing SOPA/PIPA went dark for a month.

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.

Occupy? My ass.

I really want to be wrong with where I’m going with this entry.  However, I fear that I am more correct than even I realize.

Let me start by saying I in principal agree with most of the points that seem to be proffered by many of those protesting in our nation’s cities.  I’m heartened to see many of the younger generation finally starting to “get it”: that corporations have too much power, and that the cornerstone of our Republic has been so compromised that change is needed.

That change needed to happen before September 11, 2001.  It just can’t happen now.

This war you are fighting was lost a century ago when corporations were declared “persons” not by an act of Congress, nor by Presidential decree, but by a series of court decisions and even more centuries of legal precedent.  Our entire society has been based upon this bit of legal wrangling.  It’s not just as simple as declaring it “not to be true.”  Corporations exist for a reason, and many corporations use their legal “personhood” to do much public good.

Case in point.  Occupy Portland began their march today in the shadow of MercyCorps “corporate headquarters”, on the site of the old Skidmore Fountain Market.  As I look at the live feed of the video, I wonder how many people.. many of whom are literally LEANING on this very building, are aware of how much “corporate personhood” allows MercyCorps to do what they do.   I don’t even understand many of the legal implications, let alone understand what I do know well enough to explain them to someone else.

Do you really want this corporation to cease to exist?

The American Red Cross provides much in humanitarian aid to not only those affected by large-scale natural disasters, but small personal ones as well.  The blood services they provide alone have saved countless lives.  I have my disagreements with how the Red Cross is often run, but that does not stop me from acknowledging the greater good they do to society as a whole.

Do you really want this corporation to cease to exist?

For good or bad, much public infrastructure depends on the legal infrastructure of the corporation.  There isn’t a communications technology invented in the past 200 years that could have existed WITHOUT the corporation.  The Pony Express (the United States Postal Service is, in actuality, a corporation owned by the US Government), the telegraph and the railroads that it was built along side of, the telephone (and the telegraph network it supplanted), cellular telephones (which by their very nature requires a very tightly integrated network that would be financially impossible to build by a private individual on the scale required for blanket coverage [Side note that ties this together: Did you know that Sprint was, at one point, part of the Southern Pacific Railroad?]), and the Internet (which requires some of the same infrastructure as much of the above).  All of these very “democratizing” forms of communication REQUIRE a corporation to make happen.

Do you really think the government (who is likely the only entity who could effectively manage and control all these resources effectively) would do any better?

Banks exist for a reason.  We can argue that reason until we’re blue in the face, but the reality is we could no more switch off the Federal Reserve System tomorrow if we wanted to.  Even if we decided, as a nation, that the short term economic destruction was worth it.. it just couldn’t happen.  Small-scale reforms?  Maybe.  But even then, any significant changes to our financial system would likely have huge repercussions that nobody would understand.  Nobody. Anybody who says otherwise is either lying, mentally deranged, or just simply an idiot.

We can all shift our money to Credit Unions.  There are implications to that.  Also, as auxiliary members of the Federal Reserve System, you  aren’t really changing much.  The money you deposit into a credit union will often find it’s way right back into Bank of America, Citibank, Chase, or any one of the Big Banks We All Hate.  As an example, did you know that if your credit union is a member of the CU Service Center network, when you deposit at a CU Service Center the transaction is actually “cleared” via accounts held at Citibank?  (CLUE: Why do you think VCOM machines at Seven-11 are both Citibank ATMs and CU Service Center locations?)

There’s no wonder that conspiracy theories abound in this environment.  Everybody has blood on their hands.


Which is why nothing will change.  Here’s a fact that many of you who are protesting don’t understand.  That 99% vs. 1% dichotomy you keep parroting?  It isn’t that simple.  Most of us in that 99% depend on that 1% for our paychecks.  Most of us in that 99% depend on that 1% to keep our money, our streets, and our homes safe through insurance and bank accounts.  Most of us in that 99% depend on that 1% for what little heath care one can get without the aforementioned job and/or insurance.

At the end of the day, most of that 99% lives in relative comfort.  Most of us live in peace.  Some of us are old, frail, and/or sick and would quite literally die if society were to collapse tomorrow.  A few of us fear for the Republic if things continue the way they are.

But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, if tomorrow the corporation ceased to exist, I’d be dead within a week.


Is that what you really want?

Today’s rant.

Apple’s announcements yesterday? Color me unimpressed.

And another thing. All the analysts that are calling the Kindle Fire “not an iPad killer” are totally missing the point. If the Kindle Fire does 80% of what an iPad can do and costs 40% of the price, it is an iPad killer.

Just like Android hasn’t been an iPhone killer.

Current Smartphone Share


Moving to Seattle

So, I’ve decided I’m moving to Seattle regardless of the outcome of my most recent job interview.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Portland dearly. I’m not a huge fan of Seattle, the city. As I’ve said previously, it sort of has all the things that annoy me about San Francisco and Los Angeles combined into one city. I don’t like the traffic. I don’t like the way the transit works: granted, the transit is pretty good compared to Los Angeles, and almost on-par with San Francisco. Seattle also “smells funny.”

But increasingly there is little opportunity in Portland for me to thrive. I’ve been struggling with this for years. Even when I’ve had a job and doing financially well, there are things that just never quite fall in place for me. Things always seem just below the threshold of “awesome,” and it’s frustrating operating at just under optimal for me. I’d almost rather be operating at 75% “awesome” than 98%. I can work around that 25% difference.

Except I have this feeling that life for me in Seattle is going to be 75% awesome. Increasingly, it looks like it’s going to be, at worst, me switching out a collection of 2% annoyances with another set of 2% annoyances. Considering that one of the annoyances of life in Portland has been opportunity, that seriously skews things.

See, Seattle is a Big CityTM. Portland is, at it’s best, a small city.. but in reality, it’s perhaps the biggest small town you’ve ever seen. There are few big city opportunities here. Unemployment here is historically high, and given the financial situation of the past few years it’s been downright appalling.

I scan the job boards in Seattle, and there’s a ratio somewhere around 40:1 of jobs advertised. It’s that bad here in Portland.. for every job I see here in Portland, there’s at least 40 in Seattle that I could apply for. I understand there’s a huge talent pool up there, too.. but the odds are just overwhelming.

Add to that the social element. I’ve made friends in Portland, don’t get me wrong. But every time I’m in Seattle, I come home with at least one new friend there. EVERY TIME, WITHOUT EXCEPTION. It has taken me the better part of eight years here in Portland to collect 1/4 of the friend circle I have in Seattle, even though I don’t actually LIVE in Seattle. The social groups I’d be involved in there have hundreds of members, not just a dozen or two. All of my interests are hyper-present in Seattle. Hell, the Seattle anime scene (something I’m not completely immersed in, but have a passing interest in Japanese culture generically) hosts the [arguably] largest con of it’s kind outside Japan. These scenes are healthy and vibrant, to varying degrees. There’s living, breathing hacker spaces (the ones here in PDX seem to die the minute I find them), a couple of wonderful occult groups I’m already involved in, and very interesting communities that appeal to my more.. um.. prurient interests.

Portland is an oddly insular city. I still don’t understand that.

City life is always a collection of compromises, regardless of the city. I’ve tolerated Portland’s compromises to the point that they are seriously challenging my ability to thrive. Being unemployed for .. what, well over a year now? … has created a situation that is unsustainable. If things were financially going well for me here, I’d have no reason to leave. But with the job situation being so sucky, it makes no sense to stay here, even though I love everybody I’ve met in Portland, and would do anything to bring all of you with me…


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.


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.



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..

There will be more on this later, believe me.

I just wanted to pop over here and write something brief about this, mostly to jog my own memory for later.

I’ve been working on a series of articles for here about religion, atheism, spiritualism, and where my current beliefs sit on all of this. That’s all a bit complicated, but suffice to say I’m probably what you’d call a “wavering skeptic.”

Anyway, I’ve been participating in a lot of the discussions on reddit regarding atheism and such. And I now think I have some understanding of the reasons many who embrace the Scientific Method tend towards atheism (or at least agnosticism): that being the concept of Arguing from The Null.

The Null Hypothesis is very important to the Scientific Method. Most of the truly interesting science happens when you test against the null, and H0 is perhaps the most radical idea anybody has ever invented. And I think a lot of theists don’t fundamentally understand the perspective of the Argument from The Null. You are either for something, or against something. It’s impossible that you could be arguing from a neutral position, a position that allows any valid theory to be proffered, tested, debated, buried in soft peat for three months, recycled as firelighters, and then perhaps even accepted.

I forgot just how awesome H0 really is. Thank you, arguing on reddit.