Recent Posts

A Letter to Senator Rubio

Senator Rubio,

As a registered Republican, a citizen of the state of Florida, and an evangelical Christian, I have watched with a mix of anger and horror as our President has subverted the core values this party has stood for and abused high office what appears to be his own selfish gain. Over the past several weeks that mix of emotions has been replaced by heartbreak as his administration has enacted, and then defended, a set of policies that have directly resulted in the separation of children from their parents. As both a seminary graduate and an ordained church elder, it brings additional pain to see that that the Bible, the same Scripture this party has used to defend "family values," has been perverted to defend practices that are the antithesis of that phrase.

I take the time to write you because I believe you to be a man of character, and one who has been willing to take a stand on issues—even unpopular issues—that you think are important. I can think of no more important cause than protecting "the least of these" (Matthew 25:40), and so I write now to call on you to support any act of Congress that outlaws the routine separation of children from their parents at the border, or anywhere. These people may not be American citizens, and they may even be crossing the border illegally. That is no excuse for the inhumanity with which they have been met.

I draw your attention in particular to the HELP Separated Children Act and the Keep Families Together Act. It's my estimation that either one of these bills is worthy of your support. I ask you to consider them carefully and ask yourself if they might be worth defending even if it means breaking ranks with our party. To be clear, not only would I accept such a decision on your part, but I would support it. Your early support would show the kind of leadership our party sorely needs: moral leadership.

Members of our party routinely speak as if America is in crisis. If that is true, I believe we are the ones largely to blame. Senator, you are in a far better position than I to do something about that, and I call on you to start here. Protect the dignity and value of every human life. Protect the value of family wholeness. You can put a stop to this inhumanity. Please do.

Facebook Defends Universal Data Collection

Since June of last year, Facebook has been publishing a series called Hard Questions. In the latest installment in that series, David Baser, Facebook's Product Management Director, gives some details about what kind of data Facebook collects on you even if you don't have a Facebook account. David acknowledges that his post is partly a response to a question Congress posed to Mark Zuckerberg last week, which puts him a bit on the defensive with regard to the fact of this type of data collection. To wit, why does Facebook do something as arguably intrusive as collect data on folks who have no other relationship to the site?

That question remains implied, but David's answer to it does not. Here's what he says, in part:

When you visit a site or app that uses our services, we receive information even if you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account. This is because other apps and sites don’t know who is using Facebook.

Many companies offer these types of services and, like Facebook, they also get information from the apps and sites that use them. Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn all have similar Like and Share buttons to help people share things on their services. Google has a popular analytics service. And Amazon, Google and Twitter all offer login features. These companies — and many others — also offer advertising services. In fact, most websites and apps send the same information to multiple companies each time you visit them.

So there you have it. Facebook collects data on everyone, because everyone else is doing it. It comes off a bit like a child responding to a scolding ("And what would you do if Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google all jumped off a bridge?"), but it's also not completely uninformative. We know all of these companies are doing this, but this type of defense can lead in one of two directions: either the practice is okay and everyone can continue to collect this kind of data, or it isn't okay and the whole system needs to change, possibly through some kind of industry-wide regulation.

Facebook's defense of its data collection practices has just called the question on how American society will respond to it.

The Mozilla Foundation On A Healthy Internet

Sean Gallagher over at Ars Technica reported yesterday on the 2018 Internet Health Report, which Mozilla puts together. I'm linking the article in addition to the report itself because Sean does such a great job summarizing it. Of course I also think the Report itself is important, and I particularly like the metrics it uses to gauge how healthy the Internet is.

Gallagher summarizes the report's concerns this way:

Of particular concern were three issues:

  • Consolidation of power over the Internet, particularly by Facebook, Google, Tencent, and Amazon.
  • The spread of "fake news," which the report attributes in part to the "broken online advertising economy" that provides financial incentive for fraud, misinformation, and abuse.
  • The threat to privacy posed by the poor security of the Internet of Things.

I'd point out that the Report itself alludes to another concern, and it's one that I hope to give a lot of attention to in my writing here, and that's the topic of Web literacy. As I hope to explain in future posts, I think there's a reciprocal relationship between the problems above and Web literacy, which is to say the problems above are both made worse by Web illiteracy, and at the same time make Web illiteracy worse.

For now I'll put that out there as food for thought.

Structural Problems With For-Profit Social Media

Many of you who know me personally know that I've become increasingly concerned with online privacy over the past few years. It's a topic that is near and dear to my heart, because I think the privacy, including online privacy, is very important to a healthy civic life. I hope to write a lot more about that going forward, but for now I want to introduce you to someone whose work I'm only beginning to dig into myself, but who has an awful lot of really smart things to say on the topic of online privacy (among other things): Zeynep Tufekci.

I spare you my attempt at a mini-biography, mostly because I'm about the least qualified person in the world to deliver. Rather, I'll point you to this TED talk that she did October of last year where she talks about the infrastructure that companies like Facebook and YouTube control and how much they're able to do with the data they collect on us.

Here are a couple of quotes a took down as I was listening:

  • It's not that the people that run Facebook or Google are maliciously and deliberately trying to make the world more polarized and encourage extremism. ... But it's not the intent and the statements that [these folks] are making that matter; it's the structures and the business models they are building.
  • Either Facebook is a half-a-trillion dollar con and ads don't work on the site ... or it's power of influence is of great concern.

Her prescription seems on point: "We need a digital economy where our data and our attention is not for sale to the highest bidding authoritarian or demagogue." That's actually just the sound-bite synopsis of her more nuanced call for businesses, consumers, and governments all to work together to determine what our collective vision is for all of the algorithmic magic (read: artificial intelligence) underlying these systems, how they should operate, and the moral systems that ultimately must be coded into them.

Evangelical Christians in the circles I run in have begun in the past few years to seriously confront the fact that cultural structures often exist to keep the powerful in power. I think a lot of us are going to have to take a look at what has grown out of the combination of free markets and the internet have caused to grow up, and then have a very serious discussion about what might need to change.

Traveling With The Good and The Bad

Things I'm Thankful For When Traveling

  • Online check-in and ticketing
  • Random acts of kindness to help calm a screaming toddler
  • Regarding above: The Netflix series Llama Llama
  • Also regarding above: The children's series Paw Patrol
  • Car rentals with CarPlay support, and that Apple finally got it's crap together re: Maps
  • Staying with family rather than at a hotel
  • A toddler sleeping mid-flight
  • Getting to show my family new places or, as the case may be, places that are old to me but new to them
  • The folks I'll get to see at the destination
  • People watching on the way

Things I Would Prefer Be Different When Traveling

  • Lackadaisical bag-check attendants, who one might think are duty bound to not care about people's boarding times, etc.
  • The feeling of panic between when your toddler starts screaming like a banshee and when the aforementioned acts of kindness are perpetrated by various other passengers/Good Samaritans
  • The mild sense dehumanization that accompanies any trip through the TSA line, but especially the ones with long waits and grumpy uniforms
  • Turbulence
  • That heartless master, the airplane seatbelt light
  • $4 cans of soda
  • However much a well drink costs mid-flight (I won't pay it unless the Mrs. tells me that I'm being insufferable and I should have a drink for her sake)
  • My own crankiness and overall unpleasantness toward others, especially my wife