Entry 695: YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE!

It’s been widely reported that, in a recent study, researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs) and discovered that the average human attention span is eight seconds.

But if that were true, you wouldn’t still be reading this.

On the other hand, it could explain why Trump supporters never seem to be paying attention when their man says something insane. He usually manages to be “presidential” for eight seconds before going off on a rant, by which time his fans’ minds have wandered off, as has his.

It has also been noted that the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds, which would seem to indicate that small carp can hold a thought longer than humans. That could be true; after all, if there’s one thing you can say about goldfish, it’s that they didn’t have anything to do with the result of the last election.

Our severely limited ability to concentrate on one thing long enough to complete a sneeze (“Ah, ah, oh, look, a text”) is often said to be the result of the proliferation of devices demanding our attention at all times.

My wife, who, incidentally, sent me the article about this study, has been seen watching TV while playing a game on her iPad while glancing at her Apple Watch because a call was coming in to her iPhone. It drives me kind of crazy when we’ll be sitting there, and suddenly she looks at her wrist and races from the room, as if she has just realized she’s late for an appointment at 9 pm in the middle of watching “Westworld” in her loungewear. (She doesn’t like actually trying to conduct a conversation through her watch, so she goes to where her phone is charging.)

Wow, that was a long paragraph. I don’t know how I got through it.

The reason that our devices are being blamed for our inability to concentrate is that our attention span was 12 seconds at the beginning of the century, when all we had were flip phones. Yes, that’s right–just 17 years ago, “text” hadn’t even become a verb yet!

But still, we must be able to concentrate for longer than eight seconds, right?  I mean, jeez, even my dog Riley can focus for way longer than that.  He’ll stare at me relentlessly when he wants to play. I’ll be trying to write, and I can feel his little eyes boring into me, and he won’t even friggin’ move! (As proof, the three photos at left were taken over a span of about 20 minutes.) And, I don’t know about you, but I just can’t work while being stared at, and…

Wait, what was I talking about again?

Right–attention spans.

Of course, it has not gone unnoticed that our President, for whom, you may recall, goldfish bear no responsibility, has a notoriously short attention span. So much so, in fact, that, earlier this year, Newsweek reported that NATO wanted some of the world’s top leaders to cut down their discussions to a maximum of four minutes for their first meeting with Trump.

Four minutes? He’d be off tweeting about his wall long before then! I can just imagine someone from the EU giving a major climate policy presentation, which she has cut down to five PowerPoint pages with no more than three bullet points per page, and looking up around page three to see the leader of the free world giving his thumbs a workout on his smart phone.

Anyway, I’ll end this post now, because I know I’ve already taxed your shrinking ability to read something with this many words without taking a break.

So go look at some puppy videos, and I’ll see you soon.

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Entry 694: Miss Taken Identity?

Well, the recent Equifax debacle has once again reminded us (because we seem to keep forgetting) that anything is hackable.

Of course, it’s particularly disturbing when the hackee is an entity that knows more about you than you do, including your unfortunate decision in 1982 to use a furniture store’s easy payment plan to purchase a waterbed, an act you’ve managed to push to the far back of your subconscious, but which nevertheless remains on your record in perpetuity.

The news media is no help. It’s in full panic mode, urgently advising consumers to sign up for fraud alerts, freeze their credit, change their passwords and carefully scan their credit card statements for mysterious charges.

I decided to sign up for Equifax’s fraud alert for the best possible reason: it was free. I waited, however, until the company removed its sneaky clause about not being able to sue, because I wanted to be sure I could get my piece of the inevitable class-action law suits. I frequently receive notices that I have won such suits, usually against companies who did something questionable regarding their stock offerings, even though I didn’t even know I owned stock in these companies because it was part of some mutual fund. Usually my share of the multi-million dollar settlement is about $1.98. Sometimes, if the lawsuit was against a company that was misrepresenting their fees, my settlement amount is in the form of store coupons.

But getting back to Equifax, I registered for their fraud alert, which entailed providing much of the personal information they had previously protected to the best of their ability, and participating in some weird CAPTCHA puzzle game involving road signs. I was told they’d get back to me in a few days. They did, with this email:

Dear Mark Hallen,

It is time to take the final steps in enrolling in your free product, TrustedID Premier, by verifying your identity. To do this, you’ll need to answer some questions about yourself. Successfully completing this step will conclude your enrollment process and activate your product.

To verify your identity and activate your product, please click the link below:

Hah! I knew better than to click a link in an email. This email could be a phishing scam from people who had hacked Equifax’s database of people who had signed up for their fraud alert. So I got to where I needed to be by circuitous means, provided the last four digits of my Social Security number and my date of birth, and clicked “Continue.”

Nothing happened.

I called the phone number in the email and was surprised when it was quickly answered by a real, English-speaking person. “We’re sorry about that,” she said. “Our servers are overloaded, what with everyone trying to protect their identities because we didn’t protect their identities.”

Well, maybe she didn’t use those exact words.

She told me to try again in a few hours, and, of course, I forgot. But when I woke up at 3 am to go to the bathroom, I had an e-pee-phany that this might be a good time to activate “my product.” So, once again I entered the last four digits of my Social Security number and my date of birth. But, when I used the pull down list to get to the year of my birth (and I had to pull it down a long way), I accidentally clicked on the year before I was born, and got this message:

“We’re sorry. The information you provided doesn’t match our records. Please try again in 24 hours.”

Okay, well, first, if I’m an identity thief, what difference is the 24 hours going to make? Is that just to make me wait a day before I take another guess at the year? Second, what are the odds that a criminal knows my Social Security number and birthday, but hasn’t quite managed to get his hands on the year I was born?

And third, is this indicative of the advanced security measures usually in place at Equifax?

Let me leave you today with an idea that will make everybody’s personal data three times more secure: eliminate two of the three credit reporting agencies. I mean, think about it: why are three companies collecting and selling the same information? It just means there are three times the number of servers available to be hacked.

Right?

See you soon.

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Entry 693: Um, What’s in the Wafer, Father?

At first glance, the news story, sadly, was not unusual. A house of worship somewhere in America had been vandalized.

At second glance, however, I noticed a couple of extraordinary aspects to the story. It was not, for instance, a black church. Or a synagogue. Or a mosque. And, let’s see, what was the other thing? Oh, yeah, it was the First Church of Cannabis.

Somewhat surprisingly, the First Church of Cannabis is not in Colorado or Oregon or Snoop Dogg’s living room or any other location that may come to mind when the subject is marijuana. It’s in Indianapolis. Why Indianapolis? I’m guessing it’s where Bill Levin lives.

Bill Levin is the pastor at ye olde FCoC. He founded the church in 2015, probably on a dare, and possibly on a bongful of Ghost Train Haze. He’s not the pastor, actually. He calls himself the “grand poobah.” Which may be an indication that he is not exactly positioning himself as a messiah. Or even an a-pot-sle.

But things have sort of escalated to the point where the church is in a real building, with real parishioners and real First Church of Cannabis merch sold in the lobby and online. Oh, yes, and real tax-exempt status. This may make you wonder what exactly the IRS is smoking these days, but, hey, religious freedom is religious freedom, whether you believe in Jesus, Allah or sativa.

Getting back to the news story, the vandals had spray painted a brown “X’ on the church’s front sign and ripped some gutters from the roof. It is unclear what the “X” is supposed to mean, or whether the police are searching nearby homes for new gutter installations.

It wasn’t the first time the church had been hit, either. Sometime earlier, a heartless hash heretic killed Levin’s pet peacock, Bert (pictured below with a heavenly glow around his head).  On the plus side, none of Levin’s four goats were harmed.

It’s anybody’s guess what somebody would have against a religion whose first commandment is “Don’t be an asshole.” That’s right–like any religion, the First Church of Cannabis has commandments. In fact, it’s even stricter than Judeo-Christian faiths because it has 12 commandments instead of only 10, but then, in the FCoC’s case, the tablets they were handed down on could have been iPads.

Here are what the First Church of Cannabis calls “the Deity Dozen”:

  1. Don’t be an asshole. Treat everyone with Love as an equal.
  2. The day starts with your smile every morning. When you get up, wear it first.
  3. Help others when you can. Not for money, but because it’s needed.
  4. Treat your body as a temple. Do not poison it with poor quality foods and sodas.
  5. Do not take advantage of people. Do not intentionally hurt anything.
  6. Never start a fight… only finish them.
  7. Grow food, raise animals, get nature into your daily routine.
  8. Do not be a “troll” on the internet, respect others without name calling and being vulgarly aggressive.
  9. Spend at least 10 mins a day just contemplating life in a quiet space.
  10. Protect those who can not protect themselves.
  11. Laugh often, share humor. Have fun in life, be positive.
  12. Cannabis, “the Healing Plant” is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.

Some of the first 11 commandments only make sense if you’ve been following the 12th. Is #6, for instance, saying that it’s okay to fight as long as you win? Is #2 implying that you should sleep naked? And what’s #4 all about? How can you smoke weed and not follow it with poor quality foods? When else does one eat pork rinds?

In any case, I hope the police catch the person or persons involved in vandalizing the church. We simply cannot tolerate these kind of hate crimes (or whatever the hell kind of crime this was) in America, not to mention the murder of innocent peacocks. Capturing the criminals may not bring back Bill’s beloved bird Bert, but maybe he can have his gutters returned to him.

Of course, even if they aren’t brought to justice, the criminals may one day have to answer to, as the old Hebrew National ads used to say, a higher authority.  Which, in this case, could be any member of Bill Levin’s church.

By the way, if you’re interested in attending a service at the First Church of Cannabis, they are held every Wednesday at 7:30, in person or streamed live on Facebook.

And if you’re interested in attaining tax-exempt status for yourself, you might consider becoming the Grand Poobah of the Second Church of Cannabis.

See you soon.

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Entry 692: Hallen’s Believe It or Not

The facts are true; the bold comments are snide.

A mole can dig a tunnel 300 feet long in just one night! Which is why you just can’t keep those guys in jail.

President Trump apparently has a super power that enables him to stare directly at an eclipse. Yeah, but it causes retroactive brain damage.

Thomas Edison, lightbulb inventor, was afraid of the dark! He was also terrified of live music.

A cockroach can live several weeks with its head cut off until it eventually dies of starvation! Unless you feed it intravenously.

It’s against the rules of a certain church in Nebraska to burp or sneeze. That would be Our Lady of the Blessed Fart.

A hippo can open its mouth wide enough to fit a four foot tall child inside! Or a three-foot child on a kaiser roll.

A quarter has 119 grooves on its edge; a dime has only one less groove! Which means that, on a per-groove basis, your dime is a much better value.

All Froot Loops are the same flavor. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the same is true of frozen yogurt; it’s just a cold substance that takes on the flavors of the junk you put on top of it.

The Himalayan honey bee makes an hallucinogenic honey that is collected by local tribes. It’s also used in Honey Bunches of Oooooooooooooos.

Every time you lick a stamp, you’re consuming 1/10 of a calorie! I lost 165 pounds in two weeks on the United States Postal Service diet. Now I’m skinny and disgruntled.

Russia is spending $30 million on an arena to showcase Vladimir Putin’s daughter’s favorite sport, acrobatic rock n’ roll. In a related story, the United States Army has requisitioned 5,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump Leopard Print Heeled Sandals.

Human thigh bones are stronger than concrete!  But still not appropriate to make a kitchen counter out of.

If you die in Amsterdam and have no friends or family to make burial arrangements, a poet will write a poem for you and recite it at the funeral. Okay, but who would hear it?

The average life span of a major league baseball is 5-7 pitches! They’re alive?

The Mint once considered producing doughnut-shaped coins! But the jelly kept oozing out when you put them in vending machines.

Cat urine glows under a black light! Groovy.

The electric chair was invented by a dentist! Why am I not surprised?

Camels have three eyelids to protect themselves from blowing sand! Previous attempts to stop camels from blowing sand had failed.

Most lipstick contains fish scales! Especially the salmon color.

One ragweed plant can release as many as one billion grains of pollen! And sometimes I think that one plant is following me.

The brain is our fattiest organ, comprised of 60% fat! Evidently, Americans are not nearly as obese as previously reported.

If you counted 24 hours a day, it would take 31,688 years to reach one trillion! Worst thing ever: Counting for 31,677 years and the phone rings and you lose your place.

A “jiffy” is an actual unit of time equal to 1/100th of a second! And 6,000 jiffies equals one “I’ll be there in a minute!”

See you soon.

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Entry 691: Are You Ready for Some (Really Lousy) Football?

Well, a bright new NFL season is upon us. It’s the time of year when hope springs eternal, when everyone can believe their team has a chance to make it to the post-season.

Unless you’re a Jets fan.

While most teams are ready to begin competing for a Super Bowl berth, the New York Jets are ready to begin competing for next year’s top draft pick. Whereas teams sometimes have to rely on a second or third string quarterback because of injuries, the Jets are relying on a second or third string quarterback because their other quarterbacks are fourth and fifth string. Their best hope for a completed pass may be to yank Dan Fouts out of the broadcast booth.

The Jets are so bad, even their owner, Woody Johnson, has abandoned them. Johnson is now Ambassador to Great Britain. It doesn’t bode well when a team’s prospects are so low, its owner leaves the country.

I mention all this because a group of my friends have had a tradition of selecting one Jets game a year and taking all their kids to MetLife Stadium (motto: “Buy insurance before you try to get out of the parking lot.”) for the whole NFL experience, including a major pregame tailgate party.

This year, however, because of the supposed high school level caliber of the team, they have decided to modify the tradition somewhat. They’re still going to pick one Jets game for the group, and they’re still going to throw a massive tailgate party.

But they’re going to do it in my sister-in-law’s driveway.

The theory is that they can enjoy the best part of going to an NFL game, namely the tailgate party, without having to endure the worst part, namely the game.

I have never participated in the excursions to the stadium because a) I don’t think I could enjoy a game without the computer-generated first down line they show on TV and, b) I am a sane person who prefers the superior view of the action I can get in my home, where I also have the option of pressing pause for an hour and then coming back and fast-forwarding through the 300 commercials.

But now that the tradition has moved to a more convenient location, I just might join in the fun this year. I do have a few questions, though:

  1. After the party, will we go inside to watch the game on TV, or will they bring the TV outside to simulate as much as possible the experience of watching the game on the Jumbotron at the stadium?
  2. Regardless of where we watch the game, does it have to be the Jets game?
  3. If it’s a nasty, cold day do we have to keep the tailgate party outside?  I understand that, ideally, there are vehicles involved in tailgating, but there’ll be a warm and cozy house right there!
  4. Will someone be on hand to sell souvenirs like giant foam hands with fingers forming the number four?  (Fortunately for the Jets, the lowest they can finish is 4th.)  “Bring Back Browning Nagle*” t-shirts might be appropriate, too.
  5. To make the day more authentic, will they hire men to show up, get drunk, and curse loudly and creatively in front of the kids?

That last question is sort of academic now, because the kids are mostly grown up and able to create their own curses.

See you soon.

*Nagle was the highly touted Jets starting quarterback in 1992.  He ended his NFL career with a stellar 53.5 quarterback rating and 2½ times more interceptions than TDs. The Jets ended that season 4-12, a record which may look good after this year.
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Entry 690: These Days, Any Kind of Intelligence Might Be Helpful

Just when I thought I had a handle on the most immediate threats to our American way of life, Elon Musk has come along and sent out some tweets.

Mr. Musk, you may recall, is the fellow behind the Tesla automobiles that the rich people in your neighborhood drive. You don’t actually know where these vehicles come from since it’s not like you’ve ever driven past a Tesla dealership, but you have seen those new plug-in parking spaces at the mall that are only for electric cars, and they’re often even closer to the mall entrance than the handicap spaces, which makes you hate the rich people even more as you drive around the parking lot hinterlands. At least you can verbally express your outrage at the wealthy without feeling guilty; you’ve had to internalize the ill feelings you’ve been harboring toward the handicapped folks who always leave that one good space vacant just to mock you.

I looked it up, and if I did want to spend $86,950 on a Tesla Model 75D, the nearest place I could purchase one would be at “our showroom located inside The Westchester Mall, on the First Level near Nordstrom.” I imagine that the service department is on the Third Level, near The Gap. I also think I’d be pissed if I had to park in a bad space just so I could buy a car that would let me park in a good space. Maybe I could have a handicapped person drive me to the dealership.

But this post is not about Tesla automobiles. It’s about Mr. Musk’s prediction concerning the biggest threat to America, something he says poses “vastly more risk than North Korea.”

A.I.

No, he was not talking about the former NBA star Allen Iverson, who was only a threat to the New York Knicks (as are almost all the players in the NBA). He was talking about Artificial Intelligence.

Mr. Musk is so fearful of A.I., he tweeted his latest warning after his startup company, OpenAI, made a surprise appearance at a video game tournament in order to trounce the best gamers in the world playing something called “Dota 2,” which is described on Wikipedia as a:

“…multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game in which two teams of five players compete to collectively destroy a large structure defended by the opposing team known as the “Ancient”, whilst defending their own…The game is controlled using standard real-time strategy controls, and is presented on a single map in a three-dimensional isometric perspective. Ten players each control one of the game’s 113 playable characters, known as “heroes”, with each having their own design, benefits, and weaknesses. Heroes are divided into two primary roles, known as the “carry” and “support”…

It goes on and on like this, in a language that is similar to, but not quite, English. The point is that Musk’s “bot” became unbeatably good at Dota 2 by playing a “thousand lifetimes” of matches against itself, and Musk thinks that a computer that can learn through experience may be a real danger to humans, who have proven over and over that they can’t.

Personally, I don’t feel all that threatened by anything that spends so much time playing video games. But Musk has warned that if artificial intelligence is left unregulated, humans could devolve into the equivalent of “house cats” next to increasingly powerful supercomputers.

I’m sure Elon Musk is a smart guy, so it’s unclear to me why his start-up is working so tirelessly to develop something he believes will turn us into sneaky, noisy pets that suddenly leap up in front of you and scare the bejesus out of you. Or is that just Zorro, the feline who has been staying with us while my sister-in-law’s house is remodeled?

What I’m getting at is that Musk is a modern day Robert Oppenheimer, helping to develop the technology he knows will lead to the end of the world. Musk believes that A.I. must be regulated. “Nobody likes being regulated,” he says, “but everything that’s a danger to the public is regulated. AI should be too.” Musk, of course, is saying this while his company is developing advanced, unregulated A.I. He’s like an insane person yelling “Stop me before I kill again!”

And here’s the best part: Do you know how Musk thinks we should make A.I. less dangerous? By making more A.I. “I think one of the solutions that seems maybe the best is to add an A.I. layer,” he said. “A third, digital layer that could work well and symbiotically with the rest of your body. If we can create a high-bandwidth neural interface with your digital self, then you’re no longer a house cat.”

There’s that “not-quite-English” language again.

While I’m sure it will be cool to have Netflix stream future seasons of Stranger Things directly into my brain, I would prefer it if my digital self could not go off on its own, interfacing with who-knows-what, and partying to beat the bandwidth.

In any case, if Musk wants to prove his artificial intelligence theory, I hope he tries it out in The White House. I know we need to add some sort of intelligence there.

See you soon.

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BONUS POST: All Your Labor Day Questions Answered

Here’s a post from two years ago you might enjoy this weekend.

Well, Labor Day weekend is upon us, and I’m sure you all have some important questions…

Q. Who was Labor and why do we have a holiday honoring him?
A. Labor is not a who, it’s a what. We celebrate Labor Day in honor of all our workers who produce our goods, and make things run, and pick up our garbage and so forth. In other words, it could also be called “99% Day.”  If all you do is move money from one place to another, you don’t qualify, and you don’t deserve the day off.

Q. What are the origins of Labor Day?
A. It began in Canada as a Labour Appreciation Festival. When it came to America, we dropped the “u” because we wanted to recognize all our workers, working together, to make things work. And there is no “u” in “team.”

Q. Why did we feel the need to honor people just for doing their jobs?
A. Because, at the time, “just doing your job” was very dangerous. This was in the 1880’s, and workers didn’t have perks like air conditioning or fire exits. Plus, they would work 18- hour days, six days a week, and the kids’ parents worked even longer hours. And all they got paid was, like, $2 a week, 33¢ after taxes, which employers deducted even though taxes didn’t exist yet. Many full-time workers couldn’t even afford a decent calling plan. (Continued after the photo)

Men who are either toiling in a glass factory or trying to play an enormous musical instrument.

Men who are either toiling in a glass factory or trying to play an enormous musical instrument.

Q. But then the unions came along, right?
A. Correct. That’s when workers started getting killed in droves. And those were the lucky ones; if you were merely maimed, losing an arm, say, you could not get medical attention because there was no Obamacare back then. You’d have to keep on toiling at your steam-driven sewing machine and endure the embarrassment of people calling you “Lefty.”  (Continued after photo)

This photo of women at their sewing machines was taken in 1932, long after the labor movement began. Notice the improvements in working conditions, such as windows and handsome "massage men."

This photo of women at their sewing machines was taken in 1932, long after the labor movement began. Notice the improvements in working conditions, such as windows and handsome “massage men.”

Q. Why did the unions cause so many workers to get killed or injured?
A. Because the unions would call strikes, causing the workers to stop working at their jobs and, instead, parade around the factory with signs called “pickets.” Some would then trip over each other (because they weren’t used to being in parades), and skin their knees, resulting in open sores which would form “scabs.” Another cause of death and injury was the fact that the government frequently called in the military or U.S. Marshals to shoot at the workers.

Q. Why would they do that?
A. Because, at the time, the government only did what big business wanted.

Q. It’s a good thing that has changed.
A. Amen, brother. (continued after photo)

Even children had to work long hours on the picket lines.

Even children had to work long hours on the picket lines.

Q. You said Labor Day began in the 1880’s…
A. Well, individual states began recognizing Labor Day then. It didn’t become a federal holiday until 1894 because–and this will come as a shock to you–back then it took Congress a long time to approve stuff.

Q. So, before Labor Day began in 1894, how did people know when summer was over?
A. Excellent question! You see, before labor unions, people didn’t need to know when steeplechase-human-roulette-wheel[1]summer was over, because summer was only one day, typically the second Sunday in August, when everyone took the subway to Coney Island to go on rides that were even more dangerous than going on strike. For instance, “The Human Roulette Wheel” (pictured) would just start spinning at a high rate of speed, sending people crashing into each other.  Really.

Q. How did they decide on September for Labor Day?
A. Interestingly, the first American Labor Day was in Oregon in 1887, and it was in February. You can imagine how cold people got spending the long weekend at the beach. September was suggested by a group called The Knights of Labor, who had organized the first labor parade in New York City, an event still remembered for it’s large and festive smoke stack balloons.  September seemed like a good idea anyway, because all the stores wanted an excuse to clear out their warm weather merchandise.  “Labor Day Sales” allowed them to stay open late and honor their workers by making them work more!

Q. Did they have back-to-school sales then, too?
A. No, idiot, because, as I mentioned earlier if you were paying attention, most kids were working 18-hour days six days a week and didn’t need binders. Back-to-school sales are a much more recent addition resulting from the middle class having more disposable income and the advent of My Little Pony backpacks.

Q. Is there a recommended way to celebrate Labor Day and honor all our hard-working Americans?
A. According to the original proposal, Labor Day was to consist of “A street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,’ followed by a festival for the workers and their families.” Of course, this is difficult to do in our modern times, since most Americans have no idea what “esprit de corps” means. In any case, feel free to spend the day cursing at your town for closing the main road for the parade and then crash the festival of your choice.

Happy Labor Day, everyone. See you soon.

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