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If the Apocalypse Comes, Will Anyone Notice?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Not long ago (on 26 November) I ran an excerpt, here, from Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's brilliantly eccentric postmodern classic about the V-2 missile bombing of England in late 1944. I also tweeted about it and mentioned the book in an e-mail to a friend (and looked it up in a Google search once).

On 7 December, I got an e-mail from Amazon with a Subject Heading of "Gravity's Rainbow." The first part of the e-mail looks like this:

I was startled to see "Gravity's Rainbow" (just those two words) as the Subject of an e-mail from Amazon, although I guess by now I shouldn't have been. (The real question is: Does Amazon know that the copy of Pynchon I'm now reading is from the library?) Google and Amazon have been tracking our behavior, our reading preferences, our buying habits, for quite some time; and they'll only get better at refining their models, perhaps to the point where they can tell I'm about to commit a crime, before I commit it (a la Minority Report). How Pynchon would that be? (Gravity's Rainbow is all about the limits of causation and prediction; it explores the inversion of cause and effect, a theme deriving from the fact that the sound of a V-2 missile's approach is preceded by the actual explosion, due to the missile arriving faster than Mach 1.)

In its almost psychotic paranoia and unrelenting preoccupation with government research into the limits of predictability, much of Philip K. Dick's work anticipates (or does it merely echo, ahead of time?) Pynchon's landmark book—the same way daily news headlines seem to offer a plangent, time-inverted reverberation from some terrible dystopian future whose recent past we now reenact. Perhaps, as I tweeted not long ago, NSA + Google + Amazon are properly considered one entity, the data-ingestion "front end" for the coming dronepocalypse.

I recently remarked on Twitter:

I was being completely serious, because today's bizarro reality is so monstrously outrageous (our every reading habit cached in a silicon hash-tree forest, our future purchasing decisions e-mailed to us, but of course we can still opt out of a given purchasing decision should we wish to retain the illusion of free will; even so, you might want to wait, first, for Klout to finish generating your influencers; no sense going off half-cocked, old boy . . .) it would have beggared Pynchon's imagination, even if he was dreaming of Philip K. Dick reading Kafka.

Before you write dystopian fiction, do a reality check. That is to say: Make sure present-day reality doesn't already have you trumped. Broadband Bizarro is streaming live, already. Have you checked your inbox?

Please Dear God Don't Let My Influencers Be Cached

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Screenshot from Klout.com showing my influencers being generated.

So I was checking my Moments Interactors on Klout.com the other day, just like every normal person does every day, okay, when a wait-message happened to catch my eye: "Influencers are being generated."

"Wait," I said to myself, confused. "LinkedIn pre-generates my influencers; they show me my influencers every day. This must mean Klout instantiates influencers lazily, just in time."

Which is probably the way it should be, because if there's one thing you don't want in your life, at this point, it's day-old influencers. Damn straight I want lazily generated influencers!

So what if you have to wait a few seconds for your influencers to be generated? That can actually be a handy thing, because (think about it) if Jehovah's Witnesses suddenly arrive at your door, you can just say: "I'd love to talk to you right now, but Klout's almost done generating my influencers."

They'll understand. I know they will.

The True Cost of Minimum Wage

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Burger-flipping as a career option is the topic of a lot of jokes in America, but it's no joke to those who actually work in the fast food industry.

The following stats, from a recent report by the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center, highlight the true costs to society of keeping wages low in the fast-food sector:
Figure 1: Participation in Public Programs
  • More than half (52 percent) of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole. (See graphic.) This is true even when the workers in question are working 40 hours a week.
  • The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry is nearly $7 billion per year.
  • At an average of $3.9 billion per year, spending on Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) accounts for more than half of these costs.
  • Due to low earnings, fast-food workers' families also receive an annual average of $1.04 billion in food stamp benefits and $1.91 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit payments.
  • People working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty. One in five families with a member holding a fast-food job has an income below the poverty line, and 43 percent have an income two times the federal poverty level or less.
For more stats, see this Mother Jones piece.

Of course, low wages are a problem throughout the restaurant industry, not just the fast-food piece. The problem extends to retail as well. A Walmart in Ohio recently made news when it held a food drive—for its own employees.

Industry apologists will argue, of course, that if Walmart or McDonalds had to pay $12/hr starting pay, they would go out of business. That's complete nonsense. U.C. Berkeley's Labor Center researchers have already done the arithmetic for Walmart: If Walmart were to set a pay floor of $12/hr, the average net cost increase to shoppers would be 46 cents per store visit. A similar calculation for McDonalds comes to much the same answer. (McDonalds serves 69 million orders a day through 34,000 restaurants. Figure 300 minimum-wage-hours worked per restaurant per day. Every extra dollar an hour in wages comes to 15 cents extra per customer order.)

So McDonalds, if you're listening, what's your response to this? I'd like to know. Leave a comment below.

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