The Evolution of Christmas

Evil SantaHalloween was several days ago, which can only mean one thing.  Christmas is upon us.  Yes, yes, I know Thanksgiving is in there somewhere, but so far our WalMart overlords haven’t figured out how to commercialize that day beyond a good sale on canned cranberry jelly.  So it doesn’t count.  It’s Christmas dammit!  Why aren’t you out shopping?

Actually several members of my family (those with a preponderance of X-chromosomes), started the Christmas season months ago.  I know this because they started pestering me in July for what I wanted for Christmas, and for what they should buy my teenage sons.  Some consider themselves behind if Labor Day comes and goes and they aren’t wrapping presents yet.

I don’t believe for a minute they simply enjoy gift shopping so much they have to start 6 months early because they can’t wait.  Catch them overtired or with an extra glass of wine and they’ll even admit that while they love the idea of Christmas gifts, the reality is a pain in the tuckus, and they are just trying to get it out of the way.

In fairness, it’s not all downside. Pretty much everyone relishes seeing the unmitigated joy on a young child’s face as they open a Christmas gift.  And kids’ needs and desires change so frequently in those early years that shopping for them is often fun.  But shopping for anyone over 15 gets a little dicier. When shopping for older folks, gifts tend to fall into one of two categories.  Stuff they don’t want, and stuff you can’t afford.  Which explains why on Christmases-past you may have wanted an HDTV, but instead exclaimed, “Yay! Socks!” while quietly dying a little bit inside.

Retailers recognized this problem, and in recent years the advent of e-commerce and online wish lists have made things easier for shoppers to buy gifts people actually desire and value.  In theory, you just hit up your intended’s Amazon Wish List and select from the bounty of gifts he or she has expressed an interest in…  And a couple of clicks later, you’re done.  Which would be bloody brilliant except that most of us don’t bother adding things to our wish lists.  All of which earns us the ire of our loved ones who berate us for depriving them of the opportunity to conveniently show us how much they love us.

So now, instead of struggling to find the perfect gift for Mom, you struggle to find the perfect gift for Mom to give you.  It’s not clear this is better.  And whatever element of surprise there was in the giving of gifts has vanished.  “Oh look!  The new razor I picked out for me.  What a splendid wrapping job you did on it.  Is there any pie left?”

It’s tempting to argue that maybe us older folks should just mutually agree to wallow in each other’s company, embrace the warmth and the strength of our familial bonds, and forgo the whole gift exchange… but apparently that’s just crazy talk.  “These are traditions dammit, and it wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t get to open something.  So, just shut your heretical pie hole and tell me what to buy you!”

Looking at the evolution of gift giving on Christmas we see the following progression of things we give to others to celebrate the day:

  • Myrrh from afar or the occasional drum solo
  • Small handmade crafts, toys, or edible treats
  • Small elf-made crafts or toys
  • Thoughtfully or desperately chosen commercially produced stuff
  • Commercially produced stuff chosen by the giftee

Our entire economy is now dependent on Christmas shopping, so we can’t return to just offering each other a little pa-rum-pum-pum-pum without risking a collapse of the entire stock market, and I am not living through 2009 again.  Instead, let’s push this forward.  I think it’s time we move this along to its next evolutionary stage.

Why don’t we all just take responsibility for not only selecting, but for purchasing and wrapping gifts for ourselves from all our loved ones.  Just put their name on it and place it under the tree.  This is a sure way to restore the magic of the day, or at least the element of surprise.  Sure, you’ll still know everything you’re getting, but you’ll have no idea what you’ve given.  Maybe you’ll choose to have the whole family chip in on that TV.  Maybe they’ll each give you an individually wrapped Oreo.  Have you been naughty or nice this year? Who knows?  You do!  (Certainly they don’t.)  Oh, the fun of Christmas morning is back.

Who’s with me?

Forward to the Past

Current Conservative dogma is that Doc & MartyFederal government is bad.   The belief is rooted in the premise that it is the wrong level at which to govern.  Policy should be made at the state level, or better yet, at the county or town.

There is a visceral appeal to this position.  If government is about me, I want it close to me so I can be heard.  I don’t wish to be one of millions of voices, but rather one of hundreds or thousands.  That way, what’s important to me and my neighbors will get done.  Someone will care about me.

The result of this view is Conservative opposition to federal meddling in education, roads, health care, commerce, environmental conservation, banking, and almost anything else excepting the military.

And a century and change ago, this view made perfect sense.  But the world has changed since then, and policy needs to change with it.  In fact, decentralization is decidedly the wrong trend in today’s world.

Back in the day (circa 1900), you could spend the better part of a day searching your hometown for something made more than a few hundred miles away.  When someone left town, they moved to the next county.  Living your life in that time involved a largely local dependence.  Events happening half a continent or half a world away were interesting news items, but bore no real consequence on your life.

Look around your town or workplace today.  Try to find something of local origin.  Hell, try to find something strictly made in the USA.  Your dependence is easily national, and rapidly becoming global.  You may live in New York, but you care that roads are maintained in Kansas so that a truck can bring you a new Samsung TV.  Your car runs on imported oil.  Your new boss telecommutes from a different state.  And your Internet tech support comes from Mumbai.  Whether you like it or not, and even whether you realize it or not, you are dependent on a national and international infrastructure.  An infrastructure encompassing transportation, safety, education, economy, and much more.

Yes, local control is dwindling, but not because larger governments are usurping power.  Rather, it’s because where local governments used to contain all the dependent pieces, now larger governments do.  And effective management and control is only achieved if all the dependent pieces are under the umbrella.  The inevitable trend is toward consolidation.

Interestingly, this globalization trend has been recognized and embraced on the business side for decades.  No one is arguing that Microsoft should be broken up and managed as a loose confederation of state-specific companies. (“I’m sorry, you’re running Windows 7-Virginia, so I can’t read those files.”)  That the scale and scope of business and government should trend in opposite directions is nonsensical, and ultimately bad for both.

That said, there are still monumental dysfunctions in the way the federal government operates.  Early attempts at inter-country governments like the European Union or even the United Nations demonstrate that we are a long way from knowing how to govern effectively at scale.  The key point being that we have to set our collective mind to finding a way to make this scope of government work, and give up on the foolish notion that we can live in a 21st-century capitalist world, ruled by a 19th-century political system.

Poking your way to the pokey

Poke ButtonToday’s local newspaper reported that federal prosecutors are alleging that a Hell’s Angels member threatened a witness—through a Facebook page “poke.”  Seriously… you can’t make this stuff up.  How lame of a Hell’s Angel do you have to be that your preferred intimidation tactic is a button on a web page?

Wait… Facebook still has a “Poke” button? And people use it?  I can’t remember the last time I was poked, but maybe I’m just inherently unpokable.

Then again, my immediate family has a lingering bad taste about poking as my youngest used to instigate serial poking episodes from the back seat of the car.  His opening volley would be to stick a pointed finger into a fellow passenger and then issue the drawn out low-key utterance, “po…ke”.  This would then propagate randomly through the vehicle for what seemed like an eternity as everyone poked everyone else while I gripped the wheel and muttered, “Are we there yet?”

So, maybe it’s just that my circle doesn’t poke.  But either way, this notion of Facebook poking as harassment has to be a bit of a legal stretch, no?  Apparently not.  Google “Facebook poke considered harassment” and you get a ridiculous number of hits.  People being arrested and sued for all manner of virtual abuse.  This is just one out of control poke-analia, to the point that it’s rather amazing CNN hasn’t devoted a full news segment to scourge.  After all, they spend most of their time reporting on Facebook and Twitter anyway.

I guess the upshot here is just a word of warning to all your serial pokers out there.  Trespass on your friends’ cyberspace with care.  One poke too many and you’ll be headed to the pokey.


Lady Gaga makes a splash as a Tech Consultant; Humanity is doomed

Last week, Gaga and UbuntuGrammy award-winning singer Lady Gaga confessed that she is an avid fan of Ubuntu, the Linux-based operating system. Reports are that Ubuntu’s desktop market share has shot up from 1 percent to 7 percent in just two days. Furthermore, due to a huge rise in traffic, Ubuntu’s website suffered a downtime of about 8 hours on Tuesday.

While Ubuntu is a really slick OS, made slicker by its price tag (free), it’s hardly a new kid on the block.  The Linux distro has been around for years, struggling to make inroads against Microsoft and Apple.  It’s got a fair following among the geek crowd, but has yet to make big inroads into the mass consumer market… until now.

Many Ubuntu enthusiasts as well as developers and investors are overjoyed, and understandably so.  But what does this say about the sanity of the average person?  Lady Gaga’s advice might be worth following if she opined on music, popular culture, or fashion. But if we’ve intellectually regressed to a point where we will change our computer operating system based on an offhand remark from a celebrity, what else will we buy?

It’s hard enough to figure out which experts to trust in a sea of competing voices on a topic, but there has to be some ability to discern who should warrant consideration as a person to whom we should listen.  Or have we really reached the point where we are unable to discern that Lady Gaga shouldn’t even get a voice as a tech expert?  Alternatively, are we just so awestruck by celebrity that we’ll do anything a celebrity says?

Even sheep are smarter than that.

Your car now needs a different kind of firewall

FirewallGrowing up in my father’s auto repair business, I came to understand that a car’s firewall was that piece of the body that separated the engine compartment from the passengers.  Back in the day (as my teen son is wont to say despite sporting such a paltry number of days), this was pretty essential hardware as engine fires were not uncommon.  The advent of several safety systems as well as the demise of carburetors has made such fires comparatively rare.  But modern digital automotive systems now have different safety issues requiring a different sort of firewall.

Security experts from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have successfully hacked into a car’s onboard control system using a variety of attack vectors. In one case, they used a car’s cellular connection (similar to OnStar) to access the vehicle’s computer.  In another, they took control using an Android phone connected to the car’s Bluetooth interface.  In the third case, an MP3 music file, loaded into the car’s sound system, was infected with a Trojan that successfully loaded itself into the vehicle’s firmware.

Now in your average car, there is a limited amount the hacker can do once he gains access to the firmware.  He could futz with the fuel mix and mess up your gas mileage, or change all the presets on your radio.  While this is annoying, it’s not terribly dangerous.  It’s also not interesting enough to warrant the efforts of would-be hackers unless this is their thesis project.

However, many higher-end cars may be unlocked, started, or in the case of vehicles with a self-parking features, even driven away under computer control.

While this is a scary prospect, it mostly reflects car designers not yet realizing the impact of networking the vehicle control systems.  Cars will simply need to employ the same sorts of firewalls and security software used by other computer systems.  Which also means the same sort of constant updating to address more recent exploits and attack vectors will also be required.

Ironically, I left the automotive field to pursue a career in computers.  I know my life will have come full circle when the first family member calls because their car has a virus.