Okay, this is a bit weird (with "a bit" being an understatement), though really quite wonderful.
Last year, Netflix said it commissioned a fellow named Keaton Patti to run 1,000 Christmas movies through a bot and “created our own mathematically perfect Holiday film made entirely by bots.” Now, of course, it’s possible that this is just a terrible video that they created to be funny. But it’s really SO nonsensical in insignificant ways that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s on the level. In fact, the only thing noticeably missing is a bakery, department store and Christmas tree farm. But otherwise, they've given Hallmark a run for its money...
Though this comes from Al Franken’s podcast website, it’s not precisely one of his own podcasts. Rather, as he explains it’s a sketch he co-wrote and performs, which he made for the “What the Hack” podcast that deals with the issue of technology privacy. He does into the full story of how it came about, so I won’t repeat it here – but it has pretty amusing background that goes back to when he was in the Senate and wanted to do something like this for a committee he served on.
The premise of the sketch is a Senate committee hearing about privacy, where the two witnesses are Alexa and Siri answering questions exactly like Alexa and Siri would. And the sketch itself is (for my taste) hilarious.
Franken plays the voices of Bernie Sanders, Chuck Grassley, Sherrod Brown, Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell and himself. Playing the voice of Alexa is one of Franken’s compatriots from his days on Saturday Night Live, Larraine Newman. But best of all -- and this is joyously wonderful -- the voice of Siri is played by Susan Bennett. Who is Susan Bennett, I hear you ask? She’s the real voice of Siri!!
But my favorite thing about the sketch (because this thing is weird, but a smart, “of course!” thing to do) is probably that every single time the name “Alexa” or “Siri” is mentioned during the hearing, we hear (just like in real life) Alexa or Siri recognize their name, react to it and beep. I love that idea enough on general comedy principle, but all the better it leads to some pretty fun, convoluted humor, as well.
Though the audio says it’s 21 minutes, that’s the full podcast. The sketch and Franken’s introduction is only 12 minutes.
If you missed Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sunday, the Main Story was about tech monopolies -- notably Apple, Google and Facebook, and how they control the flow of information you get. It's a very interesting story with a lot of room for humor, of which there's plenty.
I think I need a bit of a breather after yesterday's article, so today's we're going to go all techie. The subject at hand is backup programs.
For a long while, I used Acronis as my backup program. Acronis was generally a top-rated program (or perhaps the top-rated), though I only needed about 8% of its capabilities, its yearly subscription was getting expensive, and it wasn’t the most user-friendly program.
I mentioned this to my tech guru whiz friend Ed Bott (who’s written about 25 books on technology, including the official books for Microsoft Press on how to use Windows 11 – and before that, Windows 10). And his response was, “Why are you still using Acronis??” While he knew it was a high-regarded program, he also knew my needs, the issues some people have with Acronis and what the wider field of backup programs was. He pointed me to a recent article he’d written for his ZDNet column on backup software.
I have limited, but specific needs with a backup program. In fact, one need predominates all – it has to back up in native format. That’s when a file is backed up as it exists in its original Windows form. Some programs use file compression, some use a proprietary format, all the make a smaller backup. But with huge hard disks these days, that’s less an issue. And besides – I just want my backed up files in their native format – if a .docx file is going to be backed up, I want it backed up as a .docx file. If a Quicken file is backed up…same thing, that’s the format that I want it backed up in. I want to be able to access my backed up files whether or not the back up program is accessible.
There were a few programs on Ed’s list that intrigued me, and I ended up getting something with a lousy name called EaseUs ToDo Backup. It did less than some of the others, but it still did a lot – and everything I needed (including creating an “Image” file of my hard disk). And of course, backed up in native format.
It also offered a free version, which did pretty much everything I needed. The few things it didn’t do that the paid versions did, I didn’t need.
The one other thing I did is something that might be bothersome to many, though worth putting up for the free price – the free version of EaseUs ToDo is known for being relentless with pop-up ads asking if you’d like to upgrade to the paid version.
But this is the point of writing this.
A year subscription to EaseUs ToDo is $29. But right now, it’s on sale for $23.20. (Why the “20 cents” I have no idea.) But that’s not the point – because they also have a special on where for that same $23.20 price, you can get free lifetime upgrades. In other words, you pay $23.20 once – and that’s it. Whenever they release an upgrade, you get it for free. And there’s no annual subscription, just that one-time cost.
That’s why I’m mentioning this now. I’m not even recommending the program – it works wonderfully for me, but it might not be to everyone’s test. But that’s the good thing about the free version – you can download it for nothing, use it for as long as you want to see if you like it, and then, if you do, decide whether you want to keep using the free version, or upgrade to the paid Home version and get rid of the pop-up reminders…and, right now, get free upgrades for life.
(To be clear, I think they have offers a lot. When I bought my lifetime subscription, they had a lifetime offer. But it did eventually go away. And then returned. So, if for some reason you do like the program but they don’t have the lifetime special offer – hold off and wait a bit, and then check later.)
You can find more about each version of the program here.
On the news that Elon Musk had put together a $44 billion package to buy Twitter and that the offer was accepted by the board, a lot of people there were reporting the loss of followers who were quitting the social media service. One person with a somewhat successful news-related site wrote –
“I've lost 500 followers today. Famous accounts say they've lost thousands. If this is due to people deleting their accounts in protest of Elon Musk, DON'T. Twitter is the most powerful voice you have. Don't forfeit it. Stick around and use it to fight evil – at least for now.”
I completely understand his comments, and there is a great deal of wisdom value to this advice. Here are also, however, problems. In fact, I’m not even sure yet how I’ll act once the sale goes through. (To be clear, it’s not a certainty the sale will be completed, though it’s likely.) At which point, Musk will take the company private.
One problem for those staying at Twitter and continuing to participate in order to “fight evil” is that it gives approval to a site that will likely be a breeding ground of misinformation without oversight. Misinformation on Twitter with oversight is massive and a societal problem, a portal rife with foreign efforts to undermine democracy, let alone just basic conspiratorial lying, hate speech, bullying, racism and cruelty. Participating in such an environment without there being any official policy against it, just people telling each other off in growing anger, risks normalizing the overall activity. And thinking that such disinformation and hatred can be "fought off" seems dubious – akin to trying to catch a swarm of hornets one at a time. Worse, though, since a tweet can be multiplied by the thousands through retweeting. It’s like swatting one hornet – and then three dozen more see that and come to sting you. And if you block someone on Twitter, it doesn’t make them and what they say disappear. They can continue just as before -- it’s just that they can’t say it directly to you. So, staying might be Fighting the Good Fight, and might even have some small impact, but it also says – since there will likely be essentially no oversight that this is the standard by which I choose to communicate.
By the way, I suspect there will be some oversight and some limits on what can’t be said. But then, that somewhat undercuts Elon Musk’s relentless cry for Free Speech. It’s not free speech he supports, just speech he personally is okay with.
It’s also important to clarify that the First Amendment is not about being about to say whatever you want. It’s about – and only about – the government not being able to make laws prohibiting speech. But all private business have always had the right to restrict speech if they believe it’s harmful to their business. Moreover, there are laws that limit speech – you can’t libel someone, or slander them, or say something fraudulent, or have hate speech, or shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And more. So, “Free Speech” always sounds like a good and important banner to wave – and it is, of course, an important foundation. But it is not an absolute in a democracy.
Which leads to understanding that, as much as he purports to the contrary, Elon Musk doesn’t have the credentials he wants to be seen as a flag-waver for free speech. Rather, he’s more of a “Good for me, but not for thee” kind of advocate. For instance, when a Tesla employee in the Autopilot division named John Bernal posted his personal reviews of Tesla’s Full Self Driving beta test system, and the beta software had a bit of a glitch on one of the videos, he was soon fired by the company. Further, Tesla then cut off his access to this beta system even though it was in his own personal car. Bernal says that managers told him he “broke Tesla policy” and that his YouTube channel was a “conflict of interest.” All well and good, but so much for being a champion of unfettered free speech. Unless it’s directed at me.
Or the time in Musk Free Speech World when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Tesla wrongly fired a union organizer and that a tweet CEO Musk wrote was threatening and ordered it be deleted. Tesla was required to rehire the fired employee and compensate him for his loss of earnings.
Or when back in 2018, Musk wrote (on Twitter, of course…) that he was considering taking Tesla private. The thing is, that tweet – in which he said he had "funding secured" (which was not the case) was a fraud violation, and the SEC forced him to resign as chairman of Tesla, pay a $40 million fine, and agree that any of his tweets about Tesla that had material corporate information had to be reviewed by company executives. And yet four years later, in fact just barely over a month ago, Musk has filed to revoke this settlement and, among other things, get his full tweet-privileges back. In a filed response, the SEC said, "When it comes to civil settlements, a deal is a deal, absent far more compelling circumstances than are here presented."
Or when Musk tried to shut down a Twitter account of a kid who’d developed a bot for tracking the movement of Musk’s private jet. (That was completely understandable of Musk. But you’re either for unfettered Free Speech for everyone and willing to spend $44 billion to ensure it -- or not. And besides, all phones with active GPS track our movements.)
Or, as Bloomberg News reported, there’s the time when Tesla complained to the Chinese government about what it claimed were unfair attacks on social media, “and asked Beijing to use its censorship powers to block some of the posts.” To be fair, that wasn’t Musk asking – he was just the CEO and probably only had to approve it.
Musk also is a bully, shaking down the State of California during the pandemic, getting them to lessen COVID restrictions so that he could keep his own factory open, threatening to move his company out of the state. Even though California acceded to his demands, Musk remained unhappy and later still did leave and resettled Tesla in Texas
Moreover, he is also not the all-knowing wise visionary as he likes to position himself. For instance, in March, 2020, he wrote (on Twitter…), “Based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.” That was two years ago, and there have been about 930,000 deaths since his arrogant, ignorant, dangerous “end of April” line of demarcation.
So, that – in very small part – is the free speech world and interests of visionary free speech advocate Elon Musk who wants to take Twitter private where not only will what you say have pretty much no oversight…but the vast medica communications company itself, being private, will have almost no SEC and government oversight.
But there are other significant reasons why staying at Twitter to “fight evil” is problematic.
And, for me, one of the most notable is that everyone participating in the service will be giving up their personal information to a private individual without any oversight. It’s not that I like giving personal information to Big Corporate America, but there are legal requirements they do have to follow and have limits, and watchdogs do their best to offer protection. And it’s also not like public corporations have many safeguards built in, since most security measures protect stockholders – though there is a responsibility within a company to those shareholders, which a private owner doesn’t have. And it’s also not like I believe that some big private conspiracy that Elon Musk will personally misuse private information for his dastardly means. But I think it’s a horrible standard to set. Giving one’s personal information to a private, $44 billion company that, on every level of its corporate structure, has the right to do almost whatever it wants with it without you having the right to know or find out is not only a very risky way to walk across a freeway with your eyes closed (even if you make it safely the first time, because the other cars thankfully stopped in time, albeit caused a 40-car pileup in the process) – but it’s the plot of most apocalyptic movies about corporations with a messianic leader. And it’s the plot for a good reason.
By the way, though I have no reason to believe Elon Musk has even the slightest reason to misuse anyone’s private information (except for his corporate history of fraud, bullying and firing those he doesn’t like), I have no knowledge of who else will be working at a private Twitter company and what their personal goals and interests are, and what position they’ll be in to interact with the information. And, again, being a private company, there’s no way of most anyone knowing much of that either. And while relying on the plucky new secretary to uncover something on a spreadsheet that just seems wrong which starts the whole plot to unravel might be a great, exciting Hollywood resolution, it’s not the best form of oversight.
And finally, I think it’s important to know who is helping fund Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
It may all be perfectly above board. But details are non-existent at the moment, for free speech $44 billion private takeover of a major communications company it would be good to have an idea. What we know is that he has a $13 billion loan in debt financing from investment banks, $12.5 billion in loans against his Tesla stock – and that he would get another $21 billion in cash. How he would get that cash is unknown. Assumptions are that he would likely sell some Tesla stock – but up to now he has refused to sell any of his stock in Tesla. Now, certainly, he is worth $270 billion, so it’s not like this is a smoke-and-mirrors scam put together with chewing gum. But since I’m sure there are a great many people and even foreign governments who would love to have a stake in owning Twitter, the public should at least know.
So, as much sense as it makes to keep your voice on Twitter and “Stick around and use it to fight evil,” there are many reasons to not lend your name to a service that appears will be an open land for misinformation without recrimination and help give it legitimacy.
On a personal level, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m leaning to keeping my account while not participating and keeping track of news stories for a few weeks to see what direction it’s taking. But the main alternative for me is not continuing to participate, but deleting my account. Just not wanting to be a part of a massive private company asking me for my personal information that’s run by the world’s richest man known for vindictiveness, bullying, and trying to limit people’s speech when it didn’t serve him – and having no oversight, responsible to no one.
None of which even takes into consideration how the landscape may change, as people feel more free to spread misinformation, use hate speech, bully and make ad hominen attacks
There are other possibilities of what to do when Elon Musk takes the company private, assuming it all gets approved, and we’ll see what ends up transpiring. Who knows, one option is maybe I'll stick around, albeit on my own terms, unwilling to accept even a word over the many lines I'd draw. In the end, even if one delete’s their account, and conditions change for the better, it’s not like you can’t back in.
Updates as they occur...
If you didn't see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sunday, the Main Story was about Data Brokers. This is another way of saying the issue was privacy on the Internet, which basically borders on non-existent. It does, at least, open itself for some pretty good humor, though the "What can we do about it?" aspect has its deep limitations. They do come up with a pretty entertaining twist on the end, and it's well presented.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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