Monday, March 18, 2024

Impersonal Politics

For years, corporate and political marketeers have been committing a predictable and painful set of offenses under the fraudulent banner of “personalization”. After uncountably many tons of direct mail heaped upon me over the years, it's time to direct a few remarks back at them. The “you” I'm addressing here are the people committing these unbearable acts, especially in political mailings, not the myriad others of us who endure them.

It's easy to throw a lot of smart tech at things and think you've done something wondrous to cultivate a relationship with mass numbers of people. You have not. There is nothing personal about mass mailings. You may be hoping AI will soon fix that. It won't. Let's just say that right up front by making that point number one in the list of points I have to make:

  1. Knowing something personal about me like email or that I gave you money or that I didn't give money recently is abuse of privacy, not personalization. You'll know when you have personal information or a personal relationship because I will have been personally involved in establishing it.

    And, no, you calling me on the phone and getting me to answer personally is not me establishing it. It's just you making unauthorized second-hand use of a phone number I almost certainly gave you (or more likely someone else that I mistakenly thought I could trust) for a very different purpose. Doing this does not make us friends. It makes me instantly unlikely to trust you and it makes me regret trusting whoever I gave the phone number to originally. That they saw selling my personal data as a revenue source makes them absolutely no friend of mine.

    Having a bot, instead of a person, call me on the phone with a rude and impersonal agenda will not improve that. Technology is not a fix for social problems, only a force multiplier.

  2. Interest is opt-in. Making it opt-out breeds strong antipathy.

    Ask yourself how you'd feel by if someone just started using the trash cans outside your house for disposing of their trash and left you a “helpful” note on the cans telling you that if you didn't like it, you were welcome to drive across town and stop by their office to ask them not to. That isn't in fact helpful, puts a large burden on the person being taken advantage of, and would not be well-received. But it's basically the same kind of thing as people are doing when they fill your mailbox with unwanted mail that you haven't asked for.

  3. People donating small bucks are not pledging undying interest. Read what your own call for donations says. It almost surely requested help “at this critical moment” not “now and forever after.”

    Notice further that I was probably offered a box saying “one-time contribution” and checked that in preference to even a “monthly” contribution. Ask yourself then whether it's really likely that if I didn't want monthly, it was because I wanted to give more money the same day, or the next day, or any time within that month.

    Now also look at the address you probably harvested with the donation. Is it out-of-state? Ask yourself whether that makes it more likely or less likely that I am serious about the “one-time” thing and whether my mailbox should have anything in it but a thank you for at least a month, if not for the entire election cycle. Seriously. I know where to find you if I need to donate more.

  4. Speaking of people who are contributing from out of state: In most cases these are not your constituents. Shouldn't you speak to them differently than the people you actually represent? If you don't realize this, you're not as much my best pal as you imagine.

    Make a template that's different for non-constituents/out-of-staters, one that reminds people who in the world you are, and one that gets used far less often—preferrably only in true emergencies. Just the process of putting yourself in this other frame of mind, of realizing these are different people with different goals, should be instructive to you.

  5. Message fatigue is a serious risk. It can't be a crisis every day without becoming just normal. No one can sustain a crisis mentality. If you're not going to be honest about what is and is not a real crisis, no one will believe you forever after. Is that in fact what you want?

    Did you never read The Boy Who Cried Wolf in school? It's supposed to be a really basic aspect of the socialization of human beings everywhere. We are asked to learn at a young age to be respectful of others' need for you to prioritize your requests and concerns so as not to overwhelm them. Do you think yourself exempt?

  6. Have you done the math? If I only gave you a one-time donation of $10, do you really think I have $3650 secretly allocated to help you and just need to be manually poked with a stick each and every day to pony up the next $10 installment for 365 days a year???

    Extra Credit: How many of your donors have $3650 in surplus cash at all for anything, much less for your one political race. (Hint: If the answer is a large number, you are not listening to ordinary voters at all.)

  7. Some people use email addresses where they can receive mail but from which they cannot initiate mail. If your unsubscribe needs me to send from the unsubscribe address and I have given you such an address, it may be that I can never unsubscribe. Do you think that, locked in that unstoppable flood of unwanted mail, I will ever think well of you again?

  8. Mailed out surveys, whether by email or physical mail, are a dead concept.

    With 98% likelihood, if I fill out a survey, it will be ignored and all you'll care about is the money you ask for on the last page.

    You, political marketeers, have killed surveys for any useful purpose ever because only those planning to donate will fill them out, so you have no representative sample.

    If you tout survey results as meaningful, you are misleading people either stupidly or willfully.

  9. We recipients of excess political email are a tragedy of the commons, completely worn out by overuse. You are hurting not just yourself, but the hopes of others.

This is probably not a complete list. But these issues matter a lot.

If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

This post is a slightly modified version of a rant I wrote Thursday (March 14, 2024) on Mastodon. I have, as they say, revised and extended my remarks. But it started from there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Should Fix Climate

On Mastodon, Bookchin Bot, a bot that posts book quotes, circulated this quote:

 “The term ought is the stuff out of which ethics is usually made—with the difference that in my view the ‘ought’ is not a formal or arbitrary regulative credo but the product of reasoning, of an unfolding rational process elicited or derived eductively from the potentialities of humanity to develop, however falteringly, mature, self-conscious, free, and ecological communities.”
  —From Urbanization to Cities

I found this philisophical discussion of “ought” interesting. I learned philosophy from various people, some of whom seemed to grok its importance, and others who lamented its impotence, openly fretting it might have practical value only at cocktail parties.

As a computer professional who's pondered ethics a lot, I've come to see philosophy as what makes the difference between right and wrong answers or actions in tasks involving complex judgment. It can be subtle and elusive, but is nonetheless necessary.

I was Project Editor for the Common Lisp programming language, in effect holding the quill pen for reducing a number of technical decisions about the meaning and effect of the language that were voted by a committee in modular proposals but needed to be expressed in a coherent way. Nerd politics. They decided truth, and I had a free hand in presenting that truth in a palatable way, time and budget permitting. Programming languages are complicated, and implemented by multiple vendors. Some effects must happen, or must not. Others were more optional, and yet not unimportant, so we struggled as a group with the meaning we would assign to “should”.

Computer programs, you see, run slower, or cost more to run, if they are constantly cross-checking data. In real world terms, we might say it's more expensive to have programs that have a police force, or auditors, or other activities that look for things out of place that might cause problems. But without these cross-checks, bad data can slip in and get used without notice, leading to degraded effects, injustices, or catastrophes.

Briefly, a compiler is itself a program that reads a description of something you'd like to do and “compiles” it, making a runnable program, an app, let's say, that does what the description says.


A colleague criticized my use of “should” in early drafts of the language specification, the rules for how a compiler does its job. What is not an imperative has no meaning in such a document, I was told. It's like having a traffic law that says “you should stop for a red light”. You might as well say “but it's OK not to”, so don't say it all. And yet, I thought, people intend something by “should”. What do they intend that is stronger?

As designers of this language, we decided we'd let you say as you compile something that you do or don't want a safe program. In a “safe” world, things run a bit slower or more expensively, but avoid some bad things. Not all bad things. That's not possible. But enough that it's worth discussing whether the expense is a good one. Our kind of “safe” didn't mean safety from everything, but from some specific known problems that we could check for and avoid.

And then we decided “should” was a term that spans two possible worlds. In a “safe” world, it means “must”. That is, if you're wanting to avoid a list of stupid and easily avoidable things, all uses of “should” need to be interpreted as “must” when creating safe applications, whereas in an unsafe world the “should” things can be ignored as optional.

And so it comes down to what kind of world you want to live in.

Climate change, for example, presents us with problems where certain known, stupid, avoidable acts will put humanity at risk. We should not do these things if we want better certainty of survival, of having a habitable planet in which our kids can live happily or perhaps at all. Extinction is threatened if we don't do these things.

But they are expensive, these actions. They take effort and resource to implement. We can do more things more cheaply without them, by being unsafe, until we are blind-sided by the effects of errors we are letting creep in, letting degrade our world, letting set us up for catastrophe.

So we face a choice of whether to live knowingly at risk of catastrophe, or do the costly investment that would allow us to live safely.

We “should” act in ways that will fix Climate.

But we only “must” if we want to sleep at night knowing we have done the things that make us and our children safe.

If we're OK with mounting pain and likely catastrophe one day , perhaps even soon, then we can ignore the “should”. The cost is that we have elected an “unsafe” world that could quickly end because we'd rather spend less money as we risk such collapse than avoid foreseeable, fixable problems that might soon kill us all.

That's how I hear “should”. I hope you find it useful. You really should.

If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

This post is a mirror of a post I wrote yesterday (March 11, 2024) on Mastodon.