Machine Learning

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Nope, not gonna do it. No, no no. Please, just a “like”?

I took a few days off posting, commenting, and reacting on Facebook. It was interesting, like having an itch that I couldn’t scratch. I did go onto the site on my MacBook, I’ll confess. I felt like a lurker, an interloper, a kid looking at a candy or toy store window.

I felt left out. (Sorry Mark, but olives do not count as a vegetable for dinner.)

This little exercise got me thinking about technology and its effect on our lives. And I think that despite the Facebook craving, it’s been pretty positive. I’ll admit, though, that I’ve built a mental wall around that elephant in the corner, the privacy thing. I’ll get to that later.

I’m thinking about the first couple of months this year in Italy. Centuries ago, when The Spartan Woman was going to university in Perugia, and I wasn’t, staying in touch wasn’t easy. You could say it was romantic—we wrote each other zillions of aerogrammes, which were thin sheets of paper that you folded into an envelope. It was more expensive than a postcard, but cheaper than a letter. Even so, it was a major expense for a college kid. It was kind of adorable, though—hey Kat, do we still have them? Every so often, we’d call each other. Oooh, long long distance, such an extravagance.

Things were a bit different in January. We drove sleepily to the house, dragged our bags into the house, opened our laptops, and….arg, nothing. Our satellite Internet connection (all of 30 mps) wasn’t working. Having to buy some food, we went to the hypermarket, where I bought a SIM card from Vodaphone with 30 gb of data. I swapped iPhone SIMs, told The Spartan Woman the password, and life returned to normal, with texting, emails, Facebook, the whole works. I think we managed to feed ourselves, too.

An email and call to the provider, though, and it all worked. They just had to remotely prod our satellite dish and routers into doing their job. And for the next couple of months, while we hung around with our friends and houseguests, we stayed in touch. My dad is 87 and no slouch when it comes to a digital life. I was able to do FaceTime with him and my sister. I took my pals Dimitra and Ray on a virtual tour of the house. I even wrote an article for a travel site, and dealt with the gentle edits (thanks, Eliza!). Skype kept my phone calls to the U.S. reasonable, and I managed to interview people for a secret project—sorry, no names.

All in all, then, having this made being thousands of miles away not quite so distant. What made it easier was our walled garden. I know, I know, Apple keeps you trapped in its ecosystem (I’m writing on a new MacBook Pro, with an iPhone at my side and an Apple Watch on my wrist), but it’s an ecosystem that works most of the time. I’ll trade a bit of autonomy for a lot of convenience.


Old MacBook Air, meet the new Pro (right).

Our devices—the complete rundown is two MacBooks, two iPads, two iPhones and a watch—just remember all the logins, from the New York house to those in Italy. When my trusty but overworked MacBook Air exhibited some keyboard weirdness that would’ve led to a $500 repair bill, I swapped it for this machine. I opened the lid, the new one started and asked me to log into my Apple account. A couple of hours later, all my stuff was exactly where it was on my old machine, all done automatically in the background. I’ve heard horror stories from the other side, and I’m just happy to be able to avoid them.

The one non-Apple device that made life more interesting was an Internet TV that we picked up, an LG. We knew that it was a so-called smart TV. What we didn’t know was that it would offer to get into our wi fi network and that once it did, with a few easy logins we were catching up on the Netflix Danish crime dramas we were addicted to. (Winter nights on the mountain are long and cold…)

Now, the privacy thing. Yeah, it’s bad. And it’s been bad. They slice and dice our data, and try to manipulate what we think. But I hope that no one who reads this is naive enough not to know that our habits have been tracked ever since companies and governments realized that our browsing habits are of interest. Yes, it’s pervasive and sinister. I’m still working this one out, though. I’ve been reading the Interwebs for pros and cons of, for example, shutting down your Facebook account. I think my going almost cold turkey earlier this week is typical. We’ve gotten used to a certain way of communicating with one another, and when that’s taken away, it leaves a gap.

So I’ll leave you with this. Try to imagine life in your great-grandparents’ time. If your family was typical, they lived in closer quarters. Maybe a crowded urban neighborhood. There were lots of means of social control—neighbors, the extended family. The church (or whatever religious institution held sway). Tabloids screamed with inflammatory headlines, just like Fox and MSNBC do today. I’d say that the combination of religious and sexual repression, as well as generally more authoritarian  institutions like schools and the military, kept people pretty much in line and afraid of going off the reservation.

Is that qualitatively any different? I have no answer right now. Maybe we should talk about it. Not here—how about in a bar, in the meatspace?

Landing, Culture Shock, Dueling Populisms, and Puppies

First of all, we’re back in the U.S. of A. So buy me lunch, those of you with the few remaining expense accounts. My calendar is pretty open right now.

This song always goes through my head as we approach JFK or Newark:

I’ve never been more mindful than now of the gap between Cool America (rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, rap, Kerouac, Georgia O’Keefe, Brooklyn, Yo La Tengo, etc.), and weird uncool America (a certain combover artist with a fake tan, Branson, Missouri, the NRA, Paul Ryan, The WSJ editorial board, Fox News,). It’s always been this way, but folks, we’ve reached the point where we’re living in different universes.

Our departure from the mostly cool country of the Repubblica Italiana was sad and a little painful., Okay, quite painful, literally. I succumbed to the flu, despite having gotten the vaccine a few months ago. I guess it didn’t cover the Italian variety. I spent days on a recliner—the bed was too horizontal and I felt as though I were drowning—and prone to freezing and then being overheated within a 15-minute timespan. We delayed our departure, only to worry about a strike the day we left in honor of International Women’s Day. Luckily, the strikers provided for a few hours for safe passage and we took off more or less on time.

But then…after a terrific flight on Norwegian—good prices, good premium economy cabins, decent food and drink and legroom—we landed in Newark. In one way, it trumped JFK; no one was shouting at us as we went through passport control. On the other hand, no one guided us, either, and the time savings allegedly granted by using the app Mobile Passport proved illusory, except at the end when our keepers decided to let users through, like they should’ve at the start. Note to self: Sign up for Global Entry.

We left an Italy with a caretaker government following indecisive elections that split the vote basically 3 ways, between the “populist” Movimento 5 Stelle, the center-right (including the inflammatory Lega) and what’s left of the Left. None of those by themselves got enough votes to form a government and nearly two weeks later, the jockeying and negotiations drag on.

The results are being compared to the fuck-you Trump vote in the U.S. And yeah, a lot of people who voted for M5S and the Lega were motivated by the same reasons otherwise nice Americans voted for the odious Trump. The establishment parties haven’t exactly done right by the peeps and haven’t really offered a compelling vision of life with them other than to say, hey we’re not crazy.

But there’s a big gap between the continents. In the U.S., with the Republicans controlling the legislature, executive, and probably the courts, there’s been a rollback of everything that makes a country civilized. These Ayn Rand acolytes have tried to kill the Affordable Care Act, enacted the most regressive tax regime in decades, and have killed off scores of environmental rules. They aren’t even trying to give lofty reasons for their actions. It’s just Obama did this, so we’re undoing it.

Looking at the victorious parties in the Italian elections shows a different story. None of them talked about reverting to a free-for-all health care market. In fact, they criticized some of the erosion demanded by the European Union budget masters. And both the Lega and M5S plan to implement a minimum income for citizens; they differ in the amount (either around €800 or €1000 monthly). Where they do resemble the Trumpistas is in their contempt for immigration. But there, they’ve got some facts on their side. Italy has taken up a disproportionate burden of rescuing thousands of refugees at sea. And like Greece, it’s taken a budgetary and a social toll on the country as Italy’s Euro partners look the other way. It’s a bit different from the non story that is the U.S. being overrun by Mexicans, when in fact since the Great Recession, traffic has gone the other way.

It’s a sign of how far to the right political discourse has gotten in the U.S. And also a sign that to some extent, Europe right now is still more open, more tolerant and more equitable than its old partner across the Atlantic.

There’s one unambiguous, wonderful thing about being back. We’re back with our kids. And knowing that the InterWeb loves the doggies, this little creature is back cuddling, begging for food, and stomping around Snug Harbor Cultural Center like she owns it.


Italia in Tilt

Nope nope nope. Not gonna write ’bout no Italian elections, although they’re a dark spectre haunting Europe here on Sunday. Here’s something more important: snow. Cold snow. Freezing rain. Slush. And no water at home.


Perugia in disaster mode, believe it or not.

I’ll back up. We came here in January with the thought of escaping the New York winter. You may recall that it didn’t start out too well, with days of freezing cold weather, a couple of snowstorms, the usual misery.

And it worked, at least for awhile. January into February felt like early spring. Our friends who stayed with us pulled a couple of garden chairs outside and took in the view and sun. We walked around with light jackets and sweaters. Flowers bloomed.

Then last weekend…It was really cold, down in the 20s Fahrenheit, and further, like -14 C (you do the math). We thought we were pretty swift; we have a fireplace that doubles as a furnace. It circulates hot water throughout the heating system, reducing the need to keep using expensive and probably Russian gas.

Back when we got here, we were talking to our architect about various things. One of the items was an enclosure over the water valve. See, there’s this valve and exposing pipe that sends water to our cistern and house. He said it might freeze in cold weather and said we should enclose it. We added it to our to-do list.

We should’ve hopped to it instead.

The other day, the connection froze. We’re lucky; we have a place in the city to stay. So the cold-induced cabin fever is so over. But walking up and down Perugian streets is dicey, except for all the 20-something college kids who won’t be deterred from their cafe and pub hopping. We did get around, and even saw a movie (The Phantom Thread. Ask me later what I thought about it).

We aren’t alone, though that doesn’t make me feel much better All of northern Italy is frozen, literally. Trains either didn’t run or had hours-long delays. (The train company’s boss keeps apologizing in the press.) Heavy trucks were banned from the roads. The local hospital has treated hundred of fall-related injuries. I scanned the website of a local paper and saw a photo of a highway accident and it featured a wrecked police car in the middle of it.


Only the brave or the very bored dare climb this hill.

Now here’s the kicker. We aren’t talking about a blizzard. It’s maybe an inch or two, or 4-6 cm. if you’re metrically inclined. That’s all. But streets are still a mess, and when they’re nearly vertical, getting around isn’t easy.

I’m beginning to think we bring bad weather with us. We’re due to fly back to New York soon,

You’ve been warned,