Hackety Hack Hack

No one wants to be labeled a hack but what’s even worse these days is being hacked.

Or so we’re told.

But is it?

A hack is generally thought of as someone who is not great at what they do.  It’s often an insult hurled at artists, particularly writers, but over the years has been broadened to apply to anyone whose work or even personage we (or they) find inferior.

What????  He/she’s a hack! 

You think so?

Absolutely, did you see __________?   Or the work they did on _______________?  And look at them.  Do you want to be around that all day? You can feel the mediocrity dripping off them from here!

No, to be called a hack is not a good thing.  Worse yet, is actually being one.

I could hand out quite a few of these

Yet none of these insults or categorizations even comes close to the fear of being hacked.  If it’s never happened to you (Note: Though likely it has) that will surely feel worse than maximum-security prison.  Perhaps not quite a death sentence but possibly one where you have only a 50-50 chance of being commuted.

So change your privacy settings.  Quickly! 

Do you know how many people can see all of your data, the pictures of your kids, maybe even your credit cards and….bank statements!!!?? 

Oh My God, I have to keep me and my family safe!!  Here’s what they say to do. First, I’m gonna change all of my passwords every month to a series of numbers, letters and phrases I can’t remember.  So I’ll make a list I’m not gonna store on my computer, because that’s not safe.  I’ll print it out and hide it in the house in a place only you and I will know…

…And likely not remember.  Which is when your real troubles will truly begin.

Me, resetting my passwords

Only someone who has been hacked numerous times has the right to make light of this.  And you are reading them.

For two years running someone filed fake federal income taxes under my name.  My ATM card has been pilfered three times in the last six years and accrued charges I didn’t make.  Several months ago someone even opened a credit card under my name through Alaska Airlines and bought a Cuban cigar that was delivered to my house in a skinny clear plastic bag.

One lonely little cigar. #notmine

And no, I wasn’t held responsible for any of them.  And yes, all of the companies were understanding of the problem and have whole departments devoted to fraud.  Sure it was bit of a pain in the ass but far less painful than changing every one of my passwords and expecting my brain to scroll through a list that multiplies quicker than the Duggar family in the nineties.

This is certainly not an endorsement or minimization of identity theft.  Nor is it a plea for us all to try to maintain some sort of private life if for no other reason than to prove to ourselves that even though we don’t post our bareass on Instagram it really does exist and is dropping.  Though not quite as badly as we might think.

No, this rant was brought on by….

Our daily national revisiting of Russia’s interference in our 2016 election…

Its widespread hacks into our voter systems in all 50 states just released by the Senate Intelligence Committee and…..

The general thud or hair on fire response it has all gotten (Note: It depends where you live) all across the country.

My eternal reaction

We all should be greatly concerned about a foreign adversary tampering in our electoral process and panicked that our voting systems are still unprotected and, well, more than hackable.

But let’s be clear about our concerns.

If our digital voting systems are actually hacked and people’s votes are changed, or folks are de-registered from their precincts, we’re f-ked but not irretrievably so.

It worked out OK on Scandal #spoiler? #oliviaweneedyou

Sure, many states do not have back up paper ballots but if this is a REQUIREMENT OF FEDERAL ELECTION LAW we have a year and a half to put this in place and well, yeah, there is still time.

If the banks and credit card companies all managed to set up effective fraud investigation departments so as not to lose money on piddly stuff like the illegal single Cuban cigar purchased under my name it seems that the same amount of effort on our government’s part to save our democracy might actually be doable.

Which brings us to the bigger issue:  How much responsibility will each of us United States citizens take to not live our lives as HACKS?

21st century aspirations

This weekend I watched The Great Hack, a Netlfix documentary that spends two hours diving deeply into the indisputable avarice of Facebook and the inarguable danger of data mining political consulting companies like the now defunct Cambridge Analytica.

That’s the British based company that basically had access to the personal information, purchases and intimate thoughts and desires of many tens of millions of us (Note: 87 million Facebook users, according to the doc) and used it to specifically put Trump in the White House.

Well, not literally.  It seems that Cambridge Analytica had a lot of help. It was hired by the Trump campaign for a ton of cash, bought off Facebook and its private info to the tune of $1 million per day in ad revenue during the hottest months of the campaign, and coordinated its activities both with Russia and Wikileaks on behalf of its client.

Allow me to scream into the heavens: ZUCKERBERG!!!!!!

Yet as nefarious as this sounds, none of this would work without the single largest group that helped Cambridge Analytica and Facebook put Trump over the top.

US.

Not any of these companies.

Not any of the personal information they pilfered.

And not any particular member of the Trump family, tempting as it is to blame them all for everything.

Those Trumps do like the penthouse #icantevenlookatthem

See, the way election influence works today is at its heart no different than what I learned in the Electoral Politics class I took back in the seventies when I was a senior at Queens (ahem) College.

First, you scour the voter rolls and find out as much about the personal tastes and lives of the voters as possible.   Second, you don’t spend your money on the ones you already have.  And third, you totally ignore the ones you know you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting to vote for you.

Then those who remain, based on the data you’ve accrued, become your most persuadable group.  And once you’ve determined who they are you fight like hell to get them.

Not shady at all.

Take for example ads that scare the beeJesus out of “them:” Reagan’s rants on “welfare queens” taking your money; George H.W. Bush’s ads about a Black convict named Willie Horton who was given a prison furlough and raped a white woman,  and so on and so forth, etc. etc.

All of these and many more before and since were the precursors to the most recent fake Black Lives Matters type rallies brainstormed by Steve Bannon and Cambridge A in places like rural Pennsylvania and/or suburban Florida.  Or the made up from whole cloth Crooked Hillary is corrupt and a child molester to boot memes promulgated in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin’s various towns by various other propagandists, including the candidate, who wanted to do anything they could to gain power and reshape the world order with themselves and their minions as close to the on/off switch as possible.

The most dangerous button in the world

Their ability to HACK into our lives and micro-target us as never before has simply supercharged their mechanisms and super-powered their abilities to spread disinformation but the essential play book is exactly the same.

Thus, the question we all need to ask ourselves in this seemingly new world, is this –

Will we continue to behave as hacks and be hacked into submission?  Or will we rise up by paying closer attention to what is true and false, fact and fiction, real or unreal??

Preferably yesterday

You can’t convince someone of what’s in a report if you don’t read it, or at least a summary of it, yourself.   In a vetted news source.

And heck, for those who don’t believe there is such a thing, you can order the audio copy from Amazon or listen to it online for free.

For those who didn’t serve in the military, think of those hours as an alternative to public service.  To those who did serve and think of themselves as patriots, do it for the love of your country.

Or forever remain a hack.

The Police – “Every Breath You Take” 

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Who are you?

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Within the last week my computer was stolen and within the last year my federal tax return refund was issued to someone else who illegally filed a claim in my name.  Now don’t panic.  I have another computer and about 65% of the stuff from the missing one is either backed up or in hard copy.  I also filed a new claim with the IRS stating that some jerk stole my social security number for tax purposes only – apparently a common occurrence these days – and have been assured by my accountant that within the next year or so I should get my full refund in the mail.

Of course, none of this takes away how absolutely creepy it feels to know that someone other than your dog has their paws on, inside and around private parts of you and your life.  It’s kind of like a blind date you didn’t ask for who stays over without permission and, aside from your wallet, steals some of your most personal items from your house, including, most importantly, your personal space.

Don't mind if I do!

Don’t mind if I do!

All of this got me thinking about the two-hour season premiere on Sunday night of the best written series on television – Mad Men – a show that at its core is about how the social and political revolution of the sixties forever changed (some say stole) the identities of American men and women but also allowed us to evolve into who we are today.  Not that I’m recommending it but theft and the turmoil it brings can be good too – waking us up to who and what we really are beyond who and what we possess.  (As if all that isn’t temporary anyway).

In approaching the herculean task of a season set in the often overwritten year of 1968, series creator Matt Weiner shows us a world of individuals who up until now were determined to be defined by what they have rather than who they are because the latter is just too scary and impossible to think about or really even know for sure.  This presents the ultimate problem for his characters because, truthfully, almost none of them have even so much as a passing clue as to their inner selves.  In fact, I’d venture to say that even if a magic Genie appeared to them offering to grant any three wishes of their greatest desire, they would be flummoxed to choose what the top three real wishes would be.  This perpetual conflict and uncertainty is why Mad Men continues to work year after year.  It is a show that series creator Weiner has acknowledged publicly has “no concept at all other than its characters.”

True words, man.

True words, man.

But in real life, as opposed to television drama (which in the case of MM, is much funnier, subtler, more dramatic and better executed), we all do have an identity, which is why no one can truly steal it if deep down you know who you are. That is the reason why I don’t get personally freaked out by the thefts mentioned earlier and why I don’t give a hoot about my Facebook privacy settings or how many items I buy online using a credit card that someone can possibly take and use as their own. Oh sure, these robber barons can make my life temporarily miserable and cause some financial strain or personal heartache, but can they truly take who I am and make it them???  I don’t think so.  Not unless they want to walk xxx number of years (not sayin’ the number, sorry kids) in my shoes and have each identical experiences of joy, heartache and everything in between that I have learned, or sometimes not learned, from.  (Note on the latter: I am nothing if not a work in progress.  Or, if you like metaphor, a chair still under construction but not completely built).

Still, it is also why the entirety of my, or most anyone else’s, true life would not make a good television series or movie.  We don’t live in constant conflict and wit that serve a three or five (or more) act structure and don’t have the best writers, directors and actors to perform it.  We only have ourselves.  Which brings us back to MM, American society and the year 1968.

OK JON! WE GET IT! YOU'RE HOT!

OK JON! WE GET IT! YOU’RE HOT!

It is not surprising that in its next to last season Mad Men is finally tackling the issue of personal (and on a large scale, American?) identity because its iconic leading Man, Don Draper (Jon Hamm… did I mention Jon Hamm?), is someone whose own identity was literally stolen from a dead soldier and molded (by the real character, along with his writers and the actor playing him) into the alpha male of his time by stealing other traits from the best and brightest of what he saw around him in his travels from his rural American childhood, to the snazzy streets of Madison Avenue, to posh suburban New York, and then up to the polished penthouses of Manhattan.  Now in its final years, Mad Men has lost none of its own polish and luster because more and more the faux Madison-Avenue-American-dream-world from the late 50s it created is beginning to crumble before our eyes.  Rather like the way the economic bubble of the 2000s (aughts?) brought down the financial avarice of the 1980s’ “greed is good” culture and the failed American foreign power grabs of the 1980s, 90s and aughts has provoked a bit of an isolationist break from war on the part of the vast majority of the American public today.

As Mr. Weiner and company spend the next number of months against the backdrop of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the campus shootings at Kent State, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the body bags of the Vietnam War, flower power, marijuana, bell bottoms, good and bad hairstyles (depending on your POV and the kind of hair you have) and rock ‘n roll, all topped off by the election of Richard M. Nixon to president (do I have to live through it a second time?!!), it is important to remember that every bit of these moments and many more are all part of what brought us all to where we are today.  It is why China, France, Germany or Japan will never actually be the United States, just as the United States can never aspire to be any one of those countries.  That’s not a quality judgment on us or them but merely a statement of fact.

You can steal an idea of something but, as Mad Men consistently shows us, ideas are intangible until they are embodied and fully fleshed and executed out by the actions of people and the reactions of others to what they do.  If you have any doubts that this show does it well – consider all of the many films and TV shows that attempt over and over to wallow in the backdrop of the late sixties for dramatic effect and how over and over again those television series and movies fail miserably, or at least in great part, in almost every way.   It is never about the backdrop or the surface or the literal of what we see.  It is always about what’s below the surface and how what is and isn’t there is played out by the people inhabiting that world.  To wit (very limited spoilers ahead):

Taking in the view (last Hamm  joke for this post I promise)

Taking in the view (last Hamm joke for this post I promise)

  • When Roger Sterling, the blue blood jokester partner at Don Draper’s ad agency, lies on his psychiatrist’s couch and ponders “What’s it all about, doc?” the effect is meant to be a comically indulgent comment on the sixties that will later surprise us with a lot more.
  •  When Don’s overfed, arch ex-wife Betty travels down to Greenwich Village to find a lost 15 year old girl and is told by a hippie gang leader that “You can’t grok (the word for understand in Robert Heinlen’s seminal 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land) that we (young people) are your garbage” it’s meant to sound misguided and dishonest until later on Betty shows us through her own actions it really isn’t.
  • When Don’s former protégé Peggy, now running her own creative department at a rival agency, tries to do what Don, her former boss, would do when she’s stumped on how to save an ad campaign of hers that unintentionally evokes an American military atrocity in Vietnam, it feels obviously poignant until Peggy’s wry self-satisfied smile later proves it to be anything but.
  •  And, while taking his official agency photo against the backdrop of Manhattan in his too immense office, Don himself can only stare blankly into the camera lens when a desperate photographer pleads with him to just “be yourself,” it feels too quaint for words until the last scene of the season premiere proves that for this ad man drawing a blank was the only truly honest response he has in him during the entire episode.

I tell my students all the time to not worry about anyone stealing their ideas. Original ideas can never really be stolen because it is always about how they’re executed – how they play out from scene to scene and in total. 

The only thing you have to fear... is wasting post-its

The only thing you have to fear… is wasting post-its

This is much the same as our lives and how we really live them rather than how it might seem to the world.   That is also the way it is with our favorite television series, particularly ones like Mad Men, which was never about the window dressing of the often portrayed 1960s but the ways in which the people who identified as Americans got through it… and came out the other side.