What Else Does Fedex Know About Me?

From the creepy “How Did You Know?” file, comes this experience signing up for a personal Federal Express delivery services account for myself. In order to “validate” the new account—presumably to ensure someone wasn’t impersonating me in order to get notification of when packages were being delivered to me and thus intercept them—they ask four personal multiple-choice questions:

  1. In what month was Melanie (my wife who they mentioned by name) born?
  2. Which of the following people am I “associated” with?
  3. What was the recorded sale price of my home?
  4. Which of the listed counties have I lived in?

Each question had four possible answers. The second question listed four people and it turned out that the one I’m “associated” with is my half-sister’s fiancé. Now, to be honest, I’m not close with my half-siblings; they’re much younger than I am and from my dad’s second marriage. I knew she was engaged and I could have guessed at his first name, but I couldn’t have recalled the last name off the top of my head. But since the first name guess was on the list for only one of the people, I chose it. I was right.

What’s creeping me out is that Federal Express knew who he is, but I didn’t. But the sad reality is that, as a security measure, these questions are terrible. It’s obvious that they’re data-mining publicly available records, including social media. and if they could find that information, someone impersonating me could. In fact, I bet I could easily find the answers to questions 1, 3, and 4 for most people through some Google searching1 and question 2 if they have a fairly open social media presence (which I’m guessing they rely on in order to get that answer.)

FedEx says they don’t store this information, but that’s no comfort, because they already had it to begin with. The information came from somewhere and could just as easily be retrieved.

So what we have is a creepy Big Brother corporation that uses personal information in a creepy “we know you” way, but in a way that provides no actual security. Great. What else do they know? And if they know it, who else can get this stuff? We’re living in a new era.

  1. A spouse’s birthday would be standard social media searching and if I knew their address in order to signup for the account, the last sale price is in Zillow, among other places.

What Am I Listening To & Watching in 2017?

Occasionally, I get asked what podcasts I’m listening to these days, especially since people know I’m very much involved with Catholic podcasting, as the executive director of SQPN. And so here’s a list of podcasts I’m listening to and watching. That’s right, I’m including both audio and video shows that I regularly enjoy, including some YouTube shows.

I should start by discussing how I consume these shows. For audio, I still use Overcast, which I’ve discussed before and which has had a biggish update lately. It’s still my number one audio podcast app and I listen to podcasts exclusively on my iPhone, most often during my commute, but also sometimes while sitting at my desk or working in the yard or taking a walk.

My video consumption is split between two devices. For video podcasts, i.e. those to which I subscribe such that they show up automatically in a watch playlist on my iPad, I continue to use Downcast. Those I generally watch in the morning as I’m getting ready. I have an iPad wall mount in the bathroom over the sink and then I sit it on my desk as I get dressed. For YouTube channels, right now it’s just watching them in my web browser, usually at the end of the work day to unwind a bit.

I will also note right up front that I participate in a number of podcasts, including Secrets of Star Wars and Secrets of Doctor Who, as well as other occasional episodes of other podcasts, on Trideo. I’ve also recently started an independent podcast with my friend Fr. Chip Hines called The Fathers, and we talk about guy stuff and sports and beer and movies and faith and whatever else. We’re still in single digit number of episodes at this point, but we hope you’ll join us.

All shows are listed alphabetically. Links take you to their web sites, where most have links to subscribe in iTunes or Google Play

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Tom Brady’s Longevity

That Tom Brady plans to play well into his 40s is not news. Neither is the fact that he takes what some might call extreme measures to stay fit and healthy. Nevertheless, the Guardian gives a glimpse into how Tom Brady plans to play another seven years through an unusual dedication to health.

“You can’t survive in the NFL without giving lifestyle an emphasis,” says Connolly, who just completed a soon-to-be-published book on sports science titled Game Change, “and for a long career it has to be all aspects.” In that sense, Brady’s longevity is more than just luck. His all-encompassing approach to the variables that he can control has made Brady the master of his own destiny, making his desire to play into his mid-40s all the more realistic.

Very few people become professional athletes. It’s not enough to have good genes or develop some good skills to get into the big leagues. You have to work hard and train. To be an NFL player takes dedication and personal application. To be an NFL player who last more than a few years takes even more dedication and training. To be an NFL champion requires even more than that (plus some luck). To be a Pro Bowler and a Hall of Famer takes even more. But what Tom Brady is doing is unprecedented.

Most pro athletes train outside of their regular seasons, on their own. They hire training staff and even go to sports physiology training centers. But Brady has gone even further by orienting his whole life around his drive to succeed in his profession. Everything he eats, everything he drinks, every way he schedules his days, the way he works out, the way he recreates. Everything is oriented to the goal. You don’t find that sort of single-minded, uncompromising dedication very often today.

As a Patriots fan, I’m very pleased to think that Tom Brady will play for years to come. But I’m also inspired by the way he lives his life and what a role model he can be for others.

Why Fund the Arts?

President Trump has proposed de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other budget items conservatives have been dying to get rid off for decades. Liberals are understandably upset and the debate has centered around the controversial and offensive artworks that the NEA has sponsored in the past, as well as the weird art they still promote sometimes.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air says this is precisely the wrong argument to have. He argues that the NEA should be done away not because they supported weird or offensive art, but because the federal government shouldn’t be supporting art at all.

The arts, like everything else in society, can rise and fall on their own merit. The reason that we don’t have tremendous federal funding supporting the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies is that such offerings tend to be popular and the business of making them is profitable. Creating paintings, sculpture, poetry or theatrical performances may not be as profitable, but if it has value to sufficient people, patrons may be found to support the work. If no such patronage is forthcoming then perhaps the “art” is better left to the lonely artist toiling away in their studio.

Unfortunately, Shaw is wrong because this is precisely why we should have public support of the arts, especially those less commercially viable forms. Look, I think NEA funding can be reduced or even eliminated, because I think having a federal bureaucracy as gatekeeper for the arts has been disastrous (cf. Mapplethrope and Serrano as Shaw references them).

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Daily Carry 2017: What’s In My Pocketses?

I’m fascinated and inspired by looking at how other people organize their days and their lives, including what they carry around with them on their persons or in their bags. There’s a whole genre of blog posts and even web sites dedicated to the concept. I like them because it sometimes gives me ideas of useful tools or gadgets that can help me more productive or just ready for what comes my way.

So here’s what I’m carrying about on my person1 in 20172.

Keychain

I prefer a carabiner as my keychain because of the ease of getting keys on and off but I had one too many cheap carabiners come apart over the years. So I decided to go with something sturdy, which is in fact an actual climbing carabiner. This is the Black Diamond Screwgate Carabiner ($11). What makes this better is the locking gate that screws up tight and doesn’t unscrew on its own, even being jostled in your pocket. It’s a bit bulky, but not too much and its size allows me to put plenty of keys on it without crowding. And, bonus, if you need to belay off a building unexpectedly, you have a carabiner.

In addition to my keys, I carry on my keychain a Verbatim TUFF ’N’ TINY 32GB USB Flash Drive ($13). I’ve carried for almost four years now in my pocket every day. It’s built to withstand dust, water, static electricity, and the constant jostle of your keyring. You never know when you will need to transfer important files from one computer to another or someone will need to give you a large file that’s too big to email. If you’re a little geeky, you could set up an encrypted disk image on it and keep a password-protected backup of your most important data, like all your passwords. Because it’s encrypted, even if you lose the drive, you’re not at risk. If I were buying today, I might look at a newer product that’s similar, the Verbatim 32GB Store ’n’ Go Micro Plus Flash Drive ($16), which has a rubberized to provide additional protection.

Also on the keychain is the True Utility TU246 TelePen ($10). This has proven itself over and over again. I’ve been in many situations where I need to sign something or write a note and there’s no pen around. Not any more. This great little pen is always handy, writes very well, and is comfortable in the hand. It has saved the day many times for me in the year I’ve owned it. You can also impress others with your preparedness when you pull it off your keychain and hand it over.

Battery and cable

Given all the gadgets we walk around with these days, staying charged can be a challenge. However, I do find that my iPhone 7 Plus keeps a pretty good charge all day for me in normal use, since I often plug it in when I’m in the car or at my desk. However, sometimes I’m out all day or we’re on vacation or I’m with someone whose phone battery is running low. That’s when having a backup battery comes in handy.
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Shouting Them Down

I wrote in my previous blog post about the loss of the principle of the right to be wrong, meaning it’s okay for someone to disagree with us or for us to believe them to be wrong, yet still remain cordial, polite, and even friends. I’ve also written about the need to extend to others the benefit of the doubt, to assume good intentions in others or give the best possible interpretation of their motives until you learn otherwise. These are necessary for a civil society to operate.

Another disturbing trend, however, makes even those two principles impossible. I’m speaking of the epidemic of shouting, cursing, and yelling as a substitute for debate. I’m not even talking about two people sitting down over coffee ending up in a shouting match. I’m referring to the widespread practice of people showing up at a meeting or rally or speech and harassing those present by shouting and chanting and disrupting the proceedings. Usually there’s no attempt to change minds or present an opposing point of view. Rather it’s an attempt to intimidate or just frustrate their opponents, to bait them and anger them with no clear end in mind.

I work for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and, of course, my work involves an issue (or issues) that sees great emotion on either side. In January, we held our annual Assembly for Life, a gathering held in Boston’s Faneuil Hall that has its roots in an interfaith prayer event. While it’s not specifically a prayer service now, it still retains elements in the choice of speakers and topics and by including opening and closing prayers. After our rally had begun and we’d heard from one or two speakers, an obviously coordinated group of young people scattered through the audience rose to their feet, stood on chairs and began chanting pro-abortion slogans. The audience of pro-lifers responded mainly with prayer and rueful head shakes. Eventually they were escorted from the premises by the police.

What did they accomplish? Was there a single pro-lifer in the room whose mind was moved even one iota by the disruptive display? There were no neutral attendees to be swayed by one side or the other. There were no TV cameras to capture their yelling to be broadcast into living rooms. In the end it was all for naught.

We see this time and again. Last year, the screaming happened with some frequency at presidential rallies. The Democratic convention even saw some of it from Bernie Sanders’ delegates who didn’t like their party’s process. There is hours of YouTube footage of people yelling and screaming and chanting at one kind of event or another that they oppose. Heck, there’s a whole genre of video depicting so-called “scream-ins” where some gather to just scream at no one.

This kind of display isn’t intended to convince or educate. It’s just a way to express emotion and perhaps to make it impossible for the other to be heard. Yet another way that the current climate is making a civil society impossible.

The performances must stop. Just because someone else is saying things I do not like does not mean I need to say anything. My silence in the face of speech I think is wrong is not in fact complicity. Silence in the face of others’ bad actions could be, but not when they’re simply saying things I disagree with. For the sake of a civil society other people have the right to be wrong. The good news is so do you.

The Right to Be Wrong

Last week, the controversial academic and author Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve among other works, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont. However, before he could even begin, the audience began booing and hissing, making it impossible to continue. The college moved him to a TV studio where he made his talk as a streaming video, but after he came out of the building, he and another professor were attacked by a group of thugs.

The same kind of story has been repeated over and over in recent years and has reached a fever pitch after this past election. College campuses are in a constant uproar whenever a controversial speaker attempts to talk resulting in audience disruptions, property destruction, and mob violence, with professors often at their head. The high-minded and longstanding principles of free speech and open academic inquiry seem to have been lost in favor of safe spaces and countering (non-liberal) micro-aggressions.

In a truly civil society, the one we used to live in, if you disagreed with someone else’s views, you could either engage them in a civil debate or ignore them, but you’d acknowledge their right to be wrong. But not any more. In today’s uncivil society, you are not allowed to be wrong. If you hold wrong beliefs—i.e. wrong according to my measure—then you must either change your mind or be destroyed, one way or the other.

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How Affordable is Your State?

WalletHub offers an annual survey of the property tax burden on homeowners in the 50 states and ranks them accordingly. But which data you look at determines whether you’re getting a good deal or not.

The survey’s basic ranking says the top 5 states for property taxes are Hawaii, Alabama, Louisiana, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.1 Now, Alabama and Louisiana make sense and maybe Delaware, but Hawaii and DC are notorious for high-cost of living and real estate. How could they be top-ranked for property tax? Because the survey ranks based on tax rate, not the average dollar amount of taxes paid.

When you rank the states by total annual taxes priced at state median home value, the best states are Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina, which are all top 10 states for tax rate as well. Combined with low median home value, you’re getting a good deal. The worst states are, in order from the top, are New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire2, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts at #6.

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Cooking Tip: Save the Drippings

With a family of 7, buying family packs of food at the grocery store is a given. And one of the common packs we’ll get is bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. A package of 14 or more pieces at 99 cents per pound is very economical and versatile. What we’ll usually do is bake the whole package at once, in a half-sheet pan on a rack in the oven, then serve half of them for dinner and bone and freeze the other half for another meal.1

But there’s one special byproduct here that you don’t want to overlook. After cooking the thighs, that sheet pan will be filled with golden goodness. You might be tempted to think it’s just rendered fat and toss it, but it’s much more.

Before you clean up your pan, pour the juices off into a gravy separator, or if you don’t have one, a container with lid to stash in the fridge. If you use the separator, the drippings at the bottom can be separated out now, but if you don’t have one, you can just scoop the fat off the top tomorrow.

You could throw away the fat, but if you have a good recipe that calls for some chicken fat (what they call in Yiddish schmaltz), then save it by all means.

But the rest of it, those golden and now gelatinized drippings are pure chicken flavor. The next time you’re making a soup or sauce for chicken, add some of this and you’ll boost the richness and chicken-y flavor a hundredfold.

Just be forewarned, it won’t keep forever. Use it within a week or so to be sure. But it should freeze just fine too.2

  1. Of course, we save all the bones for stock, but that’s another tip.
  2. After all, it’s essentially just super-concentrated chicken stock.
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