Hello everyone, and welcome to another issue of “Jeff confesses he’s lazy and not working on anything interesting.”

Yes, that’s right, I’ve been doing nothing worth reporting here for the last week. Nothing. The stuff in the studio hasn’t moved, and even the gouges haven’t been sharpened. A couple of you have suggested I don’t have to write these updates when there is nothing to share. At the time I downplayed that idea, but honestly it seems like I might need to revisit that.

Then again, perhaps not.

I continue to plan on working again. And soon. If I can drag my sorry butt over to the workbench and get over my pointless fear of sharpening my gouges. Yes, that’s really a thing. It is entirely possible to sharpen a gouge, chisel, or knife and have it wind up less sharp than it was. I know that because I’ve done it. Of course, if that happens all you have to do is sharpen it again, and again, and again, and so on until you finally get it right. Somehow that leaves me wanting to avoid the entire process, though.

Clearly I need a kick in the head on that front. I’ll get one. Somehow.

And with that I was going to write off the entire week, but then I found a link worth sharing. It’s a TED talk by a reporter from the UK who researched the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook. While I knew some about it, I didn’t realize just how much it was involved with the Brexit vote. It’s a short, video, and I think it is worth a watch.

Had I not already left Facebook, this would have convinced me to do so. Not that I am encouraging anyone else to do the same — that’s your choice, not mine — but I think knowing more about this sort of thing is important.

A related thing I have noted of late is that my personal news feed is getting narrower and narrower. This is often called an “echo chamber,” but that is generally though of when political topics are concerned. I freely admit there are sites I have deliberately excluded from my feed — anything excessively partisan on either side of the left/right divide, for example — but my feed is also narrowing based on what I choose to read (vs what only gets a headline scan), and that narrowing is taking interesting turns.

These days I get more stories about computer security and Linux (and other less-than-common computer operating systems), and less national and international news. I haven’t set out to cause that, but it seems my clicks have narrowed what the news sources I use use show. I need to fix that, but I am not entirely sure how to accomplish that yet. I will figure something out. I hope.

I mention this because many of us suffer something similar. Whatever source you use to get news online is probably doing the same thing to what you see. If you chase a few links to knitting patterns, for example, the stories about knitting will gradually ramp up, and they will displace other stories that you might well have wanted to read. The companies providing these services would, no doubt, tell you they are just giving you more of what you want to see, but:

  1. They are doing so to keep you at the screen longer and show you more ads, not to make you a more informed person.
  2. They don’t care if you’re less informed as a result of these events. They just want the money.
  3. It doesn’t matter which source you use. Facebook, Twitter, Google News, some Apple news app, some startup company’s news app, or anything else. They all have the same problem: there are (literally) millions of stories they could show you, but only a tiny screen and so many hours per week that you’re looking. You can’t possibly read them all, so they have to choose what to put in front of your eyeballs. As stated in #1, they do so to keep you watching (or reading) and show you more ads.
  4. While it won’t fix the problem, you can make it less lucrative for the companies by installing an ad blocker on your desktop computer’s browser. I like Ublock Origin for Chrome or Firefox, but on Android you cannot install a separate ad block app. Instead you have to install a browser with a baked in ad blocker. I use Opera as my default browser on my phone as a result, and today I see that Firefox is just starting to beta test a mobile version with somewhat similar features. I have no clue about this situation in the iPhone universe, alas. Ad blockers will make your browsing experience faster and safer (since ads have been a way to push malware to computers of all kinds lately). Sadly, as mentioned, ad blockers don’t solve the narrowing stream issue.
  5. A possible fix for the narrowing stream issue might be to subscribe to a newspaper or other news site. Such sources essentially curate a set of stories from across the spectrum, and therefore might not narrow the choices of what you can see if you go looking through the sections. That said, any such source has the same financial motivations and time/space constraints as the various news aggregators. As a result it is possible they will also narrow your suggested article list based on your reading habits at some point — if they don’t do that already — to keep you reading and show you more ads. Thus, while this might be a fix, I am not actually sure it is one in any given case. And even if it is, you are then at the mercy of the curators of a given site or source.

Tough problem. If I figure out a good fix for the stream narrowing phenomenon, I will share it here. If you have suggestions, please share them with me!

Next week, I really hope to have made some art. Really!

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