When the Machine Knows You’re a Jew

Yesterday I hit Amazon.com to see how steeply they were discounting my book, and was met with this home page:


Check out that row of suggested titles above; they’re all Jewish children’s books. This stopped my heart. Because I am indeed a Jew, and I do indeed have small children.

Just for comparison’s sake, I switched my browser to Incognito Mode and reloaded Amazon. Here’s what I saw:

Still got Megan Trainor and the GEICO gecko, but now my above-the-fold pitch is for a bunch of HD movies that were big blockbusters that I’d never, ever watch. I.e., pretty generic.

Maybe this seems like no biggie to you. After all, algorithmically suggested purchases are a cornerstone of Amazon’s business model. I respect your position. I know that I’ve got more than a little paranoia and clinical hypervigilance informing my thought process. So, just to break down why this greeting from Amazon was so disturbing:

    1. All the titles are Jewish kid’s books. The algorithm seems *really* confident that these would interest me (and, shit, it’s right: We own an earlier edition of one of these books, and read it often).
    2. It’s unclear how Amazon would have reached this conclusion based solely on my interactions with Amazon: I’ve never ordered much in the way of explicit Judaica via Amazon, or had Jewish-themed items on my Wishlist or in my browsing history. I’ve ordered more tools and owl pellets from Amazon than explicitly Jew-themed items. This leaves two possibilities:
      • Their conclusion is based solely on my order size and timing–because I do indeed tend to place my big holiday order earlier than most, since I’m buying for both Xanukah and Xmas. But, man, that seems pretty thin justification to dedicate a major portion of screen real-estate to Jewish children’s books–items that would have basically no interest to huge swaths of the buying public.
      • Amazon can make some wicked-awesome inductive leaps based on buying patterns, the kind of stuff that you’ll never notice with the small sample sizes normal humans experience, but become glaringly obvious when you have Big Data to crunch. Like, maybe all sorts of people buy owl pellets and read Ben H. Winters ebooks, but only bona fide child-rearing Jews buy the second-cheapest owl pellet package that includes a bone chart and wait for those Ben H. Winters ebooks to dip below $2.99 each?
    3. Since the sub-points under #2 seem pretty far-fetched, we’re left to assume that Amazon is doing some very heavy-weight, semantically deep data correlation. Yes, it’s certainly “public knowledge” that I’m a Jew–not only does Google tell you so, but I’ve donated to Jewish charities, am active in my congregation, have worked for Jewish organizations, and have published essays and columns about being a Jew–but still, that’s some pretty granular cross-correlation for a site that mostly makes money off me by offering good deals on horror and SF ebooks and being able to quickly deliver the Slinkies my children adore and destroy at regular intervals. Which is to say that I’m left fretting not only about HOW Amazon determines I’m a Jew, but also WHY they bother, and WHAT might happen if someone else suddenly realized “Hey, I bet you Amazon’s data could cough up a pretty complete list of every Jew/homosexual/trans person/woman/Asian/whatever in the US! Wouldn’t that be a handy list!”
      • ’cause, you know, there’s never ever ever been a situation where a suitably motivated group of people with a pretty complete list of all the X-TYPE PERSONS in a geographic region has set their sights on killing all of them.
    4. As the kosher-market raid coordinated with the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrates, sometimes any old Jew is a good enough target.

So, that’s me, that’s my paranoia and hypervigilance, my over-reaction to a perfectly innocent commercial gambit. It’s just the free hand of the market, nothing more, nothing less. No one is coming to stuff me in a boxcar; I’m just a nervous guy with my nervous, paranoid fantasies (based on my relatives’ and co-religionists actual lived experience, and my own personal experience of anti-Semitic [micro]aggression and threats).

On the way out, I guess I just want to point out that this is an excellent moment to crystalize what “privilege” really means when we talk about “White Privilege.” As I’ve written in the past, 99.999% of the time I’m as White as any other pink person, and enjoy all those privileges. But when I see a thing like this, history indicates I’d be a supreme fool not to take a moment to meditate on the ramifications. No American Xtian or Athiest has to do that when Amazon greets them with a big fistful of Xmas items.

Simply put: “Privilege” means the privilege of not having to invest cognitive cycles in wondering who might be coming to hurt you and your children. This is why, when the fan starts getting shit-hit with things like Charlie Hebdo and Ferguson and GamerGate you need to be a little patient with us hysterical Jews and Blacks and women and whatever. We get a little worked up because, now and again we’re just completely worn out waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Anyway, this isn’t just a pity party for those of us who live in a protected class. This party is for you too, for you in the majority, you who sleep easy, because it’s instructive of the Shape of Where We’re At:

There are no more secrets.

Yeah, sure, you’ll get your little bullshit secrets–that you pooped your pants a little last week, that you kissed someone you shouldn’t have in 7th grade, that you’ve got some naked pictures, whatever. But it’s not like I got paranoid yesterday; I’ve been paranoid for almost forty years. I’ve sorta made a point at keeping the word “Jew” from being associated with my name whenever I suspected it might go into structured data (in my medical records, for example). But still, Amazon found me, and they weren’t even really, really looking. They don’t have some sort of ideology that rewards flushing me out, they have no demagogue promising that their God Thing will lavish them with heavenly rewards for hurting me and mine, they have no cosmology that holds that I’ve systemically dicked them over with interest rates and business shenanigans. Amazon saw it fit to sort me out and label me “Jew” in some arcane column of some totally banal, cyclopean spreadsheet because it means an extra $5 to $10 in sales a year to them, if even. That was enough to make it worth it to Amazon. And they did it on their own, without ever violating my “rights.” And if tomorrow Amazon switches business gears, and becomes the world’s marketplaces for demographic lists of people instead of the world’s marketplace for SF ebooks and horror anthologies and owl pellets, well I just better hope that no one running a bomb lab in Yemen or Boston or Paris decides to buy a mailing list.

Here’s the thing: I was fine with being “David Erik Nelson, Jew”–because that’s what I indeed am, what I’ve been my entire life. And for most of my life, when being a Jew has caused me grief, it has done so in association with being David Erik Nelson, as a response to something I did or said. Sure, it may not have been fair–when an Xtian gripes about Xmas, it’s because everyone is stressed out; when I do so, it’s because I’m a fucking whining Jew who should just be glad America tolerates me–but at least it felt personal and specific and, in some way, intelligible. When the threats came, it was because someone specifically disliked something I wrote or said or embodied.

But in Amazon’s datacenter, I’m a row in a table. The index on that row is something like “CUSTOMER #2045674” and the cells include “kindle-owner” and “SF reader” and “owl pellet buyer” and “Jew” and my mailing address. Just another row, among millions–until that table gets resorted by the “Jew” column, and then I’m a box waiting to be ticked off by God-knows-who for God-knows-what-reason. Maybe they want to send me free Xanukah candles! Maybe they want to send me a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge! I guess I’ll have to wait for the mail man to come and find out then! Oh brave new world that has such things in’t!

All of which is to say: The data got smart faster than I did.

Dr. Martin Luther King, the Eight Commandments, and Bending the Arc of History

Little things like this are why I love and admire MLK and, by extension, humans in general. I’d like to suggest to you that the first eight items on this list would make an *excellent* daily substitute for the 10 Commandments. If you’re not natively inclined to be Of the Book, then please consider the possibility that this constitutes an acceptable non-sectarian Watchword (if you wanna strike “pray for guidance and” from Commandment #3, I’ve got no beef with that; it all amounts to the same thing as far as me and my Magic(k)al Sky Faerie are concerned).

Remember: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice—provided that we get up every morning and put our weight towards bending that mutherfucker. It ain’t gonna bend on its own.

The 8 Commandments might read:

  1. Not all people in power are opposed to Justice. Accept goodwill on the part of many.
  2. All resources are for the use of all people. Take a vacant seat.
  3. Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete non-violence in word and action.
  4. Demonstrate the calm dignity of our people in your actions.
  5. In all things observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.
  6. Remember that this is not a victory for us alone, but for all humanity. Do not boast! Do not brag!
  7. Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boisterous.
  8. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.

These are our commandments now. Keep them in your hearts, teach them to your children, talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. Bind them as symbols on your arm. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Hear, and be careful to obey, so that it may go well with us and that we may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of our ancestors, promised us.

Amen

(document via Slate)

Continue reading “Dr. Martin Luther King, the Eight Commandments, and Bending the Arc of History”

On Micro-agression and Macro-depression and Xmas/Xanukah (with bonus tracks!!!)

Hey All,
I continue to write a monthly column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle. This time around it’s on math and Jews and *The Holidays* and microagression and Thoth and Ganeesh and Hobby Lobby and so on. Somewhere in the later half I say something like this:

The Ann Arbor Chronicle | In It For The Money: Happy Holidays!

. . .
This is incredibly frustrating – because the equivalence, driven by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive – is so needless. Xanukah isn’t a “Jewish Xmas.” It’s Xanukah – a relatively minor religious holiday celebrating a military victory. If anything, it’s sort of a Jewish Fourth of July – which is more apt, but just as nonsensical. Similarly, Ramadan isn’t a “Muslim Lent,” Diwali isn’t “Hindu Halloween” – or even a “Hindu Xanukah,” despite the fact that Diwali is also the “Festival of Lights.”
Inclusion is nice, but you do it by including others in the stuff you are doing, not by arguing that their things are sub-functions of yours. We’re not idiots; we haven’t failed to notice that the entirely secular “Holiday Break” from school conveniently centers around Xmas and the Gregorian calendar roll-over date, and that “Spring Break” is aimed to coincide with Easter – not Passover.
One of the principal privileges of being in the Majority is that you get to be, by definition, “normal.” You don’t find yourself constantly contradicted by outsiders – well-meaning television shows and well-wishers and folks planning office parties – as to what your holy days mean. You don’t have to wrestle with autocorrect about the spelling of your holidays and well wishes. You don’t have to disclose a lot of personal details to explain why this or that day is no good for a meeting, because no one schedules a meeting for December 25th.
. . .

BONUS GIFT! Back in the day I used to record Holiday Music of my Own Devising, because it was fun, and because when push comes to shove, from a strumming-and-singing-and-programming-sequencers perspective, there are *a lot* of great Xmas songs. Here are my offerings, in reverse chronological order. Enjoy!

(FUN FACT: I wrote this while hanging out with my infant son all day, and have played it annually ever since; my son believes it is an accepted part of the general Xmas Music Canon.)

  • Dreidel Bells (FUN FACT: The beat here is an original GameBoy running an early German Nanoloop cartridge. Both voices are obviously me, but the filters for the robot voice badly overburdened my iBook, causing significant lag–which is why Mr. Roboto struggles so badly to hit his marks.)
  • DreidelDreidelDreidel (FUN FACT: The beat here is a vintage analog Boss DR-55 once owned by POE, crammed through a heavy-metal distortion stompbox.)