The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

June 17, 2013

Hard to argue that

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— It was, once upon a time, the fashion in some newspapers to write scathing editorials. Crusty, cynical, hard-bitten and world-weary is the ironic pose for inexperience.  It produces chiding, demeaning and accusatory comment, usually ending with a call for somebody’s ouster.

Time for Eric Holder to go. That sort of thing.

Three inhibiting experiences have always stood in my way.

I worked for an owner early on who actually had a written newspaper philosophy that cautioned his editors against “becoming a common scold.” Good, direct advice.

The first black woman to run a government department in a community still marked by antebellum characteristics who was the target of a whisper campaign explained her Zen to me by quoting her mother saying, “If you are throwing mud, you are losing ground.” I could not argue with that. Neither can you. Thanks, mom.

Finally, there are all the dogs I have ever known — and there have been many — who naturally divide the world in two — petters and non-petters. Petters, good. Nonpetters, evil.  Dogs have proven to be unerring in their judgment.

I am not good at imparting, but I do like to receive and absorb instructions that defy argument. There was once a newspaper editor named Mel Toadvine who, when speaking of deadlines, said, “Since we have to go some time, why don’t we go on time?”

I never actually met Mel, but his words lived on in the lives of those who heard them — or, in your case, just read them.

“Everybody Smokes in Hell” is the catchy title of a book by John Ridley, which I read. Critics all agreed that the cover, at least, was a grabber, which it was, because it was hard to argue.

Last week, when the world tilted under the news that the National Security Administration was everywhere at all times listening and recording everything (hi, guys!), there was a sudden confusion of ideology and enemies as people slid up and down the spectrum between liberty and security and found themselves on the same side as someone they detest.

In an accidental search for ironclad instruction for this phenomenon, I found Erik Larson’s facebook page. Larson is a greatly skilled one-time newspaperman who researches and writes fantastically researched and detailed books.

You may recognize “Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America,” Larson’s account of our first famous serial murderer luring young women to their deaths on the fringes of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Larson’s current best seller, “In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” is about ambassador William Dodd and his fetching and romantically adventurous 24-year-old daughter in 1933, the first year Hitler was in power, as Germany’s enthralling transformation gradually turned to terror on a scale no one could have imagined.

In 1994, Larson published a book called “The Naked Consumer” about how our private lives became public commodities through techniques that scooped and translated data into behavior-based marketing. In that, he developed four laws of data, which he recalled on his facebook page after the revelations of recent days. Here they are:

- The First Law (Larson’s Law of Data Coalescence): Data MUST seek and merge with complementary data.

- The Second Law: Data ALWAYS will be used for purposes other than originally intended.

- The Third Law: Data collected about individuals WILL be used to cause harm to one or more members of the group who provided the information or about whom it was collected, be it minor (the aggravation of targeted junkmail) or major (having your bank account emptied by a hacker).

- The Fourth Law: Confidential information is confidential only until someone decides it’s not.

If this is the way data trolling performs — and it is hard to argue that it doesn’t — then regardless of where we find ourselves on the liberty-security ideology grid, we cannot be happy that the NSA is banking everything we do.

According to Larson’s laws of data, what the NSA is gathering and storing is going to be packaged, redirected, harmful and revealed.

 (Bye, guys!)