Privacy, Kids and the NSA

Every generation has it’s own fears and concerns for the future and this generation of parents isn’t any different in that regard.  A former pastor with two sons – the oldest of whom is now pushing 40 – once commented that when his wife was pregnant with their first in the mid-1970s, they wondered why they were even going to bring kids into that then-challenged world.  But there are new challenges facing our youngsters with which previous recent generations didn’t have to contend, threats which are almost existential given the youngsters’ electronic habits and tethers.  While I’ve actively talked with the three kids about economics and civics, the ongoing disclosures about the extent of the NSA surveillance apparatus appall me and send a literal shiver through my soul.  What do I teach the kids about this and how do I help them adjust to this new threat?

Because the vast extent of the NSA and intelligence apparatus poses a threat to the heart of a free society.  It is also a dagger that cuts through the heart and soul of this young, online generation.

There are always external threats.  In the first half of the 20th century, we were threatened by fascist dictatorships and after their defeat, the mantle passed with the Cold War’s onset to the communist threat.  The Soviet Bloc’s implosion in the late 20th century came hand-in-hand with the rise of militant Islam; while terrorism has existed for decades, the ability of radical muslims to kill thousands of Americans in a single stroke awakened us to yet another threat.  There is a threat out there…but then again, there’s always a threat out there.

The Presidential Oath requires him – and someday, her – to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  We’ve lost sight that there are also domestic enemies and not all of them wear white hoods or appear in such an obvious fashion.  My wife recently commented that everything seems to be building up and my response was that it’s because we never actually resolve anything.  The budget issues aren’t resolved and we kick the can down the road with continuous spending appropriations and new debt ceilings.  Trillions of dollars are generated to support an aberrant financial community but no restructuring or regulation is performed to assure that there’s no repeat of 2008 (and I live with the belief that it will, and in spades the next time around).  The news cycle simply adapts itself and the old controversies are outshouted by the new and improved controversies with no resolution.  I’ve concluded that the new domestic threats are those who wield the power to circumvent the common good, preventing critical regulatory oversight – remember that one of the legitimate roles of government is to regulate the worser angels of our nature – and pursuing policies that benefit corporations and legal entities but are detrimental to the individual; using money to purchase political access and votes that again, benefit the few and fictitious but are at best, neutral to the individual.  The refusal by the Obama Administration to grant a one-year delay to individuals but instead giving it to corporations is a massive check engine light.  

So we’ve created this pervasive, intrusive intelligence apparatus capable of giving American society a collective electronic colonoscopy.  The oversight has been minimal and as the bureaucrats push forward in their quest for security, those who question it or attempt to shed light on it are legally persecuted in the name of national security; it’s not for nothing that the Obama Administration has reached new heights – or lows, depending on your perspective – in pursuing whistleblowers so that examples are set to discourage others of conscience.  And at the same time, the monied few with the ears and pockets of the political class continue to garner greater influence as they help the career politicians in a mutually beneficial relationship.  At what point does this relationship become the cornerstone of a new fascism, a parasitic collusion of the corporate and political classes?

And I’m respectful of the arguments that support the notion that we’re already there.

So what do I do to help prepare the kids?  This great steaming pile of hot mess goes to the heart of their plugged-in collective consciousness, especially at a time of their lives when they’re unaware both of the consequences of what they say and the reality that this is being recorded en masse and held for whatever moment is best suited for use against them?  The answers are infinitely time-consuming, low-tech and prosaic.

  • Take every opportunity, from the earliest possible moment of their lives, to talk with them.  This sets the stage for the latter days of youth when you want to pull them aside for specific issues; they won’t be looking at you like a geriatric freakshow and you won’t be at an utter loss for words.
  • Take every opportunity to set an example of a non-wired life by putting down your own cell phone and removing your own ear buds.  In the past several months, I’ve noticed more parents – fathers and mothers – walking the kids while plugged into an iPod or cell phone.  The concept of the daily walk is more than just taking the kid outside to blow off the stink; the concept is to fire their synapses as they grow, showing them new things and interacting with them.  They’ll be more understanding of important cell phone calls when they’re older if they don’t see you on the damned things all of the time.  Likewise, when they’re older, they’ll be a bit more understanding if you ask them to remove their own.
  • Raise them as skeptics, not just chatting with them, but challenging them so that they don’t simply accept any party line.  I’ve had a lifelong habit of tossing out outlandish tidbits in conversation to see whether they’ll learn to challenge it as true; this isn’t a harmless exercise and encouraging skepticism can come back to bite when they’re older.  
  • Pull them aside to share news articles with them when they’re old enough.  There have been any number of times when I’ve pulled one or more kids aside to clue them in on something that I believe that they should know.  The occasional response is akin to a tilt of the head reminiscent of Laddie the Wonder Dog, but there also discussions that go places that I didn’t expect.  Inform yourself and then inform them.
  • Set – and live with – ground rules on the electronics.  Don’t be afraid to turn them off and don’t avoid the nastiness that comes with kids not getting their way.
  • Teach them about what’s private and what’s not.  Teach them about family business and also about personal business.  When one of the kids takes family business outside the family, send the child away from the table the next time something sensitive is discussed, even if the other siblings remain at the table.  Then follow it up with a conversation about the excusal and you’ll find it a potent lesson.
  • Take them to a website with old articles or comment threads and show them comments written several years ago to prove that it doesn’t go away.  
  • Keep tabs on their online activity and accounts.  Tell them if they’ve crossed a line and act upon it if necessary.
  • Teach them to NEVER place identifying personal information online, especially a public site with exposure to many.
  • Wake up yourself to the current events around you.  For this issue, follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation and read more of Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian; yeah, it’s an English paper but don’t look for heavy content in most domestic American papers. 

There’s more at stake here than just personal information for our youngsters.  It’s another part of the machine that’s slowly being built around us that can be used for far greater, more insidious control in the future.  I wouldn’t want it for myself and I certainly don’t want it for my children.

PracticalDad Price Index:  October 2013

Ben Bernanke will end his term as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve System most noted for his now famous comment about combating deflation with a helicopter money drop if necessary.  But the monthly review of the 47 grocery items in the PracticalDad Price Index shows that significant inflation still hasn’t reached the grocery stores as the October 2013 Total Index dropped very slightly to 108.35 (November 2010 = 100) and the 37 item Food-only Index declined by more than .75 points to 112.98 (November 2010 = 100).  On the basis of the Food-only index, this is the largest decrease since the greater than 1 point drop from December 2012 to January 2013 and is the lowest level by that index since October 2012, a full year ago.

The discrepancy – minimal decrease in Total Index versus significant decrease in Food-Only Index – is explicable.  There were six price increases offset by six price decreases amongst the 47 items; but the significant price rises were for non-food items (soap at 2.7% and trash bags at 11%) while the three significant drops were in ground beef (2.4%), roaster chicken (3.1%) and apples (9.1%). 


Month          Total Index          Food-Only Index          Spread

7/13              107.57                 113.13                             5.56

8/13              107.90                 113.14                             5.24

9/13              108.39                 113.76                             5.37

10/13            107.83                 112.98                             4.63


The Call

There are moments that freeze your parental heart, brief instants that bring forward all of the fear of what can go wrong and these moments are often affiliated with teens and driving.  Tonight was one of those instances that led to a call from my wife about Middle, who had been involved in a minor collision in a friend’s car just a minute after leaving our home.  She actually came upon the accident scene when she left to join me at Youngest’s baseball game, which was a shock in itself when she recognized the crunched vehicle as the one that had been sitting in our driveway just moments before.  When I answered my phone standing next to Youngest’s dugout, her first words were everyone is alright; while they were meant as an immediate salve for what was to follow, the intellectual understanding was overwhelmed by the emotional recognition of what could have happened instead, what’s happened to thousands of teenagers in automobiles.

When your kids leave the house and start to go into the world, there will be such calls.  They’ll come from teachers and principals, school nurses and coaches, even from your child herself.  They might even come from a policeman on that rare and terrifying occasion.  The point is to understand that the calls will come and the best that you can do is to, as the Old Testament prophet might say, gird your loins for that moment so that you manage it well.  The only way to avoid the prospect of such calls is to keep the kids continually underfoot and dependent and that utterly defeats the job of being a parent, which is to prepare your child to take his or her place in the great wide world. 

And in the great expanse of time between those calls, continue to listen and teach, tell them that you love them and say a silent prayer when they walk out the door. 

Explaining the Shutdown

As I sat with Middle at the kitchen island yesterday morning, I commented that this was the first day of the government shutdown.  He yanked his head upwards in surprise.  What?  How can this happen?  The conversation ensued as I explained that certain functions would certainly continue and that the world wasn’t going to come to an end; the linkage was inevitably made between the rollout of the new Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare and the debt issue and how the last minute Republican spending included a year-long delay in the individual policy segment of the Act.  It was here that he discovered that the Congress, in it’s infinite wisdom and deep compassion, was exempt from the law and actually had its own healthcare program.  Greedy Bastards was his simple response.

There are certainly many other aspects to the issue, difficult to parse through in short time frames and hard to keep clear and factual in light of tweets he was receiving about how the Republicans are to blame for this mess.  My response to that on the car ride to school was a succinct pox upon both parties; each has contributed mightily to the mess and neither is beyond reproach. 

But with such rancor and smoke, how do I get a factual and informative basis across to this smarter-than-average teen?  I’m certain that he’d prefer to ignore it since it disturbs his zen, but his generation is going to be paying for this slow-motion trainwreck and it’s best that he have a clue now, sooner than later. 

The first point to remember is to keep it as factual as possible; calling a particular politician a raging cretin – even if he or she is a raging cretin – is certain to create a block because it’s indicative that Dad’s simply back on his soapbox.  Blah, blah, blah, runaway deficits, blah, blah, blah like the famous Far Side cartoon.  Dad feels better but it’s rolled off with no impact whatsoever.

The second point is to actually use correct facts.  It’s become nigh impossible with the mainstream media cherrypicking their information, depending upon whether they’re CNN, Fox or MSNBC so be prepared to go to other sources for the information.  The other aspect to this is that if he’s embarrassed in front of friends, classmates and teachers because of incorrect information, then he’s going to simply turn you off when you begin to talk about it.

The third point is to present it in bite-sized bits.  Most parents don’t spend a huge amount of time with the kids and as they age, your available time with them shortens so you have to be prepared to grab the moment and present a segment.  Kids also don’t have the attention span that they might have had fifty years ago because of the prevalence of the ubiquitous electronics.  Try to squeeze in too much and you’re going to reach concentration overload with many kids sooner than later.

The fourth point is to be consistent in your beliefs and conversation.  With enough time and effort, the conversation will shift from the factual to the philosophical and here’s where the core of values teaching takes place.  You might not think that they’re out of the zombie state yet, but they are actually thinking and working to put two-and-two together; if you make the effort to bring them along, many will make the effort to coalesce everything into a coherent whole.  Your inability to remain consistent in your own beliefs will simply sabotage the entire process as they will root out the inconsistencies.  And this I speak from experience as a few instances of waffling have brought forward cogent, almost surgically precise questions that made me stop and re-think what I’d said so that I could either clarify or, in one particular case, acknowledge that I’d been wholly inconsistent.  The simple truth is that kids can smell out hypocrisy like a dog can sniff out a bone.

Issues of such complexity are not made for one-off conversations.  They require multiple efforts and considerable thought, both of what was already discussed and what should be covered next to help clarify things further.  But if my job as a father is to prepare the kids for their future, then it’s my responsibility to think through the process and then make the effort so that they don’t suddenly awaken in ten years, upset that they didn’t have a clue of what was coming.