I Ate 100 Power Bars

Every spring, with my friend Dale, I attend the massive Natural Products Expo West, where thousands of health food, cosmetics and supplement manufacturers compete for precious grocery store shelf space. Each year, Dale and I morph into human garbage disposals, wandering the long aisles and shoving every imaginable power bar, soy beverage and gluten free pizza sample down our gullets in order to locate for you, our dear readers, the optimal “natural” junk food snack.

But this year was different. A massive rebellion of the sales force proletariat rose up, smashed and burned the booths of their overlords, seized the means of production and declared that from this point forward there would be only one central, state approved power bar, one kombucha beverage, one gluten free pizza and one generic yoga mat.

Well, no. But let me say it was hard to head to this display of consumer excess after that interview we did with climate scientist Peter Kalmus last week. With thousands of variations of junk food all individually wrapped in plastic packages it was hard not to think that things have gone downhill since those traditional farms and medieval guilds got “disrupted.” Wouldn’t we better off with just a few unprocessed vegetables and animal products? But suggesting that makes me a crank so let’s move along and never mind those crazy ideas. What natural food trends did Dale and I discover?

  • Turmeric is in everything.
  • Kimchi has gone mainstream.
  • Whole grain has been let out of dietary prison.
  • Patagonia is selling food.
  • Crossfit bros love butter and coconut filled coffee and flavored beef jerky.
  • Bicycles are being used as a symbol of hipness in convention booth displays.
  • “Regenerative agriculture” has been appropriated as the latest buzz-phrase by large food companies.
  • Every natural food product is labeled either “pro-biotic” or “pre-biotic.”

If one could distill all those booths down to one item you’d end up with a pro-biotic turmeric, kimchi, kombucha, paleo sports bar grown “regeneratively,” whatever that means. But I’m getting cranky again. On a more positive note I met a nice Root Simple reader who works for Q Drinks, an Oakland, California based producer of tonic waters and ginger beer. I was also given an interesting cloth produce storage bag for testing by a Australian company called Swag. And Dale and I ate delicious roasted crickets in the Exo Protein booth.

But back to the crankiness. Let us collectively reflect on the fact that Amazon now owns Whole Foods and that data gathering has long since gone mainstream in the food business. With powers that would make the Stasi blush, one company I met promised to provide me with, “real-time shopper behavior intelligence” with a database that goes back, “35+ years of every UPC scanned in store.” (1) When I asked if this information is tied to me personally, the rep said that it’s all connected to my credit card information before abruptly cutting off the conversation when, I think, he noticed that I was wearing a media badge.

Speaking of that media badge my credentials were downgraded this year due to the fact that I have under 10,000 social media followers. So in addition to having every grocery purchase from the last 35 years tracked and analyzed, we now have a new popularity metric with which to evaluate our personal worth. So what happens when you combine shopping habits, credit scores and social media interactions together? You get a what’s called a “reputation system.” What could go wrong?

It’s obviously long past time to bring out those analog sledgehammers again for some social “regeneration” but you just might be able to bribe me in to compliance with those new nut butter filled Clif bars.

116 Being the Change with Peter Kalmus

On this episode of the root simple podcast Kelly and I speak with climate scientist Peter Kalmus, author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. Peter was a guest on episode 39, but we thought we’d bring him back because much has changed in climate science and, spoiler, it’s pretty scary. But there’s also some hopeful things to talk about including Peter’s new book.

Peter Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with a Ph.D. in physics from Columbia University. He lives in suburban Altadena, California with his wife and two children on 1/10th the fossil fuels of the average American. Peter wanted me to remind listeners that the ideas and opinions he expresses in this interview are his. Peter is not speaking on behalf of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or the California Institute of Technology. During the podcast we discuss:

Peter’s website is beingthechangebook.com and you can interact with him on Twitter @climatehuman.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Reader Feedback About Facebook

Root Simple readers had many thoughtful reactions to my exasperated and cranky blog post about Facebook. I also posted in Facebook to explain my frustrations with the medium and received a similar set of comments.

Responses fell into a range between those who have deleted their Facebook profiles to those who use software and browser extensions to remove objectionable content and features. Several mentioned a generational divide: older people tend to use Facebook while young people are on Instagram and Snapchat.

The leaked Facebook memo that prompted my social media meltdown revealed that the company has the ability to monitor, in real time, our moods and exploit them. I find the real time component especially nightmarish. As Mark Pesce points out in an article, “The Last Days of Reality,” this real time ability sets up a kind of feedback loop that tilts us all into a dangerous epistemological crisis. And the practice of making children more depressed so that you can sell them stuff they don’t need is deeply and profoundly disturbing.

At the same time, in a common modern ethical conundrum, I feel trapped in a system I don’t support. Like many commenters mentioned, I need to hear about events distributed via Facebook. I suspect there are many of our readers who share this problem or have to use Facebook at work to promote a business. So it’s not an easy decision for everyone to just leave social media entirely.

That said, as is not surprising for a homesteading blog, many have never used Facebook or have pulled the plug on Facebook entirely. An anonymous commentor said,

I’ve never used Facebook in any real way. At one point about 10 years ago I created a fake account with random profile answers for those rare occasions when I was forced to log in to view something specific. I deleted that some time ago. Once in a blue moon I might still visit a page to look up store hours in the side bar but never content. The aggressive log in pop-up is far too obnoxious.

I often reflect on how lucky I am to not have daily exposure to the stream of consciousness of friends and relatives. As far as old friends are concerned, better to remember them as they were. I’m just as guilty as anyone of posting a poorly considered or heated comment in the moment. That’s why I don’t participate anymore. Even good commenting is fundamentally flawed with the absence of physical cues that make face-to-face conversation work and the popularity rankings that help make platforms addictive. Thread participation too easily deteriorates into open hostility and bastions of groupthink at the expense of genuine thoughtfulness. I would argue that email and texting are fundamentally different, because they’re private, unscored, and mostly not anonymous.

As far as hacks are concerned, I favor general inconvenience. For most of the last 18 months I haven’t had any home internet access. I keep a list of what I want to look up/download/buy as a reference for whenever I next go to the library or other WiFi hotspot. For the bulk of that list I tend to have no lasting motivation, and it gets discarded as too much trouble when I get online. When I’m there at the library or coffee shop, I don’t feel like spending time on comments or any other short form opinion or on panning for a rare good article link in places like Reddit, an activity that teaches you to tolerate more time on Reddit. (I noticed after not going there for a while that I had absolutely no patience for the format. I suspect the same is true for Facebook, twitter, imgur, instagram, and so on…) I don’t know if it’s the place in which I’m online that demotivates me or if it’s the expectation that I won’t be there for too long.

I have another hack that might be particularly well suited for social media. Install an image block extension or turn off automatic image loading in your browser preferences. I use both an image block and flash block to reduce the data load and stop any auto-play flash video. It’s also had a considerable impact on what I judge in the moment to be potentially interesting. At least in my case, images can have a draw that headlines alone do not have. The same is probably true if I’m trying to decide whether or not I need to buy something even if I think I’m above that kind of manipulation.

As for other hacks, workarounds and apps that make Facebook into a less objectionable technology, Milton says, “I have un-followed everyone in my news feed. It’s a surprisingly effective way to break Facebook.”

Vince Stross, a guest on episode 5 of our podcast, says,

The F’book is a joke Erik, I totally agree. Also, fwiw been using uBlock Origin for years as a browser extension that does a great job at blocking all tracking and ads except for the sites where you want to allow it. Also, have been playing with the Brave browser lately, which aims to completely disrupt the revenue model of independent content creators on the net.

On Vince’s suggestion I downloaded Brave, an open source web browser with built-in ad blocking and anti tracking features. So far I really like it.

Root Simple reader C.M. writes,

So how do I follow your marvelous balm of a blog, “Root Simple”? Simple! I added the icon to my iPad’s home screen. I have my blog reading arranged in folders by day, Monday through Sunday, and a folder for irregularly updated blogs. I check in with Root Simple on Wednesdays (and oftentimes more often). As for RSS feeds, I found subscribing to these problematic; sometimes they do not push out or they take an eon and a half to update. There is more to say about the problems with RSS feed, and others have said it.

You can read more of C.M.’s thoughts on Facebook in a blog post she wrote, “Adios Facebook! The Six Reasons I Deactivated My Account

Wayne says, “I installed Social Fixer, a browser add-on that blocks content I do not want to see. I now have a FB with no politics, no gun control wars, no cat pictures, no racist commentaries, no advertising posts. Much better now.” Of course, I want to set up a browser that only shows cat related content.

Others mentioned open source Facebook alternatives such as Diaspora and Mastodon but I have a hard time believing that these services can compete with Facebook and they don’t address the core problem: social media’s promotion of isolation over community.

Along the lines of building an entirely different internet Adam says,

I deleted my FB account in 2010. I use something called Hubzilla to connect to other people. It runs on my own server (it is a de-centralized thing, so it connects to other people who are running compatible software ). That gives me everything I need as far as networking with people. I use a FeedReader to keep track of my favorite blogs and news sites.

Hubzilla requires some technical prowess that I don’t possess but it’s the kind of solution that we in the DIY homestead world need to consider. We’re about making and doing things, right? One of those tasks might be creating the open source and decentralized internet we were promised in the 1990s before large, thuggish robber barons like Facebook arrived on the scene. I’ve blogged in the past about mesh networks set up with old routers and, apparently, this is what’s being done in Puerto Rico right now in the wake of the hurricane.

I have used Facebook in the past to link to blog posts on Root Simple. This is standard promotional advice for bloggers and authors. Unfortunately Facebook’s algorithms actively thwart any attempt to link to outside content on a personal blog without (of course) paying Facebook and creating sketchy clickbait content. And if a link to our blog in Facebook does get seen I suspect that people are just looking at it and “liking” it without actually clicking through to our blog. So, for the time being, I’m going to starve Facebook of content and not even try to link to Root Simple.

Thank you all for your comments. For independent bloggers and authors such as me and Kelly it means a lot to have supportive readers.

Clamping Down

There have been so may long and thoughtful comments about my post about Facebook that I feel the need to write another long post in order to respond to them. But, this week, I’m pushing the limits of my homesteading competence by attempting to glue together a new maple breakfast nook tabletop in my tiny garage workshop (the photo above is just a rehearsal). I’m doing this while I should be dealing with far more important tasks. Thankfully, while it will take thousands of words to deal with Facebook, I can distill my tabletop experience down to three bullet points:

  • Working with wood is insanely complex and I’m an incompetent fool.
  • It’s a lot easier just to go to Ikea but to do so is to give up on life’s pleasures and pains.
  • One can never have enough clamps.

Now if only we could put Facebook in a tight set of clamps and cauls . . . wait, maybe we can!

My Facebook Problem

Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly unhappy with social media, especially Facebook. The standard advice for bloggers and authors is to use Facebook to drive eyeballs to your blog and books. But, in practice, what Facebook really wants is for me to create content for free that Facebook will use to harvest data and ad revenue. Facebook wants me to shut down this blog and move to its walled garden.

If Facebook’s betrayal of the supposedly free and open promises of the 1990s era internet wasn’t bad enough there’s the increasingly creepy uses of the massive amounts of data it harvests. A memo authored by Australian Facebook executives and leaked to the press last year revealed Facebook’s ability to monitor, in real time, the mood of teens and serve them ad content based on “when young people feel “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless” and a “failure”.”

To blame social media itself is not entirely fair and would be what academics call “technological determinism,” the idea that technology drives ideology rather than the other way around. In fact Facebook exists only because our culture itself has narcissistic, exploitative, anti-community, anti-social tendencies that business people in Silicon Valley are able to take advantage of.

So the answer is delete your Facebook account, right? It’s not so easy. Facebook has done a good job of eliminating competition and embedding itself in the culture. I’m on the board of an organization that uses Facebook for communication. If we write another book we’ll also, likely, need to do a social media campaign. As much as I’d like to I can’t delete my account.

Frankly, I haven’t been using Facebook much. That’s become increasingly easy for me despite Facebook’s allegedly addictive qualities. I find my Facebook news feed depressing and uninteresting. It’s mostly a stream of ineffective political ranting and virtue signalling even after Facebook tweaked their opaque algorithm to favor more personal posting. Sadly, the other thing I see in my feed are posts from distant acquaintances who, I suspect, are lonely and depressed. Facebook has an insidious ability to hook lonely people and make them more isolated.

As we’re about the practical and positive here at Root Simple, I’ve been pondering several strategies for managing Facebook. I went through Facebook’s settings and disabled everything that Facebook lets you disable. I stopped posting links to Root Simple in Facebook in the hopes of training people who want to keep up with me to go to this blog rather than look at my Facebook posts. If and when I post in Facebook I use Federico Tobon’s rule, “Post positive things. Mostly yours. Not too much.”

One of the strategies I find most promising is a browser extension called AdNauseum, developed by artist/programmer Daniel C. Howe and privacy expert Helen Nissenbaum. AdNauseum simultaneously blocks ads while, in the background, clicking on every ad in an effort to obfuscate and pollute the data advertisers are attempting to extract from us. Howe and Nissenbaum also created an similar extension called TrackMeNot that periodically does random Google, Yahoo and Bing searches to create a trail of digital noise. Unsurprisingly, Google is not happy about either program and took the unusual step of flagging AdNauseum as malware. Thankfully you can still download and use it via the AdNauseum website. The more of us that download and use these programs the better the noise and obfuscation strategy will work.

And yet, I don’t think any of these Facebook hacks are completely satisfactory. Perhaps its time to confront the core issues of loneliness and separation in our culture directly and consider Facebook as just an unfortunate byproduct of these deeper problems.  Which is why I want to hear from you, our readers. How do you use Facebook? If you deleted your account why did you do so and what were the implications? Do you use other social media, such as Instagram, as an alternative to Facebook?