Genetic Privacy and Government Data Bases

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors, and he’s just come out with a new novel, Fair Warning. It is, like so many Connelly books, about serial killers. In this one, the killer appears (I haven’t finished the book yet) to be using a company selling genetic family tracing information to locate victims. Unlike any other Connelly book of which I’m aware, Connolly uses a real person as a character, and a real business of which he is actually a part ( He also makes this point (and verifies that it is current law): the marketing of genetic information is not regulated by the government.

I see those messages as activism,  by Connelly, although the message that a business or type of business is unregulated by the government is far enough from my main concern on this issue that I haven’t looked to see if Connelly has actually identified what he was doing as activism. In my opinion, the government itself poses the far greater danger, and of course government always exempts itself from regulation.

Here are the facts. In the book, the company in question was selling genetic sample packs. You fill them out, give them to the company, they do a genome analysis and tell you, among other things, whether you have unknown family members. The company makes very little money off of its customers, and it gets rich by selling their anonymized information to companies all over the world. (All of this happens in real life. There’s even a cliche about it: if you don’t know how a company makes its money, YOU are the product.)

In addition, there are many other sources of “bio-information” about people. Apple (at least) lets you use your fingerprint as the security password controlling whether or not a phone opens. And everywhere you go there are video cameras videoing you and everybody. Even as you read this article, police are using those camera images to track down suspects related to the protests happening everywhere. Facebook keeps everything you give them, and as much as they can appropriate with their snooping software, as well. Companies track the location of your mobile phone 24/7 and store the information forever, and this, I suppose, will be the basis for the “contact-tracing” apps we keep hearing about. I keep hearing that Microsoft or other companies are working on microchips that could be embedded in our bodies that would store and transmit various biological information.

There is a vast amount of information out there linking your genetics, lifestyle, and looks, your computer habits and identities, and every other conceivable fact about you. It is all accessible to government, and computers now have the capacity to assimilate it and use it in many ways.

Of course there’s a fox (or many foxes) for every hen house, and that’s what Michael Connelly likes to write about (which he does, superbly). I am concerned with the bigger question: is freedom possible when we all live in such a hen house? I fear that it already isn’t possible, but that if it still is, it won’t be for long. I believe protecting, restricting and reducing such information is everyone’s responsibility – everyone who believes in freedom, anyway.

To link this to debt collection, which is my normal task, is simple. The existence of all this information makes it easier for debt collectors to find you and your money. Makes it easier for them to sue you, and whatever makes it easier to sue you makes it more likely that they will. And it makes it more likely that your information will be stolen and fraudulent accounts will be created in your name. The more information the scammer has, the harder it will be for you to clear your record.

Could this Be a Good Time to Start Something New

This is a bad time in the world and in the economy. Could it be a good time to open a new business? Maybe – if it’s the right one. In this article I’ll take a look at a couple of ideas that occurred to me. This isn’t my normal mission here, but maybe it could help some people in what’s coming.

I do not believe the Corona Virus is finished with us. Although it looks like state authorities are about to open up businesses again, I have my doubts about the wisdom of doing that, and it also seems unlikely that things will stay open. On the contrary, I think we’re in for a longer haul. And when normal returns, it will be a new normal – I saw one study projecting that over 40% of jobs lost now will not come back. So an alternative could be a good idea.

I make one suggestion to people considering a new business. Make it pay immediately unless money isn’t an issue for you. This isn’t a good time to go out on a limb.

The two ideas I’m going to discuss are pretty different from each other. The first is something almost any adult with a car could do. The second is far more specialized but could be used as a template for anyone with such a specialized background in various things. Neither should involve an outlay of cash at all, and both are “scalable” (can be ramped up and leveraged). Both are based on current realities.

Restaurant Food Delivery

As everybody knows, most restaurants have been forced to shift from in-store dining to curbside pickup or delivery. And you may know that they are relying on certain delivery service apps. For a much fuller discussion of the way this is hurting restaurants and the way the companies involved make money and use their power, check out this link: Uber-Grubhub: How the Pandemic Is Launching the Era of Online Platform Regulation. To summarize the article very briefly, the delivery service apps are charging up to 30% of the price of the meal for delivery. Some (few) jurisdictions have mandated a maximum of 15%, and some have required that tips be given to the drivers, instead of what appears to be the prevailing custom of having them go to the apps.

The money charged restaurants is killing them. I’m told that there is also a direct charge to consumers as well sometimes, and there is another danger of which restaurant owners may, or may not, be aware. But I know.

The way most phone apps work is not by charging for their use. Do you know how they make their money? They make money by selling data the apps generate to big data processing companies (“Big Data”). Food delivery apps are creating a lot of data. Of what? Of restaurants and their customers, of addresses, food preferences, time preferences, spending habits, and net delivery income. If you owned Joe’s Pizza, would you want Sam’s Pizza, or Frank’s Italian Food, two blocks away, to know all these things about your business?

Not unless you’re crazy. And do you trust Big Data not to sell that information to your competitors? Again, not unless you’re crazy. But restaurant owners might not know what the delivery apps are, or could be, doing. And they may not have a choice.

You could give them that choice. You could call up Joe’s Pizza and offer to deliver for them. Make your best deal, and see if you can make it pay. It’s low risk physically if you’re careful, and if you already drive, you’re risking only your time, financially. You’d be local helping local business and local people, and you would be thwarting, to some extent, Big Data (which I think is a significant social benefit). There could be regulatory obstacles, of course, and eventually you will need to take it seriously as a business, of course, but those things wouldn’t stop you from starting. And as you learn, you can figure things out.

Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a “table-top role-playing game” (ttrpg) that several people can play. You create characters and navigate a “dungeon,” which is a made-up world inhabited by a large variety of creatures, many of them hostile, and some with missions for you to perform. Your character starts at a certain level of skill and talent and gains experience and items as you navigate the dungeon. I played the game in college and found it addictive just like that. There was a computer game based on D&D which had overall goals – a “game story” of which you were a part. Whether that’s part of a dungeon master’s trade I don’t know.

An amateur dungeon-master was facing eviction and a great need to earn money but was worried about leaving the house and possibly risking the life of at-risk members of his household. I suggested he consider being an online professional dungeon master. I know that gamers, and especially D&D gamers, are often techies who have not been as hurt by the Corona Virus or social distancing, so the customers for dungeon masters should have money. But if they’re social distancing, people who were playing the game in person might want to do it online, but how? They’d need an online dungeon master.

D&D is an intensely social game, with interaction between player-characters and the dungeon master, and between player-characters as they face various battle scenes and strategic choices. That’s what makes it such a fun game. An online dungeon master would need a video app. The person to whom I spoke also said he needed a computer program costing $300 and microphone, another $100. So that was a $400 risk – that he could not afford to take, and which I said everybody should avoid anyway.

Finding Out

And anyway, who knows whether online dungeon mastering would pay? How would you find out without spending a ton of money?

Here’s how you solve both of those issues. You advertise, for free, in Craigs List or whatever online advertising forum you can, as long as it’s free. And what do you advertise? Online dungeon mastering, of course. Figure out how much you would need to make for it to be worth it to you, and how much people are willing to pay, and if those two numbers intersect, you have a start. But you still have to get $400 to set it up, how do you do that? You sell prepaid subscriptions. If it was going to cost $50/month per person for one evening per weekend, you offer a prepay price of $25. When you have 16 customers paying that, you buy your equipment and start.

Note that I just made up all of the numbers I used (except the equipment), from what the market would pay to how many evenings per week you would do. I just wanted to illustrate the way prepaid subscriptions could get you started. That would be true of any board game or, actually, any other service you might sell, at a profit, if you needed capital to start. You can get it from the people who want your service – and looking for those people helps you learn how valuable the service is and what the demand for it is.

I believe the market is going to be very tough for wage-earners or people with jobs dependent upon physical customer contact for quite some time, and I also think that many jobs that previously existed simply won’t come back. If you can find something where you are not an employee and which does not require a lot of customer contact, I think that would be a smart thing to do.

Enjoy some Free Time

41 Things You Can Do for Free

A big part of America’s debt problem is systemic – we live in an economic system that exploits people and takes from the poor to give to the rich. However, that’s at the “macro” level. At the individual level, one part of the problem is that we are taught that the only way to be fulfilled or feel valuable is to consume things. To spend. And many people find it difficult to pass a day without spending a lot of money. They can’t think of things to do, and if they do, it may leave them feeling unfulfilled.

Even if you have it to spend, it can be liberating not to do that. It’s important to break that cycle.

Below is a list of things, almost all of which are almost free. Nothing, in a sense, is actually free, since as long as you’re alive you’re burning calories and needing a place to live, and for many, those things cannot be taken for granted. Likewise, electricity and internet bandwidth are negligible for most people these days, but they’re not completely free. But once those things are covered, most of the things below are actually free – or very nearly so – with the one spectacular exception of Six Flags.

I explain the reason for its inclusion below, and that reasoning would also perhaps apply to many types of memberships. I would caution you against too many things like that, though, because they do imply an expense that can be quite substantial. Six Flags, as I point out, is NOT free even in the scenario I posit. We do like to keep the expense of any one trip to a minimum, however, and that can be basically free.

My list does not include some items many people’s lists do include, things like watching television in your man-cave or window-shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue or the like. That’s because these things are first cousins to expense, and they are indulgences that will likely eventually lead to your feeling the need to buy stuff. They’re a part of our consumption-based culture, and they imply the previous purchase of expensive things, or the envy or admiration of others who have expensive things. My list is designed to take you out of the consumption-oriented world and to a simpler, truly less expensive place.

Free Things

  1. Spend time with your children. They only stay young for a while – heck, YOU only stay young for a while. Enjoy the time you have with the ones most precious to you.
  2. Spend time with other children. See the above. Children have such an amazing gift to give. Did you know that most adults don’t ever really look at children? I mean, as in, seriously paying attention to them. If you do, it’s like shining a bright light into their life – they instantly notice and almost always reward you spectacularly. Look at them in the eyes and hold the look when they notice. Do something funny and see what happens.
  3. We have a free zoo, and it’s hard to beat that for both animal and people-watching.
  4. Walk down train tracks. Don’t you think there’s something really romantic about trains? Maybe it’s the thunder, maybe the rhythm, but for me, watching a moving train is exciting. Walking along the tracks makes me think of all the places I’ve been or could go.
  5. Go to the gym. It’s a nice way to spend a couple of hours, and then you get the endorphin rush and long-term health benefits, too. My gym costs me $150 for two years, so – not free, but pretty inexpensive.
  6. Paint a picture, or draw one. If you try to draw something and get it right, you will notice how much you have to focus in order to do it. It’s pleasing, you forget yourself, and actually – anybody can do it.
  7. Write a story. Kind of like painting a picture. You might think it takes talent to do this, and to some extent you might be right – but maybe you have the talent, and even if you don’t, it can be fun.
  8. Have a campfire. If you’re near a place where you can do that, it’s hard to beat, sometimes.
  9. Go for a long walk. Everybody thinks of this, but you could actually do it.
  10. Create a page on Pinterest and start pinning things you like.
  11. Make a list of things you like that are free. It doesn’t cost anything, and it reminds you of things that make you feel better.
  12. Pet your dog or cat. They love it – as much as you can stand. And that’s why you have them.
  13. Call your mom or dad. Talk to them and tell you how you’re really doing. Ask them how they are.
  14. Write an old-fashioned snail mail letter. Technically not free if you send it, but very, very inexpensive! And people love to get personal mail.
  15. Write an email. Free, but not as special in my opinion. On the other hand, it is instant gratification and is more likely to stimulate a quick response.
  16. Google something freaky and read all about it.
  17. Bring up the latest freaky thing you googled in a conversation and impress your friends.
  18. Start a blog. You can write about the freaky things you google. That would probably gain you a cult following.
  19. Do a Youtube video. It isn’t hard. You can do a video with your phone, edit it on your computer, and upload to a free Youtube site.
  20. Get up really early. Other people like to mention naps, and I considered them and including going to bed early in this list, and those things have their place, but what about getting up early and watching the sunrise? That’s pretty cool. If you get up early enough, you can hear the birds start to sing. Do you know that birds either are dinosaurs or closely related to them? They’ve been around a very, very long time!
  21. Make some art out of stuff you found.
  22. Teach a child to read. There’s nothing in the world like opening up someone else’s world. Or you could teach them other stuff.
  23. Enjoy a cup of tea in silence. Technically not free, but again, very, very inexpensive! And it’s one of the great simple pleasures. There is joy in silence. You DON’T always have to be hooked in.
  24. Organize something that needs organization. For me, there are always a lot of things I could do along these lines, but for some it might be harder to find things that need organizing.
  25. Join a Meet-up group. Do you know that there are people getting together and doing just about anything you can think of? They aren’t free to organize, but they’re usually free to attend.
  26. Go to a high school football, soccer, basketball, or tennis game. It’s actually fun even if you don’t care who wins. You might see someone you know, and it’s cool to watch people really trying hard to do well.
  27. Go to a college music recital. My son plays piano, and twice a year all the students of his teacher put on a recital as part of their musical development. It is amazing. First, it’s incredible to watch people trying hard to do anything, and second, the level of talent that’s all around us is one of those miracles we don’t pay much attention to. But we should. And the music is beautiful and probably not what you listen to most of the time. Music recitals are different than art openings or shows, by the way. Something about performance.
  28. Do something that you do really well. A lot of times we learn how to do stuff and then we move on. But whatever you’re good at, do more.
  29. Do something you’re really bad at. Give yourself permission to try something new. You know, with practice you could probably do it really well. Give yourself the freedom to consider that.
  30. Get a library card and use it. Libraries have so much stuff! We had to make more use of libraries because my son can read so fast – he reads five times as fast as I do, and there’s no way to buy him books. He’s done by the time we get out of the bookstore half of the time. But he can check out ten books at a time if he wants, and that will keep him busy for a week. I might even get one myself. Plus there are movies there, too, sometimes.
  31. Play a card game or board game. Don’t gamble because that involves money. Enjoy the game itself.
  32. Read a book. This can be free at the library, and there are also a lot of free things on Kindle or the internet more generally. At the library, you can walk around and look at dozens of books before you choose one. It’s amazing how big the world is. And then you choose one, and you will spend hours doing something that’s good for you, pleasurable, and free. Even if you went to a bookstore and bought one, it would still be very inexpensive per hour of enjoyment.
  33. Get a season pass to Six Flags. This is not free, not even close, really, except for this: if you buy it at the right time, you can get a whole season pass, plus parking for the season, for the same or even less than you’d spend on a single day pass. If you do it that way, it’s a great bargain, and by the time you’ve been there three or four times, it starts to feel free. Riding a roller coaster is one of the great thrills of our childhood. I’ve discovered that they’re still a lot of fun.
  34. Spend all morning in bed with your sweetheart. It’s almost too obvious to mention, isn’t it? But they’re our lovers for a reason. Taking the time with them is one of the great things we can forget about in all the hustle and bustle of life.
  35. Walk in the park on a summer evening. Listen to the sounds. Or walk in the winter and listen – really listen – to the silence. With many billion people on the planet, how can things feel so quiet an alone? Amazing.
  36. Make popcorn. Technically, not free, but you’re rarely going to create debt problems based on a popcorn habit. If you control the amount of salt and oil, it isn’t bad for you at all.
  37. Plant a garden. Watch the expenses on this! But if you stay moderate, this is mostly free and eventually pays off. I like herbs like basil, peppermint and rosemary, all of which are easy to grow, and tomatoes and beans, which are both cheap and pretty easy.
  38. Publish a story on Kindle. I’m not saying it’s important to publish or sell anything. I’m saying you could, and it’s free. It can open up a whole new can of worms for you.
  39. Volunteer to help with old people. People in nursing homes can get so lonely, and spending time at an old folk’s home can be humbling and invigorating at the same time. It will make you think twice about a lot of things.
  40. Learn your rights. This is not a product promotion, but you are invited to watch videos and read articles on my site. If you have debt problems at all, you will find interesting reading. If you don’t have debt problems but are interested in the legal system, you will also find interesting reading. And if you’re interested in something else, just do a search and find a site with info that will be interesting to you. Go there.
  41. Listen to an old time radio show. Do you know that there are thousands of old-time radio shows free to be had in the form of mp3 downloads? Back in the 1920s through 40s, before television really got big, radio shows were a major form of entertainment, and a lot of them were pretty great. Our favorite is the Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective. These shows were always witty and had great action and drama. My mother loved them as a child, and it was a nightly ritual for me as a kid to listen to radio theater too (already old and mostly gone then). Now my son listens to a show almost every night, too.