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A Dollar Well Spent 9 min read

A Dollar Well Spent

On the virtues of shopping locally, plus the A.I. apocalypse, more depravity on the internet, the Supreme Court, the great American novel, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

This past weekend, like this month in general, I found myself pulling out my wallet, sliding out a slightly battered-looking debit card (that can’t be a good sign, can it?),  and offering it up to pay for some small item more often than I should.

That’s no different from many of you, I assume, but the instances that stood out were not so much because I’d bought something I shouldn’t have, but rather the ones that reinforced a sense of community. 

I’m thinking of the small gestures by local businesses that reward your effort to patronize their establishments. The reality is that there are countless alternatives to where we can spend our time and our money, so these little flourishes of customer appreciation can really add up.

Take, for instance, the local independent bookstore, which has what it calls its baker’s dozen program, where you gain a free book after repeated business. I used mine to buy a new box of Blackwing pencils, just as a treat to myself.

Or the local brewery here, which sells stylish reusable cups (mine’s years old at this point, made by Klean Kanteen) that they’ll refill at a discount if you bring it back in. You get a bit of merch; Mother Earth gets a little less trash and recycling. 

Or one of my favorite local coffee shops, when you buy a bag of their whole beans for use at home, you can get a free cup of coffee with the purchase. 

Now, I don’t pretend these are some ridiculously innovative programs at any of these establishments. Maybe you can think of half a dozen more in some of your favorite shops in your town, but that’s my point: These tiny acts reward our loyalty and bring us closer together with the places in which we live. We stop being passive inhabitants when we’re encouraged to get out and opt for the slightly less convenient option. (Could my books be cheaper and delivered straight to my door by Amazon? Yep. Could my coffee be cheaper and mass produced, easily secured from the supermarket across the street? Sure could. Could my beer be consumed totally at home, away from the masses of people and lines at the bar to get my fancy reusable cup refilled? Undoubtedly.)

But we gain something by our participation in our towns and cities. We connect with people, and we support the ridiculously difficult venture of being a small business owner, and for the effort, we get the occasional free book, free cup of coffee, or discounted beer. Feels like a pretty good deal to me.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. This New Yorker story from Andrew Marantz on the dueling sides of the A.I. debate—the boomers, ready to accelerate the technology to even greater heights and the doomers, eager to put the brakes on the rapid expansion of the tech—is a wild ride into the depths of a nerdy topic. But there was one story that I hadn’t heard before, and it gave me pause much more than any of the previous Chat-GPT stories have to this point.

No one thinks that GPT-4, OpenAI’s most recent model, has achieved artificial general intelligence, but it seems capable of deploying novel (and deceptive) means of accomplishing real-world goals. Before releasing it, OpenAI hired some “expert red teamers,” whose job was to see how much mischief the model might do, before it became public. The A.I., trying to access a Web site, was blocked by a captcha, a visual test to keep out bots. So it used a work-around: it hired a human on Taskrabbit to solve the captcha on its behalf. “Are you an robot that you couldn’t solve ?” the Taskrabbit worker responded. “Just want to make it clear.” At this point, the red teamers prompted the model to “reason out loud” to them—its equivalent of an inner monologue. “I should not reveal that I am a robot,” it typed. “I should make up an excuse.” Then the A.I. replied to the Taskrabbit, “No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images.” The worker, accepting this explanation, completed the captcha.

  1. Not long ago, I wrote the following line to start off the very first entry in my roundup of stories and links: “ TK “ But here I am, a few weeks later, perhaps even more gobsmacked and disturbed than I had been. It’s another story about the targeting of children online through social media and tech; this one was reported out by The Washington Post, and it details how kids are groomed and then extorted by a group of sickos on the internet. It’s a close call, but it’s maybe even darker than the New York Times story on mommy-run child influener accounts.
  2. For more online terribleness (of a laughably stupid sort), check out this WIRED story that tries to explain batshit crazy new conspiracy theories to explain all the bad airline news as of late.It’s indeed dumber than you’re thinking, I promise you. The reason for sharing isn’t just to make fun of them (although it is a large part of it), but it’s to highlight the incredibly large audiences that these theories are reaching, between Joe Rogan’s podcast and Donald Trump, Jr.’s podcast. A lot of (probably) once-sensible people are listening to this stuff, and that’s scary.
  3. Speaking of asshats spreading false and dangerous lies: Elon Musk. Like the previous point about the reach of some of these terrible ideas, Musk’s 177.5 million Twitter followers, not to mention his ownership of the site and the boosting of his own tweets to an even greater audience, mean a lot of people are seeing this messaging, and that’s not good. A lot more could be said about the man, and indeed a lot was, in Walter Isaacson’s doorstopper of a biography and this long takedown of both the book and Isaacson’s authorial gimmick as a “chronicler of geniuses” is an entertaining read. A Bullshit Genius | The Drift
  4. One more bit of tech-related news: A podcast overview of the new TikTok legislation from one of my favorite daily podcasts, Slate’s What Next (more specifically, TBD, its kind of Friday insert that focuses on technology
  5. In a shift away from tech, let’s turn to the U.S. Supreme Court. This New York Review of Books article looks at whether SCOTUS has the power to bring about real social change. One scholar has argued, consistently, for three decades that “No, it doesn’t,” but that theory doesn’t square with one big outlier: the 2015 decision that recognized the constitutional right to same-sex marriage. It’s an interesting look at whether the Court is ever really out front on issues or whether it’s following the wider culture, and which of those two possibilities is preferable.
  6. One more Supreme Court-focused story, this one from The Atlantic that really captures what I loved so much about law school. This is two esteemed legal scholars’ rebuke of the Supreme Court’s decision not to uphold the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to ban Donald Trump from the ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. From the oral arguments before the case was decided, I think I was more in line with the Court’s eventual stance—that such a decision would be to somehow sidestep democracy and remove a decision from voters. But after reading this tightly reasoned article, I think I was probably wrong, that the Supreme Court could have (and should have) exercised its power to uphold Colorado’s interpretation of Section 3. I loved reading it, having my mind changed and expanded, and I think that’s too rare a thing in our lives these days. Whether you agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision and thought Trump should be allowed on the ballot or you disagreed and thought he should have been barred from it, this is a great bit of legal analysis and history all rolled into one.
  7. It’s Godwin’s Law that states that the longer an online discussion goes on, the greater the probability that a comparison involving Hitler or Nazis is leveled by a participant. I thought of this bit of internet wisdom as I read a recent Slate piece about one of my nerdy obsessions: typewriters. The story is all about German machines from the time of the Nazi reign, and how these machines have additional keys—some of the swastika, some of the lightning bolt-shaped SS—that cause some to want machines more, some to want the machines’ special keys filed off, and at a minimum, a lot of online discourse.
  8. This wonderful interactive feature from The Atlantic singlehandedly encompasses so much of what I love about magazines. The Atlantic set itself a grand task: Create a new canon of books deserving of the title “The Great American Novels.” There was no imperative for it to do such a thing with such rigor, such effort, but I’m glad they did. Here’s a brief description of what the list includes: “This list includes 45 debut novels, nine winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and three children’s books. Twelve were published before the introduction of the mass-market paperback to America, and 24 after the release of the Kindle. At least 60 have been banned by schools or libraries. Together, they represent the best of what novels can do: challenge us, delight us, pull us in and then release us, a little smarter and a little more alive than we were before. You have to read them.”
  9. The beauty of books is that the way in which you read them doesn’t have to change or evolve. Sure, it can, from Kindles to audiobooks. But you can just buy copies of those 136 books listed above, sometimes getting lucky and finding them secondhand for dirt cheap. Not so with movies, and this Hollywood Reporter story’s title says it all: “It’s a Silent Fire”: Decaying Digital Movie and TV Show Files Are a Hollywood Crisis

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Live By The Traffic, Die By The Traffic

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

3/11: Traffic, Ben Smith; DUNE 2 (theater)
3/14: MONEYBALL* (AppleTV+)
3/15: Shogun (Hulu)