The Sound of Silence

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: ,

The cemetery kitty-corner from our house in New Orleans, in the fog, two days ago.

The cemetery kitty-corner from our house in New Orleans, in the fog, two days ago.

One of the great challenges of the modern age is finding sufficient solitude.

By “modern age”, of course, I don’t mean the 1950s, which I guess took hold of that term a while back and didn’t let go. I mean now, a time I sometimes call “contemporary” as pretty much the only word that I can use to rigidly refer to this one. And by “solitude”, I don’t necessarily really even mean being alone, even though that’s what the word means. I mean a deeper, more peaceful quiet, the ability to be alone with one’s thoughts, even in the midst of a variety of other humans. What I mean to say, I suppose, is that it’s hard to be bored these days. Or at least find a place to be quiet.

Boredom and quiet are not typical byproducts of the current Western societies which pride themselves on their smartphone technology, infinite navigability, and instant gratification. Boredom and quiet are the obvious enemies, to be paved over with walls of distraction and sound at every opportunity. Listening to nothing is missing the opportunity to be listening to the latest hit single by your new favorite band. Not having anything to do is unthinkable on face, but if it can be imagined, is to be replaced by getting the updates on what millions of people you care about, whether you know them or not, are doing at this very moment. Lord knows they aren’t bored, and if they are, they are certainly feigning otherwise on a social media outlet of choice.

I’m not above this fray entirely, of course, though I adamantly swear by my decision to avoid smartphones and, given the way a recent NPR piece on their use sounded, would probably choose to give up cell-phones altogether if smartphones somehow became my only option. Even now, you may be reading this blog post on a smartphone and have come here via a link thereon that I posted to social media in the hopes that you would catch it right there, now, in real time. To which I can only offer my opposition to the whole circumstance as a defense, that the technology sometimes must be used as its only effective undoing, perhaps. After all, Republicans still seek government office to undermine the power of government. One would imagine that an anti-literacy campaign might still use written words to spread the message of their initial organization. Or that those who seek to undermine the role of money must still spend it until then.

But I often find myself wishing I could be more bored than I am, and certainly in an environment more quiet. It’s not that I long for the 8-hour wait at Harry Potter World, exactly – while I found that experience instructive, it was well more than too much of a good thing to regularly seek. But I basically have found that NPR’s conclusions about the benefits of boredom come true. As I noted in June 2013, “Boredom is essential to the writing process… You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative.” As the piece describes, the mind will only be pushed to real creativity, really interesting stuff, if it has to amuse itself beyond the readily available and accessible amusements. If there is sufficient distraction, then why rise above it? If there is no distraction, we will create it, and it may be the most interesting idea, concept, or whimsy yet.

I think this is why I have done some of my best thinking, from creative development to more concrete problem-solving, in the shower. There is something to be said for being in a place that’s comfortable and for the soothing de-stressing nature of warm water. But most of it is just that this is one of the most rote and dull processes of the day, while also managing to not be distractingly unpleasant. Many things can be extra-distracting even if boring and thus undermine the value that boredom can offer, much like the extra bloodflow of a migraine loses any beneficial effects by triggering painful nerves with the swollen veins: the pain overrides the added blood, neutralizing and even negating it. But the shower is not particularly chore-like or unpleasant, thus creating that perfect blend of boredom and thoughtlessness that creates real, interesting thoughts.

The other ingredient necessary for this kind of insight, at least for me, is silence. Or at least the absence of specific, comprehensible noise, which is actually not the same thing at all. There are many dins that create the functional equivalent of silence in terms of lacking any discernible sound that creates a linguistic or musical experience that distracts the mind from wandering, be it into a book, a piece of writing, or mere reverie toward creative groundwork. A coffee shop may offer a sufficient balance of neighboring conversations such that they create an overall hubbub that sounds more like white noise than like language and this is nearly as good as real quiet. A train station’s crowded echoes, at least in a really authentic glorious station (think Philadelphia’s 30th Street, LA’s Union, NY’s Grand Central, that kind of thing) will offer the same effect. But outside these rare exceptional circumstances, and perhaps libraries, this silence or mix of noise that cancels to simulate it is confoundingly hard to come by.

Music is a huge culprit. There are almost no public buildings that fail to play some kind of music and, increasingly, it is both loud and has words. A remarkable number of otherwise abandoned coffee shops are inhospitable to reading and writing for their unending chorus of worded music which competes for and, for me, overrides any attention being offered to rival words. There are many decent reasons for playing music in such venues, I suppose, like making the day go faster for the employees or offering patrons an environment that reminds them of high school or their hipster friend, but it seems like someone could make a fortune by being “the quiet coffee shop” as a place conducive both to quiet conversation and the reading and writing that people, in one era, most closely associated with the establishments.

Indeed, even bookstores, such as they still exist, are increasingly being invaded by music. To say nothing of restaurants, cafes, and other establishments even less traditionally associated with quiet than coffee shops and bookstores. Libraries remain a rare bastion of silence, though their inhospitability to other things, like food and drink, makes them limited candidates for long reading, writing, and/or thinking sessions. I guess I must be an outlier in my wishes, since everyone seems to be adopting music as a universal soundtrack to indoor existence, but is it possible that we’re just not thinking that deeply about this invasion? Or is no one else so impacted as I am?

After all, most of my generation has supposedly grown up doing homework with the television and radio (or other music device) on simultaneously and competing for attention. I have witnessed peers be able to hold conversations or focus on work of various kinds while so much audible and discernible dialogue distracts me to the point of, well, distraction. So perhaps I’m just a particularly bad auditory multi-tasker, something akin to my generally slow reading (at least for an avid reader), someone for whom words are such a centerpiece that there can only be one viable set of them at a time. But, like the NPR piece on boredom suggests, maybe it’s not that I’m the only one who wants silence. Maybe no one is really thinking about the loss of silence as something we should be guarding against in the first place.

The only place where I can really see (or hear of, more accurately for a couple reasons) this battle being fought is in transportation, where the much-discussed Quiet Car has been created on various Amtrak routes and imitated by other train lines, at least in the northeast. This is a key feature of many trains that aims for the purest form of silence, since, after all, it’s pretty hard to enforce the mixed hubbub that would result from just the right number of conversations. The main target of the Quiet Car seems to be cell-phone conversations, but loud music is surely also shunted away from this purported ambassador of peace. No wonder I often deeply miss my train commute in the Bay Area on BART or even excitedly anticipate a possible streetcar commute in my newest city. While I spent and would spend most of that time reading, it’s at least a refuge from the unending assault of music and other noise on my concentration.

It is hard to read that above sentence without feeling like a bit of a curmudgeon. There is a bit of “get off my lawn” about calling for silence in any venue, perhaps more so if I irritably claim it is “for your own good”. And yet I fear for a generation raised without silence at all, where quiet and its cousin boredom are stamped out like the last of a nasty virus whose loss no one will mourn. Yes, I suppose, we can always create these things in our own homes, filling it with as much noise or as little as we wish. But I think there is something about the collective environments and surprises of the realms outside the home that make silence and even boredom there far more salient than that cultivated in the house.

At least in New Orleans, there is no shortage of such places outdoors. The cemeteries with their various decaying dead keeping watch above ground, the duck-strewn parks of trees and green, the resting neighborhoods with their tales of history, water, success, and woe. Even the ghosts in these places sometimes respect the silence, content to haunt one’s thoughts peacefully, despite stirring the mind within.

Now if only I can convince some of the coffee shops to follow suit.


Labor Force Participation Rates Falling Twice as Fast as Predicted

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

Contrary to what you might imagine about the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and its record-keeping on the purported unemployment situation, they are fairly aware of the impact of the crashing labor force participation rate on the overall employment picture. And contrary to the joyous daze caused in most of the media by pronouncements that the unemployment rate is at a 6.5-year low of 5.6%, BLS even seems to realize that the labor force participation rate is going to continue to fall. More and more media outlets are picking up sour notes about the absurdly low-seeming unemployment rate and how it mostly reflects workers fleeing (or never entering) the labor force, rather than actually, y’know, getting jobs. Indeed, they have done reports on this very issue.

To channel Condoleezza Rice at a hearing here, I believe the report was titled Labor force projections to 2022: the labor force participation rate continues to fall.

Written in December 2013, the report makes the dire prediction that the labor force will plummet to 61.6% by the end of 2022. This number, of course, would be an over 2% drop from the attributed end of 2012 rate of 63.7% and continue to distort the unemployment figure drastically. Because not only are those 2% of the overall population people who would normally be counted toward unemployment, but unemployment uses the labor force as its denominator, meaning that the percentage of people with jobs looks higher because it is a percentage of the labor force, not the overall population. And if we keep excluding more and more jobless individuals from the labor force to begin with, the proportion of those with jobs in the remaining smaller section of the population will rise. When really those 2% of the populous should be counted as being in both the numerator and denominator, swelling the rolls of the unemployed drastically.

How drastically? By 108% last month alone, as I’ve reported. At least if we count all the people who’ve left or failed to enter the labor force since the advent of the so-called Great Recession.

61.6% certainly sounds bad, but similarly, 2022 sounds like a long time from now. A really long time from now. So how accurate is that prediction?

Well, we’re already halfway there. It’s been two years since the predicted starting point for that decade-long trajectory and labor force participation stands at a 36-year-low of 62.7%. We’ve dropped 1.0 points out of a total of 2.1 points in the predicted 10-year fall, in just a fifth of the time.

So I ran some numbers and graphs to see what kind of pace we’re on:

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014.

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014.

Looks bad, but a little up-and-down. Let’s put a trend-line on that:

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014, with trend-line.

Labor Force Participation, 2013-2014, with trend-line.

Now we can clearly see through the noise that there’s a steady pace of decline, that the general direction is down and what that rate is likely to be. So when do we hit 61.6%?

Labor Force Participation, with projected trend-line through June 2017.

Labor Force Participation, with projected trend-line through June 2017.

Roughly June 2017. Which is, uh, five and a half years before December 2022. Or a bit over twice as fast as predicted. 2.22 times as fast, if we’re being technical about it. But hey, give them the extra 0.22 times as margin of error, just in case my prediction is somehow too speedy.

Now, yes, their prediction algorithm is certainly more statistically sophisticated than my little trend-line. As they note at the end of their report, “In order to carry out its projections, BLS analyzes and projects the labor force participation rates of 136 different groups, including the two genders, 17 age groups, and four race and ethnicity categories.” I just used the overall population and ran with it, even though I probably have the tools to do a decently robust age analysis after what I put together a couple months ago.

But here’s the thing – I really don’t think they would have predicted it would take just two years to get to 62.7% and then another eight to get down to 61.6%. Or if they did, it feels like that decision was driven by irrationally exuberant optimism. The fact is that the employment picture has stymied every optimistic prediction, save for those of people unsophisticated enough to not look beyond the headline-published number and its allegedly precipitous decline. Unemployment is actually over 11.5%, not below 6%. We’ve just conveniently sidestepped reality by benefiting from a number that encourages people to be discouraged and leave the labor force entirely. And when BLS itself recognizes that this trend will continue, but seems too cautious in their ten-year projection, it feels like we should just stop talking about a recovery already. Or at least one that helps those below the very top shelf of our self-imposed economic structures.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Fire in a Crowded Theater

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

This, I predict, will be an unpopular post.

Yelling "fire!" into this microphone:  not free speech.

Yelling “fire!” into this microphone: not free speech.

Few events in recent memory have brought such universal calls of immediate condemnation as Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists and staff from the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. As a pacifist, I join the world in condemning these horrible acts of violence and murder.

It is worth noting that the fact that people feel the need to open their articles and reflections on this event with such condemnation despite its universal obviousness speaks to a certain widely felt paranoia in the realm of journalism, blogging, and writing of all sorts. The presumption seems to be that anyone who would offer any perspective in addition to endless outrage or sadness about these events – offering up any nuance, lessons, or further reflections on the massacre and its origins – is a stone’s throw away from being lambasted as a closet terrorist. And indeed, our society is structured to be “with us or against us” in the post-9/11 rabbit hole, a deliberate tactic to stifle dissent or even critical thinking about an increasingly draconian state at war with its own shadow. I’m sure I will feel impelled several times throughout this post to remind everyone that I find the murders abhorrent, that I am not justifying the murder, that I do not believe in the death penalty for cartooning (or indeed, for anything, including murder and treason).

What I find discouraging about the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is how quick everyone has been to defend the magazine’s actions, even to stand with them to the point of saying that they are, literally, Charlie Hebdo. I know murder is galvanizing, even canonizing, to the victims, but it is a small vocal minority that points out that Hebdo and its cartooning staff in particular were crass and offensive, if not overtly racist. There certainly was a double-standard between criticizing Islam and criticizing Judaism, wherein people were fired for alleged anti-Semitism but allowed to flout the most holy standards surrounding the holiest person in Islam, using a blasphemous image to decry everyone in that religion. It’s hard to even imagine what the reaction would be were a similar level of insult levied at a Western-World-approved religion, especially Judaism. And say what you will about the history of anti-Semitism that France has to be guarded against – isn’t that kind of exactly the cultural context and sensitivity to offense that the proponents of so-called free speech are trying to guard against?

I say so-called free speech because the argument that has been lost in all of this, the argument that will be the central thesis of this post, is that Charlie Hebdo‘s offensive cartoons were not protected as free speech and should not be considered within the bounds of that most sacred of Western liberal democracy values. I feel like I may need to repeat this since nothing has been more universal than the repeated utterance of the idea that this magazine’s publication and the slaughter of its staff are free speech issues. They’re not. The cartoons went beyond the realm of free speech.

You see, free speech is not, and never has been, and really shouldn’t be, say whatever you want. Traditionally, that standard was called license, something reviled in traditional liberal democratic theory as something wanton, anarchic, and for those who don’t think about their principles very much. There are countless exceptions to free speech standards and statutes everywhere. The most famously touted, though possibly least significant in terms of actual practical exact application, is yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. Free speech does not protect your ability to yell fire in a crowded theater because doing so is harmful to the society as a whole, likely to cause a stampede of theater patrons that results in unnecessary death. It is dishonest speech, manipulative speech, speech that predictably ends in violence and bitter resentment. I think you can see where I’m going with this argument. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons were deliberately and wantonly inflammatory. They served no social good, no valid political message (unless hate-speech, something banned in many quarters of liberal democracies, is now considered valid political speech), and were intended to push the envelope for the pure sake of enraging a portion of the population.

Critical, vital reminder: people do not deserve to die for violating or overstepping free speech standards. They should not have been killed. The killings were abhorrent.

There are other myriad exceptions to free speech as well, speech that, when shouted from the rooftops, is not protected and is highly illegal. One can not advocate the violent overthrow of the standing government. One cannot make specific threats of violence against any person or group of people. One cannot publicly, with a wide audience, lie about the actions or behaviors of another person. One cannot willfully defame another person through the use of falsehoods or misleading statements. These are all universal or nearly universal exceptions to free speech that instead go by names like treason, threats, slander, and fraud. No one would stand up and defend people committing these acts and create the hashtag #IAmTheDeathThreatener or #IAmSlanderer. Even if they were killed, presumably. And yet defamation of a whole class of people through something misleading is pretty much exactly the standard upheld by Charlie Hebdo. The only reason that people are uniting with and defending this message, other than the rush to sanctify the recently murdered, is because it is seen as “okay” to bash Islam and its adherents in modern Western culture.

Which brings me to the other grossly misapplied use of the Free Speech Flag in recent Western culture and social media, so recently trotted out before this as to make the whole scene appear to have a surrealy orchestrated quality. Which, of course, is the film The Interview, a movie advocating the assassination of a sitting leader of a foreign country. Oh yes, sure, it’s an entertainment too, and a farce perhaps, and a vehicle for bad jokes and racism against all of North Korea and its people to boot. But none of this erases the fact that an actual current leader is depicted, by name and resemblance, as being assassinated and that much of the point of the movie is to get the audience to spend the whole movie rooting for and anticipating his eventual killing. These kinds of depictions are exactly why authors, disingenuously or not, put those little disclaimers at the beginning of books depicting horrible events to fictional characters, stating that no resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is intended. Why? Because it is not free speech to advocate the killing of other living human beings. That is outside the bounds of protected speech. That is punishable speech in all free societies.

And yet, when North Korean agents or bored teenage hackers or irate former employees, whichever it was, infiltrated Sony and hacked the daylights out of them, eventually threatening to bomb theaters if The Interview was released, Facebook’s masses and the media that influence them clamored to call this a free speech issue. The cancelling of The Interview was labeled the biggest calamity to befall free speech in the history of everything, at least until events less than a month later overshadowed them. I was a lone voice in the wilderness pointing out that the intent of the film was clearly to push the envelope as far as it would go and that sometimes, when you try to see exactly how much you can get away with, you don’t. You don’t get away with it. Because it actually tramples free speech and barges headlong into the territory of license, of saying wanton and destructive things just for the sake of that wanton destructiveness, just because you can. And that has never been included in anyone’s definition of free speech, beyond the most ardent libertarians and anarchists.

There are two key rebuttals to this set of arguments that I anticipate: one about satire and the other about making the difficult judgment on the nature of this speech. I really think the latter is super-weak, so let’s start with the one about satire.

It could be argued that both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are satire and that satire’s business, by its very nature, is to go way beyond normally accepted bounds of speech, to delve into the absurd and outlandish and offensive in order to prove its point. And that, as such, the rules for satire should be bent way beyond those of normal, serious speech.

I have several arguments against this idea, but the first is by analogy. In working with students at Rutgers, I ran into a frequent phenomenon of people making racist remarks in the context of satire, supposedly making fun of those remarks by trotting out the exact same remarks in a sarcastic voice. An actual example was someone (fakely) rebutting an argument that a particular African-American was good at debate by saying “but all Black people are dumb,” voice dripping with sarcasm. I spent some time going on a mission to stamp out this kind of behavior, leading to some extensive and impassioned discussions and even arguments against what I’ve seen in some areas labeled as “hipster racism”. My argument is that no matter how sarcastic or allegedly satirical the speaker is when making that statement, no matter how absurd they think they’re being, they’re still uttering a racist remark that shouldn’t be part of the environment of that team (or, frankly, anywhere in society, but I couldn’t really police that). And that hearing those words, even ironically, does damage to people who have heard those same words not in jest. And that putting that out into society helps perpetuate the negative stereotypes, even if the alleged intent is to make fun of those same stereotypes.

Thus, I think a tremendous amount of supposed satire actually backfires, actually just perpetuates the myths and bigotry laden in whatever mythology or bigotry is allegedly being made fun of. We would be better off without that speech entirely, either through carefully rebutting it or simply disregarding it and making powerful counter-speech that does not attempt to carefully skewer the original speech. Yes, satire is sometimes, even often, an effective weapon against hypocrites and damaging forces in our society. But I think it also often misses the mark, sometimes horribly, and does damage to its original intent, and thus cannot be placed on a pedestal as speech more worthy of protection or immune to critique and censure than any other kind of speech. To be clear, my argument is not that satire should be banned, limited, or uniquely targeted – merely that it should not be deified into a separate, higher class than all other forms of speech.

Additionally, I would argue that The Interview is simply not a work of satire. Granted that I haven’t seen it, so my basis for judgment is somewhat limited, but I would argue that it’s a propaganda piece against North Korea and its leader. While it may not technically be an advocacy piece in favor of the assassination of its leader, I think it’s at least pretty close, and I doubt it does anything to make people sad about a world where Kim Jong-Un has been killed. It’s the kind of movie that, were it released in a Muslim country with the US President named and depicted as the target, would be the instant justification for drone-strikes and possibly full-scale invasion of the society that failed to ban it, with all the collateral deaths of children and innocents that come with it.

Which brings us back to the intent of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Were they mere satire with the aim of lampooning? Or was the intent slightly stronger, more sinister, more aggressive? It certainly seems like the point was to get people to view Muslims negatively, to see them all as hypocrites, to simultaneously blaspheme against their religion and inspire disrespect of followers. Where is the line between satire and hate-speech? And even if you don’t believe in laws against hate-speech, doesn’t it at least seem unwise to sponsor and uphold the vitriolic criticism of a religion when the nation where this stuff is published is bombing Syria and could easily already be considered to be in a culture war against Islam? I know France’s standards of freedom of religion are less robust than those in the United States, as exemplified by their banning of burqas in public, but it’s hard to imagine this being deemed acceptable in targeting any other religious group, cultural group, or race. (Yes, I know a lot has been made about Charlie Hebdo also skewering pedophile priests. That is making fun of specific criminals and their criminal acts, not all priests or all Catholics. It’s categorically different.) And if there’s only one group that’s “okay” to target, that’s not free speech, or at least not a form of it that seems right. It’s just bigotry. And arguably incitement to violence.

Which brings us to the second argument, about who makes the judgment. If there is a line between free speech and license, how do we guard it, how do we call it, who is responsible for putting things on one side of the line or the other? I will grant that this can be tricky, but it’s also interesting that no one seems to bring up this question when the accusation is of treason, slander, defamation, or anti-Semitism. And as much as people will accuse my advocacy in this piece of being illiberal in failing to defend unpleasant or even abhorrent speech, I would choose to turn the tables. I think that by decrying anti-Semitism but defending these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it is you who is being illiberal in refusing to defend all groups equally. You are conveniently ignoring the power structures present in your society and that it willingly oppresses some groups while championing and defending others. It’s just racism and bias dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of free speech and erring on the side of caution. The history of oppression of the Jewish people in the past in Europe has combined with a handful of so-called terrorist incidents attributed to radical Muslims to make saying anything you want about one group be deemed free speech, while saying much of anything about another group is over the line.

Call me crazy, call me illiberal, but I don’t think the proper response to this is to have open season on Judaism as well. Rather, I think it’s to take a big step back and examine our norms and standards around how people speak about Islam and its adherents. Unfortunately, now that the massacre has happened, any efforts to rule out inflammatory speech against Muslims will be deemed “giving in” and “letting the terrorists win”. It is of paramount importance in contemporary Western societies that we refuse to change anything about our behavior after an attack other than increasing bombing and violence in response to it. This is hand-in-hand with the continual refusal to recognize that other people have reasons for their violence, while it is taken as given that Western societies have a monopoly on reason for using violence. I have gone over this particular argument so many times in my recent writing that it barely bears repeating, but I still am flummoxed by how often serious media outlets insist on saying that one cannot attempt to explain the reasons behind an attack by others or that any attempt to do so should be considered justification.

This is like saying there can never be a motive for a murder. Generally speaking, unless the person committing the crime is legally insane, motive is a key part of any case against any murderer. We all just spent three months of our lives obsessed with the Serial podcast, largely for its examination of motive and its apparent absence in a murder case. And yet, as soon as the murder is committed by someone we label as a “terrorist”, logic and motive flee the scene as though by divine mandate. Those who attempt to unpack the motive are brandished as “with the terrorists”, an act that would be precisely akin to someone in the jury standing up and accusing the prosecutor at a murder trial of being an accomplice for attempting to attribute a motive to the accused.

It’s totally nuts. But not only is it nuts, it’s extremely counter-productive. Because just as motive is necessary to understand a murder and even prevent future murders, so is understanding the intent behind “terrorism” and other killings or attacks essential to actually preventing them in the future. This is neither justification for the acts nor is it blaming the victims of the attacks. It is merely recognizing that those committing the acts are also human beings (something actually argued against in a frightening number of pieces attempting to dehumanize the “enemy”) and thus have reasons for their actions as well.

The dichotomy between France, the US, and other Western powers saying it is committing drone strikes for reasons, or keeping Gitmo open for reasons, while refusing to even engage discussion on the reasons of those opposing these actions and fighting back, is the single biggest impediment to the West making progress against those who would commit terrorism. As long as you think you’re just fighting animals, you will be a victim of your own propaganda and will never be able to engage in the changes necessary to actually bridge the divide of misunderstanding that ends in death.

But the West continues to dehumanize Islam and its adherents, continues to uphold Charlie Hebdo‘s grossly offensive cartoons as the gold standard of free speech and liberalism. It is thus terribly unsurprising that there would be ardent defenders of Islam who would react extremely negatively and violently to this. Not justified that they would do so, but unsurprising.

As societies, we need to choose free speech over license. We need to remember that minority rights are a key pillar of liberal democracies, in addition to the strong loud voice of majority rule. We need to rebuild a society where all people feel free, not just those with the traditional power. And we need to have the humility to recognize that changing how we act and choosing to respect others is not being intimidated, but is sometimes the ultimate act of courage.

Maybe if there had been voices in France decrying Charlie Hebdo as crossing a line, even censuring some of their cartoons as beyond the realm of free speech, then fewer adherents of Islam would believe the entire nation of France is unified in a culture war against their religion. And maybe that, in turn, would have saved the lives of those cartoonists. Which is not to blame France for what happened – the killings were abhorrent and were the fault of the murderers alone. But we still try to figure out how to prevent murders, even if our failure to do so beforehand does not make it our fault. I don’t see why this set of murders should be treated any differently just because the killers were Muslims.


No, Unemployment Didn’t Just Decline

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

It went up.

Unemployment in the United States actually rose in December 2014 from the previous month, from 11.56% to 11.66%. This is largely the result of a revision to November numbers declaring the unemployment rate during that month to be 11.56% instead of the previously released figure of 11.71%. The Reporting Gap, or the gap between the BLS’ official headline published figure and the actual figure that accounts for departures from the labor force, rose to a record high 6.06%. This is now 108% of the reported figure for unemployment, also a record high. The previous high for the Reporting Gap was set in September 2014, when the Gap stood at 6.04% over a reported figure of 5.9%.

Without the revision of November’s numbers, unemployment would actually have dropped by 0.05%. Of course, the reported figure plunged by a full 0.2% to 5.6%, the first time the figure has been that low since June 2008, when actual unemployment was a mere 6.87%. The last time unemployment was actually below 5.7% was in March 2007, when real unemployment was 5.54% and was reported to be at 4.4%.

Most importantly, the actual rate of unemployment, counting people who have left the labor force, remains 1.66 percentage points above the highest reported figure of the millennium.

While the American media has made much of a so-called “recovery” from the Great Recession that began in 2008, befuddlement continues to be reported on the nature of this recovery, how it is slow, protracted, and does not seem to be impacting those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Constant confusion has been expressed as to why it doesn’t “feel” like a recovery and why so many people seem to be unable to get work when the unemployment rate has purportedly plunged to almost economically desirable levels from a supposed peak at 10%. The Reporting Gap, which directly measures the number of hidden unemployed who have left the labor force, can be seen as a barometer of this otherwise inexplicable feeling. Not only have wages continued to stagnate, but the actual employment situation remains dire, despite much-vaunted reports that say otherwise.

Awareness of the issue of people leaving the labor force has been increasing over the past few months and years as people scramble to figure out why happy days appear to not be here again. Given that labor force participation hit a 36-year low in December 2014, it seems unbelievable that more people are not aware of the impacts of this loophole in how unemployment is reported by the BLS.

Real unemployment has been in double-digits since March 2009, marking almost six straight years where the actual number of unemployed has been larger than the reported peak of the unemployment crisis.

Here are your charts:

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), 2009-2014.

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), 2009-2014.

The Reporting Gap between real and reported rates, 2009-2014.

The Reporting Gap between real and reported rates, 2009-2014.

NB: The graphs above were edited on 10 January 2015 after I realized that I’d accidentally pulled October’s graphs instead. I normally don’t edit things on this page, but this seems to be a sufficiently trivial mistake and something a little misleading, so it warrants a quick change. The above graphs are now accurate, circa December 2014.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Children of the Future

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are.  If not, they will be soon.

This young individual is probably better at using a computer than you are. If not, they will be soon.

They will grow up. And they will log in.

The ages will vary and often be the result of a fair amount of debate. For the more liberal parents, it may be five or six, or eight at the latest. More cautious and conservative ones will aim for sixteen, knowing that it will really fall at thirteen or maybe twelve. There’s only so far you can push these things without causing catastrophic backlash. Holding a hard-line for sixteen will work for a handful, but will force the issue at eight or nine for far more. They will head to the social media outlets and they will enter their e-mail address and devise a password and they will see the world.

What they will look for, first, will not be external. Sure, there will be a couple of friends here and there. But the closest friends will mirror those they have in real life, Mom and Dad, Mom and Mom, Dad and Dad, Mom alone, Dad alone, Grandma, what have you. And they will be looking, primarily, not for others, but for themselves. And lo, what they will find.

It is one thing to have a shoebox of baby pictures in the closet, trotted out in embarrassing fashion when close out-of-state family friends come to visit or even the new boy- or girlfriend shows up at the door for the dance. Or even a home video or seven that depict moments that can’t help but be halcyon for the shy squeaky voice they convey across the years, the distorted mirror of one’s past self coming through the lens and onto the screen. But none of this can compare to the daily grinding chronicle of life, replete with commentary and varying levels of approval, that will greet these children of the future when they log in.

There is the birth and there is the next day and there is the stark nakedness of the tub or the first night across the the threshold, the brazen publicity of it all, no matter who this was shared with at the time. This is not Aunt Marge coming over and saying how she saw you when or held you how. This is Aunt Marge and 27 other friends actively seeing you – you – in the bathtub, in damn-near-realtime, liking the experience and asking for more! This is you having lived a life that you know you remember less than others but being painfully aware of just how many strangers were intimately involved in parts of your upbringing that you will never recall beyond this cribbed rebuilt chronicle of scrolling pictures.

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. For it is not just pictures. It is the daily progress of exactly what your family was thinking at the time, during the hardest days of your earliest time on the planet. Maybe your mother doubted the decision to have you when colic claimed the ninth straight night of sleep from her addled brain. Maybe your father jestingly offered to trade you for magic beans or two months of Netflix, garnering twelve comments of sympathy and two counter-offers from his online acquaintances. Maybe grandpa posted a video comparing your movements to the family iguana’s, speculating that the latter was displaying a greater intelligence.

Sure, some of this is harmless, explicable. Or it will be moreso to you at twenty, or thirty, or when you have your own kids, the way that reaching a certain age makes you understand the people who were that age more. Temporal existence is such a fickle trick. But now, at five or six or eight or nine or even fourteen or sixteen, you will be bewildered. Did they not love me, that they could so callously discuss my existence this way? Was I that bad? Is this warm blanket of unconditional love I’ve come to expect an interpersonal ruse belied by the daily steam-blowing of a semi-public forum?

There will, in most instances, be an insatiable quality to the experience. After being locked out of this world by familial agreement or merely lack of awareness, suddenly the Complete History of You, adorned by countless opinions on same, will be available for endless perusal. Some will be waylaid, becoming obsessive, reliving a childhood remembered and not to the point of becoming an export in their previously forgotten selves. Some may be overwhelmed and give up, but continually be drawn back to this tempting world of an identity that predates self-awareness with an expansive thoroughness their present selves could not possibly hope to match. Others may become dissociative, unable to reconcile the barrage of imagery and commentary of their past being with a person who grew, unaware of this endless documentation and display.

There will be exceptions, of course. Those who anticipate this kind of shocking revelation for their offspring and try to head it off at the pass, attempting to ban the social media proliferation of images and commentary about their child, or limit it to a small, private group. And while these aspirations may be admirable and easily enforced before school matriculation, they will become wholly unwieldy and challenging once the child begins interacting outside the home. What of group photos at birthday parties, or the inevitable phone-snaps at a playdate? How exhausting it might become to trail after every digital camera and cellphone, diligently asking its user not to post it online lest images of their child become publicly available. There will be inevitable leaks, it being impossible to even see every phone at work in a public or semi-public sphere. There will be pictures, recordings that leak out. And when that child discovers that nothing of them exists when their peers are discovering same, they will hunt all the more diligently for those few leaked clues to their earliest aspects of existence.

As the child ages, the notion of an inextricable and continual identity, an ongoing narrative that predates and surrounds them, will only grow. Sure, there can be some sleight of hand with privacy settings and a few other options, but most of the content will be owned or controlled by such a disparate range of people so as to become wild, untameable. Some will try and fail to corral their online identity, from birth, when they move to a new school or matriculate to university. The past will no longer be a shadow in mere memory, but in painfully full-color and clickable expression. You can untag yourself, you can block your mother, but this does not prevent others from seeing you more clearly, vividly, and rememberedly than you want to even see yourself. Surely we see evidence of this sort of navigation already, social media having been embedded sufficiently in culture such that naked or other compromising photos have been disseminated and ruined people, or the unending imagery of a failed relationship haunts their future impossibly. But for the children of the future, this goes all the way back to the beginning.

And indeed, not just the beginning. It will be possible also for the child to watch the development of the relationship that led to their creation, the speculation on the process leading to their birth, every pain and inconvenience of the pregnancy. Not in all cases, surely, for this will be more tied to the social media presence of their parents alone and even how much scrubbing of that history said parents wish to do vis a vis their child. Though it will no doubt occur to many how exhausting it would be to selectively set privacy settings for the prior ten to twenty years for only their child, and even then moreso how odd it will be that the high school classmate they barely spoke to at the time got to see the evolution of this phase of their life, but their own child is banned from same.

A great challenge of social media for my generation has been how much we wanted our parents to see. Soon, it will also be how much we want our children to see.

But it will probably be out of our control anyway. Each generation has grown into their native technology sufficiently to outstrip the knowledge, understanding, and speed of use of their priors by leaps and bounds. Privacy settings will be hacked, blocks will be cast aside, dummy accounts will be made to look like Uncle Bobby finally got on Facebook after all, and the histories, for the curious, will be unearthed. Never before have we lived so publicly and in such a real, minute-to-minute way. And it may be of some comfort to consider that those who come after us may display a real, pressing interest in what it was like to be alive now at this minute, now at this one, now at this one. But are we really considering what it will be like to have been born into a world where that reality has already transpired and is there for the rewatching?

Like all decisions of the twenty-first century, technology and advancement must reign. Any consideration of the philosophical or social impact is just for the luddites on the sidelines. They can contemplate and soothsay all they want, but this era belongs to headlong, heedless “progress”, come what may, damn the torpedoes. The lesson of asbestos is that there are no lessons of asbestos. We just better hope some future technology saves us from our current technology.

This is me on the sidelines, squinting, holding my breath, and fiddling with a mirror. I’m not trying to stop the whole race, but occasionally there might be just enough of a glint of light to catch someone’s eye.


Symmetrical Surveillance: Serial, the Panopticon, and Why Murder Rates Really Have Crashed

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

The Panopticon!  Now in handy pocket size.

The Panopticon! Now in handy pocket size.

Two things seem to be really trendy these days, if you don’t count bashing Muslims (I’ll talk about that one and why it’s so wrong in a different post). Serial the podcast (which I discussed at length in November) and speculation on why murder rates have crashed all over urban America. Malcolm Gladwell discussed the latter in his latest pop-stats book, David and Goliath, which I read last year, it’s the front page story in one of the surviving New Orleans papers today, and I’m sure NYPD thinks they’re single-handedly going to reverse the trend by refusing to shoot any unarmed people for a whole week.

These things all seem pretty related to me, in a fairly intuitive way. And no, it’s not that people are not murdering people because they fear being analyzed in a 12-week podcast and having all their friends interviewed. If anything, that’s probably going to create a slight uptick in the interest in domestic murder.

People thought a lot of things while listening to Serial. Indeed, the fact that it prompted speculation of all kinds and thus inspired countless unending discussions and debates in homes all across America was a key ingredient of its immense popularity. I almost laughed aloud when Koenig dismissed her wildest thoughts and speculations in the waning minutes of the final episode by saying “So who are we to put this theory forward? This is the very obvious problem with speculation, especially of the emotional variety. You can’t prove it, so you have to drop it.” It’s like Facebook dismissing the opportunity for someone’s link to go viral on their site as not very important to their site. Are you kidding, Koenig? Speculation is everything that Serial was about and that made it great.

But one of the things I think people thought most about Serial is what it would have been like in their high school. For most of the people I know, that’s a time roughly contemporary to the murder depicted in Serial, and I think that made Serial really interesting to a lot of my friends and to me. I can’t imagine loaning my car to anyone, certainly not someone who wasn’t a close friend, so the idea that Jay and Adnan barely knew each other seems ridiculous. For some Serial listeners, an era of cell phones at school is incomprehensible, because cell phones came later. And for some Serial listeners, many who I know, they can’t imagine using a cell phone so little as Jay/Adnan used Adnan’s cell that fateful day in January 1999. There were only, what, 29 calls? Today, there may be no calls at all, or a couple, but there would be about 110 texts, plus Google searches, Angry Birds games, and other unending streams of data pinging away at those cell towers like a GPS tracker of the phone’s movements.

Which gets us to the reality of the panopticon that seems to exist in modern society. I don’t have a smartphone, but I acquiesced to get a cellphone in late 2010. And while I don’t interrupt live conversations to use it and I don’t play games on it or surf the web on it, I sure do text a lot and have it on me most all of the time. And I am considered one of the most luddite, anti-cell people anyone knows. My fellow hold-outs, Russ and Gris, now carry cells, and Russ’ at least is a smartphone too. Sure, my parents and a lot of other people in their generation still lack the cell trackers, but I think we can safely say we’re a couple decades from everyone in society having a perpetual GPS tracker in their pocket. And functionally, we’re just about there already.

Despite what some aspects of Serial may seem to imply, it’s hard to get away with murder. But it’s really hard to get away with if you have a device in your pocket constantly telling the world where you are. And it’s really hard to get away with when everyone has such a device in their pocket, a device they’re expected to use regularly to tell a wider swath of the world where they are specifically, to discuss their feelings, to respond to texts, and to dial 911 at the first sign of danger.

This is the biggest single reason why murder rates are falling everywhere in the country, regardless of whether they have a “three strikes” law or not, regardless of whether their police force is slaughtering innocents who brandish sticks and toy guns or not, regardless of whether there’s broken-windows enforcement in the district or virtually no enforcement. It’s because the technology let loose in the society is creating a community that is sufficiently integrated to police itself, or at least do so against the most dramatic of crimes. It’s made the task of abducting or killing someone vastly harder. And that’s a really good thing.

What it hasn’t prevented, however, is the kind of murder that has experienced a huge uptick during this time of generally crashing murder rates. Which are mass-murder sprees that end in the suicide of the person perpetrating them. Now there are a whole bunch of other reasons for that uptick that I’ve discussed previously in the wake of some of these mass-shootings, but I think it’s telling that basically no one, except I guess the Aurora shooter, even tries to get away with them. Mass-shootings almost universally end in suicide because the idea of getting away with it is totally ludicrous. (And also, notably, that a lot of these are committed by people who have given up on life for one or another reason already.) And it’s not just because a mass-shooting leaves a particularly large trail of evidence, though it does. It’s because any murder leaves behind enough instant evidence that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone getting away with it, so why bother?

This is part of what has fueled so much outrage at the police officers who the state has failed to hold accountable for their murders of unarmed individuals. Because the same kind of evidence, of recording, of instant awareness of these murders has existed for police-committed crimes as well. But instead of being used by law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is ignored in favor of solidarity among those in authority. I discussed this at length a month ago, so no need to review. But the particular outrage is so high because it contrasts so fully with what happens to other murder cases. The mountain of technological evidence is used to throw the book at regular citizens, but to protect and obfuscate when the perpetrators are the police.

Which brings us to the only real danger of the death of privacy: asymmetry. This is hackneyed territory for me at this point, but it bears repeating when people cite the panopticon as an agent of oppression rather than protection. The problem with publicity of information, whereabouts, etc. is when they are wielded asymmetrically. When wielded symmetrically, when there is a similar expectation of publicity among all citizens, whatever their status or rank, and all corporations, governments, and other operating entities in our society, then publicity and a lack of privacy is freeing. When it is wielded asymmetrically, it can easily be a tool of oppression, domination, and disaster.

We’re somewhere in the middle right now with a lot of this. Facebook, Twitter, phone records, and the constant-communication society are functionally pretty symmetrical. Sure, the companies running the systems have a bit more knowledge/power, but not grossly more so, perhaps not even meaningfully more so. And while there are certainly drawbacks and problems with the constant-communication world, it has knitted together a fabric of society that seems so interconnected that it is very hard to be very bad therein, at least if you care about what happens to you afterwards. I truly think this is a wonderful development that is saving tons of lives.

However, there are areas of asymmetry still lurking, bolstered by draconian punishments of whistleblowers levied by both governments and corporations. The police remain utterly immune, as do high-ranking government officials (except when Chelsea Manning or Wikileaks or Edward Snowden can occasionally sneak something out, and then those people have to not care what happens to them as well). And this is problematic and needs correcting. But the correction should not be to push us all back into the shadows where murderers can hide and no one knows where we went. The solution, rather, is to push everyone out into the sunlight where we can evaluate the quality of everyone’s actions. Those in power ought most closely be scrutinized. If we push for this rather than hand-wringing about a “privacy” that we couldn’t currently retrieve if we wanted to (without an irreversible knockout EMP, at least), then everyone might stop murdering people, even the police.


Follow Me Down to the Rose Parade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , ,

A New Year’s Day dialogue:

Storey: “Do you ever watch the Rose Parade?”
Alex: “What’s the Rose Parade?”
Storey: “Only the biggest or second-biggest parade in the country annually.”
Alex: “Where is it?”
Storey: “Pasadena, California.”
Alex: “Maybe it’s just a West Coast thing.”
Storey: …
Alex: “Seriously. Pasadena?”
Storey: “Are the Oscars just a West Coast thing too?”

This prompted me to extremely unscientifically poll my Facebook friends with the following four options, asking them to describe their closest understanding of the Rose Parade:
1. I am aware of it and have watched it or watch it.
2. I am aware of it but never watch it.
3. I am unaware of it.
4. I am only aware of the Elliott Smith song and have no idea what he’s singing about.

In honor of the two people who actually chose option 4, as well as the others who cited that as a great song, here you go:

Here were the (again, very unscientific) results:
Option 1: 49% (23 respondents)
Option 2: 19% (9 respondents)
Option 3: 28% (13 respondents)
Option 4: 4% (2 respondents)

For a simpler split of
68% have heard of the Rose Parade, 32% have not.

I was expecting to garner some sort of regional and/or age splits on this number that would make it make sense, but this attempted analysis has proven woefully impossible.

For example, there are people who attended high school with me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who have answered 1 and others who have answered 3. This defies regionality, unless New Mexico is on some sort of West Coast/East Coast faultline of viewership.

Yet many people who responded 1 are lifetime East Coasters, including several who have never lived outside New York and New Jersey. Most of those who responded to 3 were also in this category, however, with several having earlier roots outside the country. Although an Albanian-born New Jerseyan voted 1. Many people who live in Southern California unsurprisingly voted 1, with many adding that they’ve attended the parade as well. No one from California seemed to vote 3, which at least gives me one regionally boundary.

And the two people voting 4 were a lifetime East Coaster and someone from my high school. Proving… nothing. Other than that both of them are at least somewhat hipsters.

Of course, it comes to mind that the greater factor may involve sports viewership, and/or some combination between that and parade viewership, whatever that demographic is specifically comprised of. (Clearly, it excludes Elliott Smith himself, at least if he’s thinking about his decisions, or was.) I’ve never much thought of the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl as being terribly intricately linked, which is obviously not an opinion shared by East Coasters, including Alex’s mother, who responded to the same question with a discussion of the Bowl. I have no doubt that more people have heard of the Bowl, but I wouldn’t have thought till this month that more people watch the Bowl than the Parade. Which I guess is mostly the fault of parade broadcasters who very much sound like they have a broadcast reach of the Oscars or possibly the SuperBowl when they’re doing the announcing, at least to me.

The moral of the story is, mostly, that it’s great fun to use social media to poll your friends, even if Facebook doesn’t support traditional poll formatting outside of groups. And maybe there’s something about the diversity of Millennial experience as we veer off the course from universal TV stations and radio songs to our own carefully cultivated, mostly online experiences.

In any event, 2015 is looking up so far. I’m sure Elliott Smith could find a way to be concerned about it, and maybe I should be, but my interest was always greater than his. I think you can expect a lot more content this year on this page, as indicated by the flurry of the last few months. And some of it may even be slightly more serious than this post.

The A in this parade is hardly type-A.

The A in this parade is hardly type-A.


One Day More: Photos on the Eve of Christmas Eve

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Tags: ,

Tomorrow is perhaps my favorite day of the year, when all the work of a week’s worth of preparation comes to fruition for one magical night. Not a lot of time for a long, contemplative writing piece after a somewhat frustrating day battling the wind on the roof and ultimately falling a bit behind in the layout process which now takes the better part of two days. That said, I’ll have full-time help for the big push tomorrow, so I’m confident that the full display of a record 1,000+ will be up and lit in time. In any case, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the images that have symbolized this Christmas Eve season in the days leading up to the big one, just one sleep away.

But perhaps I should start with the video from local news on Sunday night, when KRQE’s Cole Miller came back and did a piece on the preparation of luminarias as a follow-up to last year’s broadcast on Christmas Eve

Here’s how things have looked the last few days, in a more still form:

Nesbitt likes unwrapping ornaments.

Nesbitt likes unwrapping ornaments.

The stegosaurus ornament in the set discussed on the 20th.

The stegosaurus ornament in the set discussed on the 20th.

The brontosaurus ornament, from back when brontosaurus was a dinosaur.

The brontosaurus ornament, from back when brontosaurus was a dinosaur.

The t-rex from the set.

The t-rex from the set.

A new ornament that Alex's aunt got for us.

A new ornament that Alex’s aunt got for us.

The carrot ornament that is Alex's favorite, part of a set of fruits and veggies.

The carrot ornament that is Alex’s favorite, part of a set of fruits and veggies.

The fire and the tree in the living room.

The fire and the tree in the living room.

The tree all aglow.

The tree all aglow.

Luminaria staging area, in progress.

Luminaria staging area, in progress.

Another view of the luminaria staging area.

Another view of the luminaria staging area.

1,132 luminarias ready to go!

1,132 luminarias ready to go!

A broader view of the 1,132.

A broader view of the 1,132.

Alex and I with all our handiwork.

Alex and I with all our handiwork.


The Dinosaur Ornament

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Tags: ,

The triceratops from the ceramic set of dinosaur ornaments my family got for Christmas 1987.

The triceratops from the ceramic set of dinosaur ornaments my family got for Christmas 1987.

When I was seven, in 1987, we moved to Washington DC. We had lived in California as long as I could remember before that, though I was born in Nevada and lived in Oregon for a while as well. We had lived in San Jose till I was about two (no memories from SJ either) and then moved to Visalia, where all of my earliest memories were made. Shortly before we moved to DC, my grandfather (Dad’s dad) had passed away, my father’s fax machine distribution/network company had closed, and it seemed like it was time to move on. We put a little bit of stuff in storage, packed the rest into the family’s light blue Saab, and started eastward across the country.

By Christmas, it was apparent that things were not necessarily going so well. After years of relative affluence in the heyday of my Dad’s business, it was clear even to 7-year-old me that the family was struggling financially. We didn’t have a television, though we would later pick up a small black and white one. Our apartment floor had a giant field of splinters in the living room that I one late night jumped into when trying to cross it barefoot to get water from the kitchen. (Yes, this was expressly against the often-discussed admonitions of my parents to always wear shoes in that part of the house no matter what. This is why I tried to leap over it instead of just walking gingerly across it. Which led to pretty disastrous results which involved my foot in a bowl of warm water for hours after I stopped screaming and my parents came down to investigate who was kidnapping me. I actually always wore shoes after that. Sometimes, we can only learn lessons from pain.)

It was clearly important to my parents that, even with our new circumstances, Christmas would still be special. Indeed, arguably some of the scrimping and minimalism in the fall and early winter was directly enacted so that we could have enough money for Christmas to still involve some nice gifts. I was in the choir at the beautiful Christ Church in Georgetown and this involved some Christmas performing as well as a great night of caroling shortly before Christmas itself. My main gifts would consist of some nice tin soldiers that would be tied for my favorite toys until I became a pacifist and remain, despite my pacifism, among the things that I really treasure from my childhood. In part, perhaps, because of the incredible upheaval of that one year we lived in DC, how precarious some of our circumstances were (there were also conflicts with the landlord that ultimately led to our departure – for another post, perhaps, or maybe not), and how vibrant everything seemed in that new and very different place. I forget if I had left the second school of three that I would attend that one second-grade year yet or if I was still enrolled – I would spend a couple months being homeschooled between schools #2 and #3. The reasons for this and the whole situation are probably the subject for another post as well, but it added to the sense that every day in DC was worth a couple weeks in my prior life in terms of daily change and uncertainty.

But the primary gift for the family, the items that were clearly selected with me in mind as a primary appreciator/recipient, but were beloved by all three of us, were the dinosaur ornaments. We got these decently before Christmas to go on the modest tree we’d gotten for the season. I had never been through a cold winter before (Visalia is often in the 110s in the summer and only gets to about 55 in the winter, with abundant fog as the main winter weather) and there was a massive snowstorm (my first in memory) on Veteran’s Day that shut the city for a day or so afterwards. I have a vivid visual of the bitterly chilly air, frost visible before our exhaling mouths, as we ducked in a little shop off the street and discovered these brightly colored ceramic decorations. My dinosaur obsession was still in full bloom, though patriotism/history was coming up to fill the void left by outer space after how watching the Challenger disaster had impacted my astronomical aspirations. Each dinosaur was the perfect mix of whimsy and seriousness, personality and color, delicate fragility and solid presence. We were in love, but I was especially. I think my parents were leaning toward getting them anyway, though they were a bit of a stretch for our budget, but I’m sure I wheedled quite a bit as well.

When we brought them home, I couldn’t wait to get them on the tree. My parents, as always, urged patience, but such is rarely a trait of those under 10. The ornaments were remarkably heavy and I was neither a tall nor a strong child. I asked if I could hang a couple of them up. My parents looked at each other and then at me and failed to reject my brimming enthusiasm. I was exhorted to hang them gently, to hang them cautiously, to take my time and hold my hand under them. To make sure they were firmly attached to the given branch.

I took this task seriously, despite my exuberance. I cradled each dino as it went up, hanging it by its golden fabric loop, gently resting it on a branch. Now the green triceratops, now the yellow T-rex. And then I set the orange pterodactyl on the highest branch I could reach. After all, they could fly. I was on my tiptoes and set it on the branch and stepped back to admire its perch.

You probably knew where this was going. It wasn’t deep enough on the branch and the branch probably wasn’t substantial enough for the weighty ceramic object in the first place. I had become complacent after the success of the first couple of hangings, gaining confidence after successfully attaching gleaming dinosaurs to the well-lit tree. The pterodactyl’s loop slid quickly down the branch, it briefly took to the air like its depicted inspiration, then clattered to the hardwood floor, smashing in two.

I cried. I wept. I was inconsolable. My parents were in a frequent position for them in my childhood, where any critique they might leverage of my behavior was already dwarfed by the extreme guilt I felt. I was good at being able to discipline myself, to make myself feel far worse than any typical parental punishment. I think one of the first things my Mom asked me to do was to stop beating myself up about it, a request that was destined to echo down the long halls of subsequent decades of our parent-child relationship. But I refused. I didn’t know how.

I knew what those ornaments meant to us, what sacrifice my parents had made to get them (several exchanged looks and hushed discussion in the store before we gleefully stepped out with the dinos in tow), how many years I had already planned to make them the centerpiece of tree-decorating to come. And here it was, one of my favorite dinosaurs of all-time, wing rent from wing and little bits of ceramic powder spilling out from the cracks. These were the days before SuperGlue was a household item and I’m not sure we even had glue of any sort. It was irreparable. The pieces of pterodactyl spent the night in the trashcan and I spent the night softly sobbing to myself.

In those anticipated subsequent years, I would feel a washing mix of emotion every time we hauled out the ornaments for tree-decorating. Nothing would bring me more joy than seeing the beautiful dinosaurs in their polished splendor, but this would instantaneously be punctuated by the pangs of guilt at the missing pterodactyl. For some reason, I would feel compelled to apologize to my parents, sometimes repeatedly, every year. I cannot sufficiently emphasize that my parents never did anything to make me feel bad about the broken dino and certainly never raised the issue themselves after that DC Christmas. But, like my perverse annual desire to read “The Little Fir Tree” aloud, Hans Christen Andersen’s Kafkaesque and heartbreaking tale of an anthropomorphized evergreen, the dinosaur-ornament guilt would become an unfortunate hallmark of most every Christmas to come. My hands would tremble every time I grabbed for one of the beloved surviving dinosaurs, making overly sure to hang it furthest back on the most substantial branch every time. There was at least one year, when I was 10 or 11, when I refused to hang any of the dinos myself for fear of a repeat and could barely watch, one eye half-closed, as my parents attempted the feat themselves.

To this day, 27 years after the first fateful Christmas of the lost pterodactyl, I have been unable to look at the dinos without seeing a vision of the shattered ornament, without feeling the same regretful reverberations I feel in my heart when I contemplate other transgressions of my youth. The day in first grade when I punched David A. in the arm for cutting in line. The time I was held in from recess that same year for saying a test was too easy, loudly, when we were supposed to be working silently. The shameful things a classmate convinced me to say on a dare. For whatever reason, whatever part of my conscience controls these memories, I simply cannot let these things go.

Suffice it to say that when we first got the ornaments out yesterday and Noir the cat started batting at the triceratops pictured above, I almost lost it. But maybe I should learn a lesson from the cat’s relaxed attitude toward possessions that are, after all, just things. But then, Christmas is a time for traditions, for memories, for family fables of both joy and pathos. They all are time-honored and all, perhaps, tell us more about ourselves than we normally know.


5 Days Out: A Brief Photo Retrospective from Albuquerque

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

It is five days before perhaps my favorite night of the year and worth putting a little visual element to the experience of preparing for putting up one of the largest luminaria displays in the city where they are most prevalent. My excitement has not waned since four days ago. But maybe I’m just excited to have had use of a camera that functions, since my camera died shortly before I left New Orleans. It was a top-of-the-line camera when purchased sometime in the early-mid ’00s, the one that chronicled my trip to India and Nepal in 2008, as well as other things in my absence that I’d rather not think about. The camera is stuck with the lens half-open and half-closed and makes a grinding sound when turned on or off that can only mean, in this era of disposable gadgets, that it is irreparable. It was getting obsolete anyway, as my parents claim their camera is becoming. But their camera works:

Happiness is 8 gross of candles.

Happiness is 8 gross of candles.

8 gross. That’s 1,152 candles for those of you scoring at home. Not that the plan is to use all of those as individuals in the display, since there need to be some reserves for replacing duds and flame-outs. Plus, I need to increase the record by little enough so as to be able to shoot for a bigger record in subsequent years.

Noir, my parents' less Facebook-famous cat, wonders why he can't play Pac-Man with me.

Noir, my parents’ less Facebook-famous cat, wonders why he can’t play Pac-Man with me.

Noir, partner in crime to the more photo-shy Nesbitt L’Orange, made a real effort to attract the camera’s attention in the last couple days. Here he was expressing consternation with the cover on the Pac-Man machine in the anteroom that my father is finishing before the events of Christmas Eve.

Put the cat in the sink.  I have a sinking feeling.  Supply your own caption.  This is my gift to you, Internet.  Not that it's really feasible to imagine a cat photo would go viral.

Put the cat in the sink. I have a sinking feeling. Supply your own caption. This is my gift to you, Internet. Not that it’s really feasible to imagine a cat photo would go viral.

Submitted without comment. Except, you know, all the comments I made.

550 bags folded, at least 500 to go.  Each full grocery bag contains 250 folded bags.  I think I'm right on pace so far.

550 bags folded, at least 500 to go. Each full grocery bag contains 250 folded bags. I think I’m right on pace so far.

There’s nothing quite like the waxy feel of one’s fingertips after a couple hours folding bags, the loud crinkle of each new one’s initial fold, the cadence of opening and closing bags to be able to properly fold the lip of each. The bags wouldn’t stay open if the lip weren’t folded over. But I think even if someone devised a way to make a regular sandwich bag to stay squarely open without the fold, folding would still be necessary. This process is what transforms a mere sandwich bag into a luminaria-in-waiting, the unspoken promise of light and hope to come.

It’s good to be home.


Airport Morning

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Pre-Trip Posts, Tags: , ,

The DHS dog comes by amiably, tugging his black-jacketed attendant along as he moves from person to person like he’s seeking a treat. He pauses at a small red bag in the genre of the modern over-sized carry-on, sniffing it up and down. Its owner, who profiles like a border-guard volunteer, doesn’t bother to look up and the attendant simultaneously tugs the leash as if to say “not the droids we are looking for.” The neighboring man, a near carbon-copy in build and appearance, though younger, does an exaggerated askance glance, rotating the eyes fully up and then down as he seeks the first man’s face for clues of felonious intent. The first man makes a phone call, irritated, as the dog wanders off in search of other milkbones; the neighbor is visibly more nervous in his extra-comfy leather seat with the three-pronged charging outlets and fake-marble-topped side table. He is tapping his feet and trying to stare straight ahead as though willing himself into a trance.

We are all thinking the same thing, at times like that if not at other times. The moment just before take-off, the acceleration into the lift that never quite feels like it could possibly be enough to lift even the assembled visible human mass off the ground, let alone the encasing steel and baggage. The moment of removing our shoes, patting down our own pockets for the trace coin or piece of wadded paper we will be berated for later if it remains. The lining up of sockfeet on the yellow gumshoe outlines, arms akimbo and upright, hands up, don’t shoot, but an even more surrendering position than that, as though we are about to be cuffed, or lifted straight off the ground. It has been ingrained in us at every turn: the trip we are about to take is dangerous. Maybe it was the image of the second plane going into the second tower over and over and over again, every angle, every speed, every shrill cry in the background. Two minutes hate, two minutes fear. Maybe it’s just the guards, everywhere. Maybe it’s a primal human terror at leaving the ground, at having nothing below but the clear blue sky.

Very few people read anymore. They play with their phones, their tablets, their computers. If they are reading, it’s often on one of these devices, especially if they are under 40. I’m always the only one under 40 with an actual paper book. Some idle picture-laden magazines do appear on laps, maybe even a sketchbook employed by the especially artsy type, the one with at least three colors of hair and pink socks poking above low-ankled black canvas shoes. There are an uncanny number of glasses and sunglasses up on foreheads, nestled in hair or perching on bald domes, reflecting back the sunny tarmac and its noisy sleek denizens. The padded, armrested comfy chairs are extremely popular, full long before any other section of the standard-issue adjoined seat rows without armrests. There is, mercifully, no blaring TV with some toned-down airport version of CNN alternating overly happy news with the specter of news that can only serve as a small reminder of what we all know we are all trying not to think about.

In a far corner by the window, a wheelchaired man is in a hushed but animated conversation with a cohort, possibly his younger brother. The Saints clothing per capita in this discussion is 1.5. Gestures and laughter punctuate their talk with such frequency that one wants to sidle over and join them, whatever the topic, knowing intuitively that it could only be enjoyed like that by people who’ve shared at least forty years of history together, and probably sixty-plus. I’m pretty certain I’ve played poker with the guy five seats down on my left and he keeps eying me cross-wise like he knows he recognizes me but isn’t sure from where and if he figures out from where, he’s definitely of the type that doesn’t admit outside of casinos how much time he spends in them. The girl in the purple shirt across the way looks like she’s too young to be flying alone but she’s probably at least 16 and it reminds me that age is entirely a relativistic experience. I can still remember how sixth graders seemed older than my parents when I was in first. I can still remember my grandparents calling my parents “you kids” when the latter were in their fifties. I frequently see someone I think I recognize from some past era in my life until I realize that the person I’m thinking of was 18 or 22 when I last saw them and that the person I currently see is 18 or 22, but the person I’m thinking of is actually now in their 30s.

Cell phones are picked up frequently, but never for long. Such seems to be their purpose, to shorten talks down to their distilled minimum. And maybe that’s how people always used the phone, mostly, but it wasn’t so visible, public, accessible, constant. People answer questions about their upcoming flight, layovers, weather here and weather there. Pickup arrangements are made, flight numbers relayed for the checking of delays. There is an intense, glazed, television-thrall type look to those who are only fingering their phones and not talking, be it an absorbing game or the unending scroll of the web and its diversions. There is frequent and profound sighing everywhere, as people are reminded that they are waiting. Or perhaps that they are trying not to think that this could be their last morning on Earth and that everyone is thinking about that just a little. We rarely come face-to-face with mortality in a mundane way. It is either the drama of immediate trauma to ourselves or loved ones, or a long slow sad decay. But there is something about the everyday fluorescent over-brightness of this gate area, its stainless steel numbered pillars glowing in the morning sun, that makes the end seem both near and absurd. One can’t think about it too long or it will become too much. We all hear stories about the person who ran off the plane that crashed at the last possible minute, have all contemplated, at least once, freaking ourselves out to the point of being that person. But we tap the right side of the door twice as we enter (or whatever your little superstition happens to be, if applicable), and board all the same.

I cannot help but thinking back to the 5-year-old girl in the line with the harried stressed father and the over-calm older sister and the meek mother, the one who appeared to have deep set scars under each eye. She was about three groups ahead of me in the bag-check line and an even shorter distance up in the security queue. They looked like gashes, red with the remnants of exposed blood, then tear tracks, then gashes again, as she turned nervously in the line like someone in need of the bathroom. I kept looking at her father, picturing him hitting her or attacking her, then the mother, because it could be her too or instead, after all, then berating myself for such harsh suspicions when children fall all the time or run too quickly. The particular shape and placement of what really did ultimately look like cuts, though, were hard to conjure an appropriate explanation for and I wondered if this is how profiling works or if this is more frequent for me as a would-be creative writer, or if there’s something about this slightly paranoid environment that makes one dread their fellow traveler. The family was white, very Southern looking, the father ruddy and one who seemed quick to anger, but perhaps I just wanted to see that. Serial has taught us how quickly we can explain the shocking, how much we can fill in what we want to see if someone tells us that’s the explanation, or if we suspect something enough. We did it that September morning, now already so long ago. We do it every day.

Should I have reported what I saw? If you see something, say something. It is, statistically speaking, far more dangerous these days to be a schoolchild than a plane-rider. And that’s even not accounting for yesterday’s tragic events in Peshawar. Peshawar, another city of stories from my father’s youth, turned again to a synonym for blood. It is, of course, statistically speaking, more dangerous to be almost anything than a plane-rider. Despite the thoughts we all are harboring and hiding, what we are about to do is safer than whatever we did to get us here. It is safer than whatever our step is after we leave the airport we’re headed to. It is safer than most everything else we fill our days with, even if cell phones don’t cause cancer.

A rack of vapid, over-makeupped faces stare at me from behind and above the real faces I see. It occurs to me to wonder whether the magazine industry would still exist were it not for plane travel. And how much longer, even here, it can compete with the small rectangular screens that even now I myself am partaking in to bring you these observations. It is not all useless, what we do on these screens, it is communication and contact and the desperate sense that we are not where we are. That we are closer with the ones we love and miss. That we are not, in fact, waiting in an airport for a metal tube that we really hope does not lead us to our doom, that we hope will comfortably and safely teleport us to one of a hundred other worlds. And now I bring you the irony of trying to will you into this space, to give you enough vignettes and insights such that you too feel transported to a place that, by all accounts, no one really sees as a place to be, a destination, a location they would choose.

The seats are filling in now, more closely, and at least two people have glanced over to see surreptitiously what I was working on so intently. One actually moved two seats further away thereafter, perhaps getting enough of a gist to realize that I was publicly talking about everyone here. There are now four people in wheelchairs here. None who appear to have lost their limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. The friend in the animated conversation before surprised me by running off to a different gate with fond goodbyes five minutes ago, being replaced by what can only be the first wheelchaired man’s wife, also adorned in Saints paraphernalia. The attendant behind the Southwest desk wears a purple sequined Santa hat that is something I cannot honestly say I have ever seen.

Our plane lands behind me and the disoriented-looking, recalibrating new teleportees to New Orleans turn the corner single-file. Most are rolling bags behind them. Many are clutching their small reflective rectangles. All look a little like they have just survived something – exhausted relief. Maybe I am making too much of this or looking for it, but maybe it’s always there just in that moment atop the jetway. The planting of shoe on solid ground once more, the connection with the earth that our species has loved since the first of us grew tired of swimming and crawled out of the tide.

Soon, they will call our number and we will, as one, rise to take our preordained place beside the numbered pillars. We will carry those slight little dejected looks of boredom, punctuated only by the occasional excited child or particularly gregarious personality. I will think of the little girl again, of the plane in the tower, of all the other safe landings, of Albuquerque and my family and the destination that we all must be singularly focused on. I will tap the right side of the door, outside the plane twice, as I have since my early teens. I will settle into a seat, row 17 by the window if I can, stuff my backpack under the seat before me and remove my book. I will look out the window, sigh, read, and wonder how long I will be able to stay awake. The people who do this daily, for a living, who surely must have got better control of their worse thoughts than I do yet, will talk to us about things we have known since we were five. Five. Damn.

And soon, after a short little drive and that sudden loud acceleration, we will make for the sky.

Portrait of the blogger (sort of) as a pre-boarded man.  But mostly of a plane and all that tarmac.

Portrait of the blogger (sort of) as a pre-boarded man. But mostly of a plane and all that tarmac.


It’s Lumi Time!

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , ,

Rumor has it that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. I couldn’t agree more.

You can keep your ornate displays of high-watt outdoor bulbs, your blow-up santas and penguins, your animatronic lowing cattle and rooftop reindeer a-tromping. Save your LEDs, your candy canes, even your wreaths. Late December means just one thing to me: luminarias.

Look, they've got memes for everything these days!

Look, they’ve got memes for everything these days!

It’s hard to put into words just what exactly is so magical about luminarias for me, since it’s really a combination of things. And every year or two, I’ve made another pass at trying to really explain it. If you want the best visual chronicle of the finished results of the display, you can refer to my 2010 post on the then-record 772-lumi display I did that year. My elation at setting a then-record previously, in 2008, is discussed here, which is mostly just a testament to the combination of exhaustion and triumph that comes with putting one of these displays together. And I did some of my most elegant, if briefest writing on the phenomenon in 2012, before the worst year in the last four, when wind pretty much wiped out the neighborhood’s display and destroyed my roof efforts and most of the rest.

But perhaps the greatest accomplishment I’ve notched as a luminarian (luminaire? lumineer?) was getting on KRQE 13 (local news) last year, in this story:

That was my new all-time record of 850. And I’m really considering making good on my wild proposal of over 1,000 this year. After all, part of the point of keeping track of all these records is to give myself something to beat the next season. And for the first time in many years, my parents aren’t protesting, aren’t worried I’m overdoing it, aren’t asking me to scale down a little bit or take it easy. They’re all in for a record-setting display.

So I’ve gotten ready. I’ve officially picked up the first 100 bags of the season with nine days to go.

This is the start of something beautiful.

This is the start of something beautiful.

What is a luminaria? At its simplest, most basic level, it is a lit votive candle inside a sandwich bag, with a little bit of sand at the bottom. That’s it, that’s all there is. And indeed, that itself is one of the most cherished and lovable things about luminarias: their basic simplicity. This is fundamentally a democratic tradition, a poor person’s tradition, as it started in one of the consistently poorest parts of the country. It uses simple materials, each humble in their origins, but combines to make something bright and magical and uniting. Kind of like the best spirit of Christmas itself.

They’re widely accessible. In many neighborhoods of Albuquerque and, I hear, increasingly other cities of the southwest, they are almost universal on paths and walkways, creating an overall communal display that is generally consistent, in theme if not in quantity or quality. And in an era where everything is electric and electronic and bigger and brighter, the simplicity of the subtle flicker of muted candlelight, ‘neath extinguished streetlights and darkened car traffic, makes Christmas Eve a night where people are removed from their own time and transported back to a quieter, darker, slower age. They are best viewed by walking for just this reason, though hordes of buses are toured through the most ardently participatory neighborhoods of Albuquerque, as well as car traffic after a certain hour, with parking lights or less on. There are also all manner of conveyances, as people come through on bikes, horses, horse-drawn carts, and multi-wheeled person-powered contraptions, most of them adorned with small little Christmas lights or other decorations. People greet each other and pause at their favorite displays and warm up by firepits sometimes placed outside.

Last year, we debuted a firepit to go with the massive display that adorned not only the sidewalk and front-yard paths, but fences, gates, rooftops, inner courtyard, and even trees. I have always loved sitting back in the shadows of the front porch and hearing breathy appreciations come across the frosty night air when people see my displays, but nothing prepared me for the thanks my family and I would get when we actually stood outside to tend a firepit and meet many of the visitors. It’s the west, so people just come up and say hi and warm themselves, all but the very shyest who have to be cajoled. And it’s the west on Christmas, so conversations were frequent and often lengthy, always punctuated with encouragement and wonder. I’ve certainly never done these displays for the thanks of the people, though they are, like any public decoration or display, predominantly for the enjoyment of others. And in a deep and dark December when my family desperately needed some acknowledgement and hope, last year’s Christmas Eve shone like a lighthouse beacon across the roiling sea.

Hopefully, the firepit will be back this year. Alex will be there for Christmas Eve itself… she’s helped a lot with bags in the past, but never has been there for layout or actually doing the display, let alone seeing the entire neighborhood. And as I’ve told her, as I tell you now, like so many jewels of the southwest (the Grand Canyon springs to mind), luminarias really need to be seen live to be truly understood. Still or even moving pictures capture a hint of their glory, but only a small hint. The scale, the flicker, the spirit that haunts the candlelit streets and bag-lined lanes really requires a human presence. No amount of bombardment of images, direct or conjured through words, is going to do the real magic justice.

KRQE will be back too, doing an earlier story on creating the luminarias and setting up the display. I’ve long wanted to do a kind of how-to or even some kind of timelapse video of me constructing the whole display. Maybe I’ll attempt that this year, if I have the energy and pace myself properly. Exhaustion is always a factor in these things, though the years have made me more adept at timing, when to take breaks, how to cut down on lighting time, when to start lighting, and a hundred other little subtleties of the practice. Doing the display in the same place year after year helps too, though my Dad’s constant tweaks and improvements on the house he’s made a 15-year masterpiece always keep me guessing.

The project is several parts obsession, a handful of tradition, a dash of pride, a spot of creativity, and a whole boatload of excitement. Even now, just contemplating the hours of work ahead on carefully folding the lip of the bags, scooping sand into each one, plopping a candle therein, and then laying them out with exact spacing and precision, lighting them all, and seeing the display, I am giddy. Few things in this life get me so elated, so heart-racey with anticipation. And unlike so many highly-anticipated things, the end result is even better than the looking forward.

Nine days of magic, starting tomorrow. I can’t wait.


Facebook Tires of Dominance, Success, Decides to Start Self-Destruction

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: ,

You know what's cooler than a billion dollars?  Throwing it all away!

You know what’s cooler than a billion dollars? Throwing it all away!

Remember MySpace? Or Friendster? No one talks much about Friendster anymore, because it was basically exactly Facebook. I remember the first time someone told me about Facebook, which I had just missed by graduating a little too early and not going to Harvard, my quizzical reaction was “Oh, you mean, like Friendster?” Everyone was on MySpace and Friendster. They were going to take over the world. And then they didn’t.

Look, Facebook has gotten way further along than those sites did. It’s more in the same company as Google these days. And even though people look at me kind of strangely when I say Google “no longer works”, I do think the main searching function of that site is on its way out the door, the algorithm hopelessly cluttered by paid rank improvements of all kind, both with the money going to Google and the cash going to rank-beating services. But regardless. Google has infiltrated our lives sufficiently with its GMail product (though rumor has it they’re trying to ruin that somehow, too) that they will be around for a while.

But Facebook has apparently recently announced that they’re done. Not interested in being the top web company, or co-top, any longer. According to this Wall Street Journal article, they’re going to require people with Facebook pages about something other than themselves (i.e. businesses, artists, teams, websites, etc.) to more or less pay to play.

Here’s how they put it:

“Businesses that post free marketing pitches or reuse content from existing ads will suffer ‘a significant decrease in distribution,’ Facebook warned in a post earlier this month announcing the coming change.

The upshot for Ms. Bossie is that ‘if I do not pay to promote the post or boost it, it’s hardly reaching anyone,’ she says. Now, more than half her sales come via her Facebook posts, she estimates.”

-WSJ article, 27 November 2014

Now I don’t know how far this reaches or how deep the rabbit hole goes. My dramatic post title and condemnation of the move is based on the assumption that Facebook is basically doing this to all pages of all sorts, be they for individual budding artists or writers, companies large and small, candidates for office, activism groups, sports teams, debate teams, you name it. It could be that they’re only overtly targeting for-profit businesses of some establishment with this change, in which case, I’m not so worried about it. But in any case, I see doom on the horizon.

I think the best analogy is not MySpace or Friendster, but Netflix. Remember when everyone in America had a Netflix subscription? It wasn’t that long ago. Yes, I know Netflix has bounced back a little and a lot of people share the password to someone’s account who actually pays for Netflix now, so it kind of feels like most people have Netflix. But remember when they had just one Netflix service and everyone got discs in the mail? Yeah, you recall now. Cool.

And then they made this dramatic announcement, in September 2011, that they would be splitting their DVD-by-mail service from their streaming service. And, more insultingly, that the service everyone liked less (streaming, which had far fewer movies and vastly fewer good movies) would be considered the “default” Netflix, while they were calling the by-mail model that had built the Netflix empire “Qwikster”. They cancelled the official split in businesses a month later after they lost millions of subscriptions and there was huge public outcry, but this was just window-dressing as they basically persisted with the split of services, separate charges for each, and pretending that streaming was the default and mainline service. By the end of that year, their stock value had lost over 75% of its value and Netflix went from being a household necessity to something that was desperately pestering people to come back and try it again free for a month. Admittedly, Netflix has rebounded a little by reinventing itself as a TV station, adding tons of popular shows (Gilmore Girls, anyone?) to its streaming lineup and even creating new shows. But their popularity and reach is nothing compared to where they’d be if they’d just kept mailing DVDs to people in perpetuity while doing the same build of their streaming library.

This is the precipice that I feel Facebook is on with this new change at the top of 2015, assuming it applies to everyone with followed pages. Because here’s the problem: people don’t like paid-advertising content. They don’t like sponsored links. People like what they like. For goodness sakes, Facebook reinvented what it means to like something; they should know this better than anyone! What makes Facebook so palatable for people is that you can like exactly what you like, friend exactly who you like, and basically make Facebook a little portal into only and exactly the things that you feel good about.

Facebook has always had ads, of course. Everyone has ads, except PostSecret, who commendably has built an empire out of books and having one of the simplest and most brilliant ideas ever to grace the web. Good on PostSecret. But everyone else is trying to subsist on ads. And part of the deal with ads is that basically no one younger than 35 can even really see them unless they voluntarily choose to. People raised with the Internet at some point in their high school or college days or younger have trained their eyes where to look for content and where to look for advertising and to mentally block out the imagery and text of advertising. Maybe I’m somewhat unique in this, but I really don’t think so, because in the last year or so, everyone started putting ads in new places, right in the middle of the content. Self-declared authorities of the web like Salon and Huffington Post have started having ads either disrupt your viewing experience entirely by plastering across the screen like a cumbersome pop-up or putting them in the text box every third paragraph so you seemingly have to see it. And Facebook has put sponsored content right there in the news feed like it’s something you want to see.

Here’s the problem: no one wants to see this stuff. When I started getting sponsored ads in my Facebook feed, my reaction was resentful. “I didn’t like ViralNova,” I would grumble to myself. “Why is ViralNova stuff in my feed?” Facebook conveniently does offer the option of blocking future content from any given perpetrator of this advertising, I guess to prevent a riot or maintain the illusion of controlling one’s own content, but it’s still kind of an embittering process when you’re expecting Facebook to give you only stuff that you have voluntarily chosen (or begrudgingly accepted, I guess, from that borderline friend). But at least Facebook still gives me updates from the Blazers and the Mariners, goofy stuff from Chipotle, sales from Southwest Airlines. Because I actually want to see that stuff in my feed.

Now it looks like unless those companies pony up some money, I won’t see their content at all! Which is the most distressing and I think self-destructing part of this for Facebook. I want to know about those big companies, yes, but also to get updates about the budding craft and pottery businesses from old friends in California, my ex-colleague in the Bay Area who is an aspiring artist, my friend in North Carolina’s photography business, and my rising star artist friend in New York City. These all have Facebook pages I have liked and I love being able to use Facebook to follow their progress and cheer them on. Seeing updates from Glide always brightens my day. I suspect I have a few friends who even follow this very website this way, which I diligently update every time there’s a new post and someday will again whenever I finally finish the Song Quiz and get going on other quizzes.

The point is that these fledgling little pages are a huge part of what works about Facebook, its magic, if you will. Like getting little DVDs in the mail and reigniting the joy of mail for people was about Netflix, the little feeling of receiving a present a couple times a week, plus the thrill of anticipation of knowing it’s coming. Netflix totally failed to understand how much of its brand and magic and hold on people was about that simple little process and felt it could kill it in the name of revenue. But that was the revenue! And some group in a boardroom decided that Netflix didn’t need the magic anymore, a whole country felt betrayed, and people dropped it like it was hot.

The people with these pages want to get their news, content, and updates to those people who like them. And the people who have liked them want that content. They voluntarily signed up for it. It is crazy to try to extort a few extra bucks from these people trying to disseminate content to people who want it. And it is even crazier, because most of what is being paid for is getting that content to other people who don’t want it! When you “boost” a post as a page, you can target the audience somewhat, but the point is that most of the people it’s delivered to are not people who’ve ever expressed interest in your company/art/content. Now yes, the empire-building capitalist theory of everyone is that you’re supposed to believe that everyone will someday like me, but they just haven’t heard of me yet. Just like we will all someday be billionaires in this country, we’re just going through our poor-but-humble phase now. But the reality is that this is not how liking things works. You grow resentful of people who barrage you with cheap paid content, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. Things go viral when friends share them and you hear of something from the people you trust. And Facebook is the best and easiest place to “go viral”. What does Facebook think of this other aspect of its magic that gets tens of millions logging in every day?

“Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president of small business, says that Facebook’s paid-advertising options have become more effective recently and that companies should view Facebook as a tool to ‘help them grow their businesses, not a niche social solution to getting more reach or to make a post go viral.'”

What are you thinking, Dan Levy? Trying to organically improve reach and get things to go viral is what Facebook is all about. Take that away and it’s just another superhighway riddled with billboards for stuff you don’t care about. There’s a reason that no serious site uses pop-up ads anymore: people despise being bombarded with content they didn’t choose from people who paid to put it there. People love content that they did choose or was recommended to them. When you undermine Facebook’s ability to provide the latter in favor of the former, yes, you make a little more revenue upfront. But you also strangle the golden goose that made you so popular and ubiquitous in the first place.

It’s almost like there’s a brick-and-mortar model for this. Catalogs and magazines. People love catalogs and magazines that they signed up for, that they chose. They hate catalogs and magazines they didn’t want or didn’t choose, seeing it as annoying junk. I got a free Rolling Stone subscription with some tickets to a concert I bought last year and not only did it long outlast the six-month “trial” that started it, but it followed me to New Orleans against my will. They keep sending me threatening e-mails and letters saying the subscription I never chose and never paid a cent for is going to run out and needs renewal. I can’t wait! Whenever I see that they’ve sent me another Rolling Stone, I get angry at the waste. And it’s not like it’s such a bad magazine – I’m just not into magazines. But I am upset instead of neutral because I didn’t choose it. This experience has actually made me like Rolling Stone less.

I guess I’d be a little less confident that this change was going to signal Facebook’s decline if I hadn’t seen something similar happen to so many other websites. Websites are new technology, still, and everyone running them is a tech geek. I think this is why they all believe in perpetual innovation and change and all seem to believe so fundamentally that it is never enough to leave well enough alone. Unless you’re growing, evolving, and have fifty ideas in beta, then you’re looking over your shoulder at someone else who is going to knock you out of the marketplace.

I think this is backwards. I think that most of these sites knock themselves out of the marketplace by overheating and trying too many new things. If your website is dominating the market and audience attention with a certain model, maybe keep on doing what you’re doing. People like that content, feel good about how you’re delivering it. Why stop? Any other business or venture would find it insane to say that things are working really well and you’re on top of the food chain, so radically revamp how things are done. And yet Google keeps tweaking the algorithm and is looking to overhaul the most popular e-mail platform in the world. Facebook wants to stop people from seeing it as a way to go viral or spread unpaid content. Maybe Fandango will soon stop selling movie tickets are start selling bus tickets instead. Or Priceline can start charging each user $2 to see their listings. After all, more upfront revenue, right?! What could possibly go wrong?


Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)

*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.


Password Protection and Self-Defeating Security

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

This country has a bit of a problem with a false sense of security.

This just in!  The US has been torturing people!

This just in! The US has been torturing people!

So-called revelations have been abounding this week over the extent and nature of some specific acts of torture enacted by the CIA during the Bush administration on behalf of the United States. The torture ranged from breaking limbs to making people pass out to threatening sexual violence against them and their families to threatening death to actually killing them. The country appears to be taking this as news, which itself is kind of news to me, but I guess when I can be chattily accosted by a fellow tournament player about how we “finally got some of those Democrats out” and “it’s crazy how many Socialists are still in government,” it’s pretty clear I have no fingers at all on the pulse of America. His unironic earnestness about what he assumed would be my shared opinion that Mary Landrieu, champion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Big Energy, and all-around moderate conservative is a Socialist convinced me that I would actually give him a heart attack (he was of a certain vulnerable age) if I declared, honestly, that I am an actual Socialist the likes of which would make Bernie Sanders blush.

No one is really making much of a connection today between the CIA torture stories and the other news that I can only imagine they are trying to displace, namely the matter of the police slaughtering the unarmed (usually Black men) in our society. The connection seems obvious to me, but then the links between various instances of institutional violence always seem pretty clear and traceable from my vantage. We are a people become so obsessed with danger and threats that we have come to see everything as a threat. Or, far more to the point, everyone as a threat. With the increasingly vague excuse of PTSD from 9/11, we trot out our fear like some sort of endless warrant for the abuse and summary execution of anyone we find remotely disconcerting. So quickly forgetting that this is a narrative as old as nations themselves, that fear of the damage from the last war or major attack brought popular support to Hitler’s expansion, Stalin’s purges, Napoleon’s conquests, Robespierre’s terror, and probably every other significant abrogation of rights and life in history. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and dehumanization are not the products of a society that feels comfortable or stable in itself. They are the products of a society desperate to establish a sense of security through any, preferably rabid, means necessary.

This is an already rutted road in my writing, the discussion of how fear can galvanize evil and how absurd our fears truly are. Even how a different kind of fear motivates our binary lose-lose party system. It’s hard to say how much is a product of American exceptionalism specifically as I have come to believe that no one nation has ever been so good at convincing people of its nobility while spreading iniquity. Or how much of it is just the innate exceptionalism that comes with being a temporal being stuck in a single place in the world, adopting the loyalties and perspectives so tightly bound to the country of one’s origin and rearing. Maybe German exceptionalism and Soviet exceptionalism and French exceptionalism and even Mongol exceptionalism or Hunnic exceptionalism (and certainly Roman exceptionalism) fueled all the atrocities of days gone by. Maybe we aren’t special at all, even in our ability to make ourselves feel more special than the rules of history and power.

But there is perhaps a lighter-hearted metaphor to be found mired in the literal torture and killing our country’s authorities daily enact on the alleged behalf of our safety. One that has also graced the news lately, with head-shaking denotations of the obvious incompetence it implies. Namely, the failure of several institutions to keep passwords in any way safe from hacking, often in the hilarious form of passwords being stored in easy-to-find files named “password”.

You can read all about the story, which was everywhere last week, here, for example.

The problem made most people immediately hit their heads into walls and rush to take part in the bashing of Sony, its IT department, and other gleeful pilings-on so common in our tear-down culture. But no one seemed to raise the issue that seemed more obvious to me, which itself is an issue I’ve been meaning to blog about already anyway. Which is that our current system of Internet security and its attendant passwords are completely unusable by people. They are decently well designed, I suppose, for computers, but as I learn a little bit more each day in the poker world, humans are not computers.

To do most anything on the Internet these days, you need a login for the specific site on which you will be doing that thing. Every site has a different requirement for username protocols, including especially the fact that each login must be unique for that site. And most every site has a different set of requirements for the length, diversity, and criteria of passwords which are handed out. For a clear example, some sites require that a symbol (any key other than a recognizable letter or number) be used at least once in the password, while many others disallow any use of such symbols in passwords. Many sites cap the password length at 12 characters while others require 12 characters as a minimum.

It's not quite this bad yet, but it's close.

It’s not quite this bad yet, but it’s close.

The result is something any even rudimentary Internet user is familiar with – the accumulation of a wide range of relatively diverse passwords. While one could get away with having a few variations on one basic theme as a default password, many stipulations make this practice of streamlining the variance in password requirements impossible. Many sites, especially academic e-mail addresses and an increasing number of more trivial sites, require periodic changing of one’s password and, more perniciously, the banishment of any past precise password after change. Rutgers required this every 3-6 months. Additionally, routine hacks at various retailers and larger threats like the Heartbleed virus render whole swaths of traditionally used username/password combinations void, or at least vulnerable. And thus end-users are constantly barraged by requests or requirements that they change their passwords at various sites while leaving the login screen and username unchanged.

This last bit is important because, in my experience, the only prayer a human actually has of remembering all the various username/password combinations for all their various sites is to have some sort of visual cue or trigger that one associates with that particular page. If I see the logo of a particular bank every time I’m typing some combination, I’m more likely to remember that when logging in as opposed to looking at my GMail login screen. But if I have to change these passwords, then my memory is actually working against me because I have multiple memories of multiple username/password combinations for the same site, meaning that chaos ensues and I end up not remembering my password.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t the additional “safety” feature of locking the account to most anything one is attempting to log in to after 3-5 failed attempts at memory. Something that I have triggered at almost every password-change-mandatory site ever, often multiple times. Which then requires the creation of a (wait for it) even newer unique never-before-at-that site password after one has copy/pasted the string of ridiculous alphanumerics generated by the corrective e-mail prompted by the little “Forgot Password” clicky.

There are basically three ways around this conundrum of modern living that do not involve avoiding the creation of Internet logins:
(1) Store a list of passwords somewhere.
(2) Have your browser memorize your passwords and keep them for you.
(3) Never log out.

The problems with all of these should be obvious. (1) is exactly what Sony did, the problem being that the computer was the easiest place to store the passwords since paper is a dying medium. And paper is vulnerable to loss, oversight, destruction, and theft, making a computer seem theoretically more secure, even if it is hackable. Is it more absurd to travel with one’s little piece of paper or to e-mail or text oneself information? All of these are vulnerable. Only one’s memory is truly secure, but that’s faulty, and I guess isn’t secure either if someone is willing to torture the few passwords you remember out of you.

(3) is impractical, though many people try this for a period of time. But both (2) and (3) have the fatal flaw that anyone successfully hacking your machine can not only steal your password, but could immediately change it and log you out, basically locking you out of that account forever. Which may seem far-fetched until you realize that the entire point of having a password system in the first place is to prevent just that outcome. So either they’re hacking you or they aren’t. Either you have to fear your password getting taken over and this leading to some level of identity theft via login, or it’s all overblown, in which case 1234 or password should suffice.

Granted, some sophisticated systems do prompt you via text or some other more direct means than the Internet if you suddenly change your password and your confirmation e-mail address, which is good. But there’s still a lot of damage that can be done pretty quickly there, especially if the account is for your bank holdings or a particularly high-profile Twitter feed. Thus, the entire process of having Internet passwords becomes a quixotic paradox much like voting. The only time it really matters, it can’t possibly matter. Unless you have the most sophisticated memory for passwords ever.

But then I got a password for CounterWallet so I could hold MepCoin, as discussed in my weekly podcast‘s 131st episode. And that was just a string of random, unmemorizable consecutive words that I was told would never be retrievable ever again if lost, stolen, damaged, or forgotten. Which required that I write it down somewhere, which pretty much had to be somewhere electronic to be really permanent in any way, which makes it perfectly vulnerable to hacking. And while I may have a mere one million MepCoin attached to it (real world value: $0 at the moment), people use this to store things like BitCoin and DogeCoin and things that are theoretically supposed to supplant the mighty dollar someday. Which just mandated that I fall into a basic security trap that proves the totally illusory nature of security.

I am tempted here to pivot to a rant against privacy, but passwords may be the last bastion where privacy actually seems to serve a reasonable purpose. In that, without privacy of passwords at a minimum, all bank information for everyone would become public, and we can’t exactly just trust each other. This is the rare instance where a total symmetry of information rewards the worst actors, not the best, and that seems problematic. Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have private property unequally held at all (told you I’d make Bernie Sanders blush), but we should probably at least have the right to correctly identify our electronic correspondence with others as actually being from us.

In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that our false sense of security is the biggest thing keeping us unsafe. It’s bad enough to torture our alleged enemies into hating us all the more (or for the first time). But to truly believe our own lies about this stuff is as bad as posting our eponymous file called passwords publicly for all to see. We’re just making total fools of ourselves, as anyone outside the self-delusional exceptionalism we embrace can plainly see.


My Life with (Ms.) Pac-Man (or 84,400 Points Can’t Be Wrong)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , ,

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

My record-high Ms. Pac-Man score, set earlier this week.

Ms. Pac-Man has played a major role in my existence.

I think I first played the arcade classic in the early-mid 1980s, probably just after it had come out. My father was a big fan of the early Pac-Man tables that came to the world about the same time I did and he would often bring me along for long lunches and early dinners with his sales associates in his various cable-selling and/or entrepreneurial efforts of those heady Reagan years. Often these meals were at establishments that had a couple video games making a trial appearance at the front entrance, competing with the cigarette vending machines, the dirty old bubblegum-dispensers, and occasionally the clucking chicken prize machines that I absolutely adored.

(Given Alex’s incredulity at seeing her first cigarette vending machine at Harrah’s New Orleans a few months back, I expect similar puzzlement about the last kind of machine from those not around in the early ’80s, though it may also have been a localized thing. In which case, behold:)

These things were everywhere.  And they were AWESOME.

These things were everywhere. And they were AWESOME.

I don’t know exactly when my father first hoisted me up to a proper height to be able to reach the controls of Ms. Pac-Man’s hectic voyage through her haunted maze of dots, but it may have been at one of those bar-style tables that would have been decidedly more accessible to my short childhood frame (not a redundancy – I was really short for my age until I shot up to my current height around ages 12-13). It was sometime after we’d seen Tron in theaters as my first or second movie-going experience* and I almost immediately remember connecting the experience of the character I was remotely controlling with the lives of those mono-suited and harrowed drivers in the film. It was thrilling. I’m sure I died quickly and had no idea why, but I also carefully watched my Dad and his associates play over time and soon Ms. Pac-Man would join Halloween and Watership Down as inextricably magical portals in my consciousness.

Thereafter, Ms. Pac-Man would always be my go-to game at arcades and pizza parlors in my youth. I didn’t frequent these places often, but birthday parties or other outings in Seaside, Oregon made them a common location to test out the skills of evading ghosts and eating fruit. I played a safe survival strategy, eschewing the big points to be gained from eating lots of ghosts and preferring usually to gobble the unguarded dots while they went through their mollified blue phase. NBA Jam certainly made a run at my heart for the top spot in the world of video gaming outside the computer, but nothing could knock the hungry yellow circle off her perch.

Then the obsession really kicked into high gear and got some reasonable attempts at practice when we moved to New Mexico and I fell into the habit of bowling with my friends on an at-least weekly basis. Holiday Bowl on Lomas at ~Louisiana remains there and became our third or fourth home and had a big Ms. Pac-Man machine right in the front of the various video games adorning the entrance. Jake and I were the biggest fans, but most everyone took a turn or two at the big yellow-and-blue box, with the crowded semicircle of onlookers cheering or groaning at every turn. It was here that I honed more risky strategies, emerging as I was from a highly risk-averse youth into a still disproportionately risk-averse teenage-dom. I went for the full 1600 (3000 total) points of eating all four ghosts. I went for the fruit from time to time, learning the valuable lesson that it’s there, especially in the early levels (up to peach) mostly to distract you and get you eaten. I learned to hate Red, or Blinky as it is named in the game, for its cunning and speed, especially in sometimes trying to get eaten early so it could fly back out of the gate when no longer vulnerable.

I remember a particular national debate trip in high school where we ate somewhere that had a Ms. Pac-Man machine (or maybe it was in an airport?) and I dropped everything to get out some quarters and give it a spin. My debate teammates had never seen me transformed by the effects of the twists, turns, triumphs, and tragedies, and were thus mostly amused. Jess Hass told me she had never seen me that animated and that it was like another person had come out of my shell. It’s probably somewhat like what people who’ve never seen me dance think when they first see me at a party or wedding.

Then there was a bit of a lull. Brandeis lacked a Ms. Pac-Man machine on campus and Pelta-Heller taught me to play pinball instead. That and laundry scooped up my extra quarters and my skills lapsed a bit. I’d still jump at the chance to gobble some dots and ghosts when presented with the opportunity, but the chances became less frequent as aging machines were taken out. A brief renaissance ensued when Gris and I discovered a table Ms. Pac-Man sublimely sitting in the middle of an Ethiopian bar and grill in Oakland, though. I distinctly remember playing after his birthday party there to console him upon having his car stolen that day (it was recovered two days later not much worse for the already heavy wear).

And then my Dad called and said he’d found an affordably priced Pac-Man table machine on the Internet and did I think it would be cool if he bought it and put it in the basement? This is a bit like a lifetime soccer fan being called on a casual Tuesday night by a relative who is weighing in on whether he or she should choose to buy Manchester United. I got done with my gleeful incredulity about four minutes later and could only calm down enough to make my approval truly clear another four minutes after that.

This elation was only mildly dampened when I came home the first time to discover that he had not just short-handed the game’s title by calling it “Pac-Man” but that it was, in fact, an original, not the Ms. Pac-Man that had stolen my heart over the last two-point-five decades. But I quickly grew to love the simpler and less prolific original, though the cut scenes were not something I’d memorized the tune to ages before. The ghosts were a bit more plodding and logical, but the overall game ran slower and had less variation with the lack of different boards. That said, it was very hard to argue with being able to fish the quarters back out of the till unspent, nor the camaraderie of playing against my father.

The Pac-Man machine has been dormant and is being considered for re-sale, but my Dad and I got it up out of the basement and plugged it in upstairs last visit, when Alex and I went out for Balloon Fiesta in October. And she went from very new to pretty darn good quite quickly, an echo of her childhood playing Super-Mario (I always had a computer for games instead of a Nintendo). And shortly upon our return, we discovered that the arcade at our favored local movie theater, the Elmwood 20 in Harahan (same parking lot as the only NOLA-area Chipotle!) has a back room. We’d been playing air-hockey and occasionally gambling away dollars in the claw machine (curse you, Kurt Falk!) when especially early for films, but guess what was sitting in the back the whole time (I mean, all of four months, but we see a lot of movies…)? Yup, Ms. Pac-Man.

With our honed practice on the arguably harder original game in Albuquerque, we suddenly started tearing up the field on this machine. To the point that it was only a couple weeks of two-a-movie-each play before we were each setting individual records. After nearly 30 years of play, an individual record! I was pretty sure that about 60-65,000 was my personal best prior to discovering this machine, and soon I was over 70k. I made the fourth board design, the dark blue one, for only the second time in my life, edging past the “Junior” cut-scene. And then I was consistently getting deep into the prior dark-brown boards, or getting through the first four levels without losing a life. The picture up top is from our last session, when we each played three games, and two (2!) of mine were personal bests, back-to-back. Alex also set a personal best with 44,560 points.

It has only been after the last two sessions that I connected my most lamented fact about this particular Ms. Pac-Man machine with my favorite. You see, the sound basically doesn’t work on this machine. Once in a while, there’s a scratchy murmur of a sound trying to escape the otherwise broken speakers, but that’s it. I have actually sung the music for the first two cut scenes most every time we reach them as I miss dancing to it so much. I have missed (or thought I missed) the satisfying power-up bloops of consuming ghosts or the anguished disintegration noise that so poetically echoes the frustration of the reverse.

But what if I’m setting records… because there’s no sound?

What if I’m not better at all at this point in my life, but just less distracted than usual? It certainly follows that, like the early-level fruit, the sound proves to be as much an impediment to success as it does a boost. There’s already a ton of mental multi-tasking required for stellar Pac-Man play. One must develop a planned route, re-route the route continually when it is blocked or dangerous, line up ghosts for quick eats after eating a big dot, and constantly strain peripheral vision to be aware of all four enemies on the board while also processing blind tunnels and, in the later levels, game-making 2,000-point pears and 5,000-point bananas. All that and try to anticipate when the ghosts will randomly reverse and throw the whole thing off. Could sound be the fourth dimension that keeps concentration impossible? And its absence indicate an opportunity to master the game as never before?

I won’t know, of course, till I can test my newly honed skills on a fully-operational machine somewhere else. Though I’m nervous to play anywhere but this dingy back-room in Harahan after getting remarkably close to the fabled six-digit threshold. Until then, I’ll have to wonder, like with so many pursuits these days and always, how much of my success is the unadulterated improvement that so often follows practice and how much is the sheer luck of unpredictable circumstance.

As, no doubt, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man must wonder as they traverse those three vaunted and normally musical cut-scenes. Was it destiny that prompted them to meet? Or were they the only two Pac-(wo)M(e)n in the world and lucky enough to bump into each other? How much credit can they claim for the little family they forge?

*Much debate persists in my family about whether I saw Tron or E.T. first in theaters. I loved the experience of the first and was terrorized for years by recollections of images of the protagonist in the latter. E.T. was released on June 11, 1982 and Tron was released a month later, on July 9, 1982. But admittedly E.T. was a blockbuster that stuck around in theaters for months after Tron‘s debut. That said, the earlier release seems to correlate better with my theory that E.T. was actually my first movie and that part of what scared me was the strange new experience of being in a really dark yet crowded room. If you think about it, going to a movie theater is intensely bizarre and disconcerting for a new human.


My Public Ballot, 2014 Louisiana Run-Off Edition

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

One of many reasons not to vote for Mary Landrieu.

One of many reasons not to vote for Mary Landrieu.

This is probably the most inconsequential election I’ve ever taken part in, especially given that my primary act was to abstain from the headline race because (a) it literally forced me to vote for a Democrat or a Republican and (b) Mary Landrieu is even more pathetic and right-wing than the average Democrat, which is saying something. I actually solicited advice from my Facebook friends this morning to see if they could come up with a reason I would find compelling to not abstain from the Senate run-off, but I was pretty skeptical to begin with and most advocates invoked the ever-trotted-out “lesser of two evils”. Bleh.

In any case, I had missed the initial election this cycle (with its 14 ballot referenda!) because Louisiana puts a 30-day waiting period on voting (but no waiting period at all on firearm purchases) after one has established residence. And I bothered to vote because there were still two down-ticket local run-offs and a bond issue for whatever is left of the public school system in New Orleans. So after a little online research (way easier than in New Jersey, a state that seems to do its best to suppress any possible voter knowledge whatsoever), I devised the following votes:

U.S. Senator: abstain
Judge Civil District Court, Domestic Section 2 For Reg. and Unexp. Term : Janet Ahern
Judge Juvenile Court, Section E: Desiree Cook-Calvin
PW School Board – 4.97 Mills – SB – 10 Yrs.: Yes

Honestly, all of the candidates for judge seemed really reasonable, but the opponent of the person I voted for in juvenile court talked a lot about spending less money on the system, which in Section E mostly concerns wards of the state, orphans, and the abused and neglected. Not exactly something I support skimping on. And Ahern just seemed like she had more of a coherent plan for her approach to divorce court than her opponent. Meanwhile, bond issues for schools are pretty much no-brainers, even though 4.97 mills is a whopping half a hundredth of a cent. (Yes, I know this gets multiplied by the value of the house to determine the property tax.)

When we have a referendum on an overhaul of police procedures, then I’ll really feel like voting matters.

Past Public Ballots:


321,000 Jobs Fail to Change Unemployment Data

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

Nothing changed in November. At least as far as the jobs numbers go.

The BLS announced in today’s report that unemployment and labor force participation were unchanged at 5.8% and 62.8%, respectively. This means we have precisely mirrored last month’s 11.71% actual unemployment with a Reporting Gap also matching last month, at 5.91%. It’s the third straight month the Reporting Gap exceeded reported unemployment figures, representing that more than double the number of people the BLS claims are unemployed are actually unemployed.

The Reporting Gap is plenty disturbing, but nothing much else is new or interesting or distressing about this jobs report. Save one thing. The headline that the BLS wants you to remember about this month’s report is that “nonfarm payroll employment increased by 321,000″. The economy added 321,000 new jobs! This must be good news, right?

But if we added 321,000 new jobs and nothing changed, then what happened? How can we have such massive job growth and still have the exact same reported unemployment, labor force participation, and real unemployment?

Because 321,000 “new” jobs are just what it takes to maintain the status quo. This many added jobs is only keeping us at stagnant levels of job growth in terms of the percentage of the population actually employed. The much vaunted job growth, evidence of the recovery and incoming days of elation, simply represents stagnancy and maintenance of a situation where nearly 12% of America finds itself jobless.

Yet we find extremely misleading statements like this in the report:

In November, job growth was widespread, led by gains in professional and business services, retail trade, health care, and manufacturing.

The next eight (8!) paragraphs go on to detail the supposedly strong across-the-board growth, numerically, by industry.

Of course, this is like arguing that you have made a bunch of money because your gross receipts went up by 5% during a year in which inflation rose by 5%. There’s nothing actually there. The only changes are simply what is required to keep up with the growth and shift in population. It’s like saying “Yay, income tax revenues increased 10%!” in a year in which income levels also rose 10%. Except you actually get to keep that money if you’re the IRS. Whereas here, there’s nothing to actually show for all the allegedly huge job growth.

This is a really important lesson for processing job data in future. 321,000 sounds like a big number. It’s just the maintenance level, what’s necessary to keep up with the nation’s growth as a whole. Anything less than that is the situation actually getting worse for people. The BLS told it to you right there in the report. They just hope that you don’t think about the data for more than five seconds and then go uncork some champagne. Some champagne that you wouldn’t have bought otherwise, which might actually stimulate some fake economic growth they can crow about next year.

Here are your charts:

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), January 2009 - November 2014.

Real unemployment (red) and reported unemployment (blue), January 2009 – November 2014.

Reporting Gap showing the distance between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 - November 2014.

Reporting Gap showing the distance between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 – November 2014.

Stock market closing levels (blue) with line demonstrating Reporting Gap (red), January 2009 - November 2014.  The correlation between our self-delusion about the state of unemployment and the market's meteoric rise in the last six years is startling.

Stock market closing levels (blue) with line demonstrating Reporting Gap (red), January 2009 – November 2014. The correlation between our self-delusion about the state of unemployment and the market’s meteoric rise in the last six years is startling.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Cop Immunity

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Your law enforcement officials at work!

Your law enforcement officials at work!

When I was in high school, I devised a thought experiment that I discussed extensively with my friends. It was called “Cop Immunity”. My question was whether someone would take the deal of having total immunity to all interactions of all kinds with the police in the rest of their individual lives. Police as a general force would still exist in society and change the incentives of others, but if one took the Cop Immunity deal, then they would have no further positive or negative interaction with oneself. One could no longer call 911 or be arrested. This would be a one-shot, one-instance deal, just for the person being asked the question and would have zero impact on anyone else.

The results were roughly split. Even at my elite private high school which I attended on financial aid, a good number of people were willing to accept the trade-off. And it wasn’t so they could go on a spree of committing crimes, though certainly the ability to exceed the speed limit with impunity was discussed at length. We boiled the question down to whether a given individual had more to fear or dislike from police interactions than they did to gain from them, or to feel protected by them. I always said I would take Cop Immunity in a heartbeat.

This, of course, was years before Albuquerque became a shooting range for the local police. It was before the killings of Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was before we had a consciousness that police were regularly doling out the death penalty for all manner of crimes or the mere suspicion of same. I can only imagine that re-running the Cop Immunity survey now would poll around 70% at the Academy and upwards of 95% in most racially diverse and/or non-white communities around the country. We, as a nation, are losing faith in the very notion of law enforcement officials as anything other than belligerents.

The reasons should be obvious, but the largest single factor completes the double-entrendre of this post’s title. If you Google the phrase cop immunity, you’ll turn up countless descriptions of the police themselves being immune to any sort of punishment or sanction which they feel obliged to regularly dole out. The police are not only the law, but they are above it, prompting the age-old query of “who guards the guardians?” The entire notion of police forces, especially armed and dangerous ones, is that the threat of accountability and enforcement will inspire better behavior than people relying on their own judgment. Yet this principle is immediately abandoned when it comes to police actions themselves. Those who decide the fate of police officers accused of wrongdoing are almost always on the same police force as those accused, or part of the same system which views itself as unified on the same team with the same goal. Decades of politicians styling themselves as “tough on crime” have corroded the checks and oversights necessary to create a sense of accountability within the police forces of America’s cities. And the cumulative result is that it is harder to be indicted for police actions than it is to get out of Gitmo. When the police take action, there is no external disincentive lingering in their mind about what might befall them if they cross the line of excessive force.

Now, yes, sure, there are probably good cops out there. My father always raised me with an awareness that those who became cops and those who became criminals were often cut from similar cloth and that it could sometimes be arbitrary which side of the line they wound up on. There are similar temptations of both positions – the hunger for freedom and power over others, the tendency toward violence, the comfort with tense situations and intimidation. Nonetheless, tons of cops are probably sincere and trying their best. But tons of people are too. The underlying assumption of a society with a police force is that this is not enough. We must also have hard and violent disincentives to bad behavior to convince everyone to abide by the principles we find acceptable in a just society, so our assumptions go. Yet the bias has gotten so extreme toward those enforcing this standard that no one (until this year’s eruption of protest and dissent) seems to care to apply that standard to those doing the enforcement. The point is that it is not an innate criticism of the police to say that they require the same disincentives to bad action that we burden the rest of society with. It is just an application of the same basic principle that got us to create a law enforcement infrastructure in the first place.

Indeed, though, given the power imbalances between police and normal citizens, it is easily arguable and possibly obvious that the police require greater disincentives to bad action and abuse than do the general public. Power corrupts, after all, and the feeling of imposing one’s will on mere lay people day after day seems to have the cumulative effect of encouraging abuses. Rather than the status quo of extreme protections and perpetual benefit-of-the-doubt being afforded police officers, it seems much more sensible that they should be subject to much stricter scrutiny and examination than those they are trying to police. After all, they enjoy every structural advantage. Unlike a scared suspect, they can call for backup. They have bulletproof vests and, often, tanks and armored vehicles. They will get the bias of the general public (possibly until now) in the retelling of the story. They are seen as representing the state, representing the “good guys”, having the legal and moral authority. Any system hoping to make these people capable of doing actual good in the world would consistently hold them to an incredibly high standard.

The counter-arguments I see to this most frequently, either among my few conservative friends on Facebook or in horrifically described terms by some Southern poker players, are about the rule of law. The assumption underlying all of these arguments is that if police are charged with enforcing the law, they are automatically right and that anyone who has run afoul of their enforcement must be a criminal. Like so many tough-on-crime politicians, they present the perspective that we have nothing to fear from those who are merely trying to keep society safe and orderly. And everything to fear from those hell-bent on disrupting this order.

There are numerous problems with this line of argumentation, but the biggest one is that it is a non sequitir for justifying the kinds of actions being defended by cop-supporters in 2014. I can grant every part of that argument – that everyone who gets shot or injured by the police is a willful active dangerous criminal (of course this is absurd, but go with me for a second) – and still find the police to be unforgivably corrupt and overly violent. Because to make this argument valid, you have to believe in the death penalty for shoplifting. You have to believe in the death penalty for selling individual cigarettes tax-free. You have to believe in applying the death penalty, or an extreme amount of physical pain and torment (something that actually isn’t a sanctioned punishment for anything in the theory of our society), to every single crime. And, of course, to meting out the death penalty on the grounds of suspicion of that crime, with the responding officer as judge, jury, executioner, and pardoner of the executioner.

Not only the mainstream media and rabid conservatives, but several moderate friends of mine (on Facebook) have offered discussions of Michael Brown that mitigate the death penalty enforced on him. He was “bad news” or a “thug” or “did wrong” or “wasn’t perfect”. I don’t know if we know enough about him to say any of that, but even if he was a serial robber at gunpoint and was raging around the neighborhood, show me where we justify an immediate and singly decided death penalty for that. Let’s assume he was a terrible criminal who had harmed thousands. Still not something any state in the union would exact the death penalty for. And having a publicly known standard that police have the right (through lack of criticism or formal sanction) to enforce the death penalty on suspects at will for any crime at all is to create and codify a police state.

The truth is, though, that we can’t even grant the basic arguments that still lead up to this shocking discovery that America is simply a police state. Because most of these people who run afoul of murderous police officers are not even criminals. And those who are tend to be criminals in the trivial way in which we are all criminals. The fact is that the United States of America has an utterly infinite and unknowable legal code, one that includes ignorance of the law being no defense. At any given moment, all of us, every single one of us, are violating countless statutes and aspects of these standards. Notable ones are obvious, like speeding and jaywalking, which are much more about protecting the safety and health of our community than, say, the prohibition on selling cigarettes without charging sales tax. But the house or apartment in which you live violates many aspects of code for which you have not reported it. Maybe you use the technically illegal drugs that everyone you know seems to use. Or you are aware of such use and have failed to report it. You are aware of illegal immigrants to the country and have failed to turn them in. You have given some change to the homeless panhandler on the street or fed the meter for someone who is about to get ticketed. You have let your own meter expire, or failed to pay it for five minutes. You have failed to report your Internet and out-of-state purchases in itemized detail on your state tax return.

These are all crimes. We are all criminals.

All of us. I defy one of you to search the last year of your life in America and declare it entirely free of criminal acts.

This is why so many people see this as a racial issue, in whole or in part, and why the African American community in particular is rightfully outraged. The fact that we are all criminals is trivial and should be obvious. There is no we/they dichotomy between those who uphold and skirt the law. That argument is the propaganda levied by those wishing to justify the actions of a police state. And the fact is that while whites and those in affluent neighborhoods tend to get a free pass for their criminality, minorities and those in poorer neighborhoods tend to get a rigid and thorough enforcement. Immunity to law enforcement is an extension of white privilege and wealth privilege, where people in the favored categories enjoy less scrutiny and far fewer instant death penalties if they do come under suspicion.

The reasons for this are manifold and complex, stemming from a variety of influences in our nation and its history. There is a lot of individual and institutional racism. There are heavily promoted narratives which the media and politicians extoll daily, narratives about who is dangerous and who is the “criminal element” and what parts of town are unsafe and the desperation of the poor and the underclass. There is just the tiniest bit of truth in the reality that property crimes are more likely to be committed by those without property and those who society has continually oppressed remain without property and little kernels of this reality create a massively inflated fuel for self-justification of the principle that informs bias and profiling. But this is also just one part of the story in the world in which we are all criminals. Minorities are imprisoned vastly more than others and a massive number of these incarcerations are due to drug crimes. Drug crimes are not disproportionately committed by minorities, but they are vastly disproportionately enforced on them. This suits a narrative that society likes to tell itself about justice and safety and danger, but it’s just the delusion of an unjust and biased system trying to get itself to sleep at night.

It’s not a coincidence that most of these cases of police murder with impunity have African American victims, any more than it is that such a vastly disproportionate portion of the prison population are African American men. We have a seemingly inexhaustible source of narratives for the “Scary Black Man” in American society, an endless appetite for this concept in the news, campus police reports, trials, courtroom dramas, movies, and nearly every other cultural influence that exists. Police exist in this world too and react accordingly. And even if a cop or his police department are not overtly racist (most of them do overtly profile and are overtly racist), when the standard that society gives that cop is “act with impunity, trust your fear, you will never face punishment for enforcing the death penalty on a suspect”, then the consequences are all too predictable.

I cannot sufficiently emphasize that it does not matter whether or not these people are criminals. We are all criminals. The extent to which we are subject to the whims of the police state depends on whether the police are trained to fear us as particular individuals. Every one of us could be arrested tomorrow for something and then face the rabbit hole of the state’s overwhelming bias and support of the enforcers.

Your legal standards do not matter. They need to be changed and rewritten. Just as law has been shifted to facilitate corporate greed and impunity to dominate individual citizens, it has similarly been written to codify a police state that will never hold cops accountable. That needs to be thrown out and revamped. And until it is, every single instance of a cop getting away with murder only emboldens the confidence of every other scared or malignant cop to enforce the instant death penalty at his or her will. For a democracy to function, it cannot be a police state. There must be police accountability. Until a high profile murderous police officer is not only charged, but actually punished, this will only escalate.

As will the justified outrage of the society falling under the police state’s bootheel. It is the consequence not only of this ongoing series of injustices, but also of creating a legal standard which criminalizes everyone and then selectively enforces the law based on fear and bias. If this doesn’t bother you, it’s only because you are lucky enough to somehow enjoy your own version of Cop Immunity. And you are too unfeeling to care for those who don’t.


Fear Factor

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Know When to Fold 'Em, Telling Stories, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season.  To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time.  It's mostly just here to symbolize fear.  And because I had an excuse to use it.

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season. To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It’s mostly just here to symbolize fear. And because I had an excuse to use it.

I am continually discovering how much of my life is fueled by fear.

I’ve ridiculed fear a lot in this blog lately, most especially in criticizing what motivates voters and pointing out how silly it is for Americans to fear ebola and/or terrorism. This is not the kind of fear that I will be talking about in this post, though I suppose I’m using the same word because it’s in some ways the same concept and all fear is related. Fear may not even be the right word for what this post will attempt to address, as some may favor “anxiety” or even “trepidation” for what I plan to illustrate. But I’m going with fear because it’s visceral and, I think, more honest.

The problem goes a little like this. Early on in my educational career, somewhere between grade-skipping and re-aligning with my “age-appropriate” grade level, I started getting disillusioned (again) with schooling. And so I started to test limits and see how long I could put things off and still get excellent grades. I had a lot of stellar and challenging teachers in my high school, but I also had a few who I noted seemed to be doing it “for the money” on their teacher evaluations and who just seemed to be priming themselves for limit-testing. I got in the habit of starting papers the night before they were due, then sometimes during a free period earlier in the day in the computer lab. In college, these habits only accelerated. Many people were studying and buying books and refusing to start new Risk games with me at 2 AM the day before major assignment deadlines, but I had already planned to start that work at 5 AM, which seemed like enough time for another Risk session. And then there were the world-class slackers around me who’d already gotten an extension on the assignment for two weeks and wouldn’t even begin to plan to make that deadline.

I knew these slackers. They were friends of mine, many of my closest. But I knew that I could not be like them, for down that path would lie utter ruin. As tenuous as my relationship with deadlines and my respect for assignments was, it was governed by an absolute an inalienable rule: meet the deadline. No extensions, no lateness, no excuses. Because I knew that as soon as I breached this rule even once, I would open a Pandora’s box of new rules to flout and test, new games to play with professors, and ultimately the whole unstable mass of unstarted papers would get the best of me. I was good at toeing the line right up to the deadline, but I couldn’t imagine keeping track of an entire semester’s worth of work that would have to be done in that nebbish period between the conclusion of classes and the advent of finals. And I did have to keep my scholarship to stay at Brandeis.

Enter fear, stage right. The only way I could convince myself of the ironclad power of the deadline, the thing that forced me to put the Risk box away and stop playing my thirtieth straight warmup game of Tetris, was fear of failing. And this was mostly, if not entirely an exercise of powerful self-delusion. I knew, I knew deep down that my professors would happily grant me extensions should I simply fall asleep while trying to construct a paper, would fail to mark me down a bit for an assignment handed in 36 hours late. But I convinced myself, come hell or high water, that even a minute’s lateness in the paper’s submission would bring failure. Not just of the assignment, mind you, or even the class, but of my entire life. I would lose my scholarship, my admission to college, possibly even retroactively lose my high school diploma simply because one assignment came in a few minutes late. I had myself completely certain that this was true.

And it was only once that terror had really sunk in, sometimes less than two hours prior to a deadline, only once I really feared the failure and felt it was a real and foreseeable possibility, that I could begin working.

This worked great for late high school in securing the scholarship. It worked remarkably well for keeping the scholarship throughout Brandeis and graduating college with solid marks. But I have increasingly come to believe that it may not actually be a great lesson to inculcate in life, especially early on. It’s probably not a healthy way to exist.

I can line up a lot of pros and cons, though, for a fair hearing of this approach. Solidly on the pro side are three completed novels of 90,000 words or more, all written in a period of four months each or less (if we don’t count the pre-deadline few chapters of American Dream On written in the six years before I got serious about the project). While these novels haven’t really gone anywhere yet and some would argue they need substantial revision (ever my nemesis, conceptually), the mere fact of being able to write that diligently and profusely is a singular testament to my fear of the mighty Deadline. I stuck a dart in the calendar (stuck, not threw, mind you) for each of the projects and beat the self-imposed D-Day every time. This probably shouldn’t have been possible, but after completing two full-scale term-length research paper assignments in excess of twenty pages when starting each of them the night before during my last two years of college, the novels were easy. I had so many days to work on them!

The con side, however, is littered with remnants of my non-deadlined motivation. It’s not that I haven’t been a good worker during my various day jobs, nor that I’m unable to motivate myself to do various projects and other things when the fancy arises. But I have trained myself to require a state of fear in order to feel really ready to do things. If I can’t conjure a sufficiently dire consequence, real or imagined, I find it extremely hard to get together the necessary energy to complete a task. And while this mostly or often applies to major tasks, it probably realistically has bled into even the most mundane of assignments. Chores are already damnably difficult for me since I find daily maintenance of existence (including and especially eating) to be saddeningly distracting from the greater concerns of the life of the mind. But without fear of some sort of backlash or feeling of failure, they get even more distant from my desire. Same goes for even menial daily chores, even when I don’t have a day job. I start each day with a to-do list, but then find I have to gin up some fear in myself to really get much traction.

I wonder often how universal this kind of sensation is. Putting it into print like this, it looks kind of horrifying. It doesn’t feel that awful, not nearly as much as I’m making it sound. It is often quite routine. I really want to sweep the kitchen. It’s a simple task that I really don’t mind that much. It needs to be done. I just have to start thinking about people who will be upset with me if I don’t, then exaggerate their reaction and try to truly picture something farcically awful that will ensue from my failing to sweep the kitchen. If I can do it without seeing through the ruse, then the kitchen gets swept, quickly and quite well. If not, then I have to wrestle with the guilt of not being able to generate enough faked fear to make it happen.

The only hint I have that this kind of anxiety might be underwriting a lot of our daily actions as humans is the ubiquity of a certain kind of dream. A recent discussion of this prompted some disambiguation about the word “nightmare”, which I never use to refer to the state of a bad dream, having always used that two-word phrase instead. Whereas “nightmare” for me usually conveys a real-life scenario that went appallingly poorly, such as “When cops started seeing people as target practice rather than those in need of protection, it was a nightmare.”

Whatever word you use, you’ve had this dream or one of its variants. I promise.

The setting is a school that is familiar to you or a school-like setting. You either find yourself unable to find the classroom or recall even basic details about the class. You may, if lucky, be seated at a desk in the proper classroom. But you are about to be served with a final exam or assignment. And you have no earthly idea what the content covered is or will be. You are almost always pretty sure that you dropped the class, or possibly that you never signed up for it at all. But it is clear from the situation that there will be no mercy. Your entire semester/year/life depends on this situation and you are utterly doomed to fail.

Not only has every American I have ever discussed this with had this dream, but it is the most universal dream people older than 18 seem to have and is shockingly diverse in its manifestations. It tends to stick with people for decades after they have left their last academic setting, though encounters with an academic-type environment can reinvigorate its duration or frequency. And it often has additional cousin dreams in various similar forms and settings, such as having to give a speech in a debate round on which one does not know the topic or can’t find the room (for former debaters – I’ve had this one at least monthly for years), having missed an assignment to photograph someone’s wedding (recently discussed with a professional photographer friend), or forgetting to invite people to a major event which one has been planning (for, naturally, event planners). So diverse and common and frequent is this dream that it is a trope. And so gripping is its nightmarish hold on the imagination that it can make a ridiculous peril all too real. It is always an enormous relief to remember that I had a college diploma in hand after waking from one of these dreams about, say, my junior year in high school. But it usually takes far too many minutes of consciousness for me to even remember such facts in the face of how certain I was that I was about to fail out of the step prior to college.

Is there something about our educational system that naturally engenders this kind of terror? Surely my generation and everyone after were raised on a steady mantra of the necessity of education in securing a future. And thus probably the converse became just as true for us, that failure in any educational pursuit would spell futurelessness. But I feel like this dream transcends generational barriers. And is it really about academics and that world, per se? Or is it about a larger wider fear that lurks behind the judgment found preeminently, but by no means uniquely, in classroom settings?

Whatever its source, it actually seems to be an incredibly valuable asset in playing poker. Not in motivating me to register for a tournament by a deadline or even get to the tournament at the start (I was actually the last person to register in the tournament I won in Mississippi in August, starting two full hours after the tourney began, as well as being about that late to my first major-tourney cash at Foxwoods last October). But in keeping me afraid of the consequences of losing the tournament, of not making money. I have found that a major question separating the tournaments where I really succeed from those where I fail to cash or do kinda meh is whether or not I feel truly afraid of failing. If the consequences of not cashing seem dire, whether or not they truly are (after all, you should never risk a dime that you can’t afford to lose or even spend recreationally), then it seems to motivate the very best and most patient play.

This actually contravenes a known and popular poker adage, namely that “scared money never wins”. But I think there’s a difference between fear of risk and fear of failure. Fear of risk would have also prevented me from buying into the tournament in the first place, and especially from delaying the start of a 20-page paper till less than 24 hours prior to its deadline. If I flop a set, I know that all my chips are going to be at risk that hand, pretty much regardless. If I were playing risk-averse or scared-money, then this probably wouldn’t be my perspective. But fearing failure, fearing having to come back with no money to show for my initial outlay, that is supremely motivating. I have never been so scared of failing a tournament as I was of the satellite and especially the main event in Baton Rouge. And I don’t think I’ve ever played a longer stretch of continuously excellent poker.

Which is not to ignore the factor that luck has, of course, in all of this. I only really got lucky once in the satellite and once (actually after the cash line) in the main event. Other than winning one coin-flip, which is the kind of minimum luck necessary to place in a tournament’s ranks. But luck probably has a bigger role than we’d like to admit in grading and education too. Indeed, a longer meditation on how pretty much all of modern life amounts to some kind of gambling is stewing in the back of my mind.

So I can harness the incredible power of fake fear (the fear has to almost immediately evaporate after I actually don’t cash in a tournament; otherwise I would be tormented for days by guilt and self-loathing… which rarely happens) to make myself do incredible things. But this seems to be a problematic source of renewable energy. It’s hard to muster for the small stuff. It’s exhausting to endure (I can’t imagine I’d love a heart-rate printout of my collegiate papers, let alone my deeper tournament runs). And there’s probably a good question to be asked about just whether it’s a reasonably good way to motivate oneself in principle. Is all this self-inflicted anxiety shortening my lifespan? Making me a generally less agreeable person? Just going to devolve so that I can’t even make myself eat without truly fearing starvation?

More importantly, is it too late to reverse course? When I’ve mostly done things for fear of my life collapsing, isn’t it awfully hard to regularly get going for the sake of, y’know, just because? Have I already trapped myself in this game? It almost seems the greatest thing I truly have to fear is a lack of fake fear itself.

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