Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Times They are a Changin'

(Hat Tip to Dad/THB for the Dylan title.)

Back when I first started blogging, I spent quite a bit of time getting all nostalgic about things that were changing with technology. In September, I bookmarked this article (surely from twitter) about 50 things that the internet is slowly but surely driving to their death.

I'd like to take this moment to ramble about my feelings about some of them. I won't go through all 50, though you're welcome to. On your blog. Which I may or may not read. I'm cruel like that. (The Telegraph's text is in bold.)

1) The art of polite disagreement: While the inane spats of YouTube commencers may not be representative, the internet has certainly sharpened the tone of debate. The most raucous sections of the blogworld seem incapable of accepting sincerely held differences of opinion; all opponents must have "agendas". It does seem to me that the internet is full of warriors that are so comfortable saying things that they would never ever dare to say to someone face to face (unless they're talking to your dear blogger when she's in her animal control uniform). The bravado and rudeness is stunning. The exception to this seems to be twitter, where everyone is basically talking to themselves, outloud, and most of us are pretty polite when talking to our imaginary friends.

3) Listening to an album all the way through: The single is one of the unlikely beneficiaries of the internet – a development which can be looked at in two ways. There's no longer any need to endure eight tracks of filler for a couple of decent tunes, but will "album albums" like Radiohead's Amnesiac get the widespread hearing they deserve? I feel ambivalent about this, as well. Everyone who knows me or has been to my house knows that I'm obsessed with both CDs AND my ipod. I almost always listen to my ipod on random, but I still buy CDs, to support artists, and because I can't help it. I know that I'm becoming an anachronism, but I want to know what the artist is thinking, whole picture. I will miss CDs, and maybe I'll be like one of those hipster who still collects records. Or something.

5) Punctuality:Before mobile phones, people actually had to keep their appointments and turn up to the pub on time. Texting friends to warn them of your tardiness five minutes before you are due to meet has become one of throwaway rudenesses of the connected age. This is such a relief, especially with work and my mother. I feel like a giant weight has been lifted off of my shoulders!

8) Telephone directories Why do they even deliver phone books any more? I throw them straight in the recycle bin. RIP, 18 bajillion acres of forests.

10) Watches: Scrabbling around in your pocket to dig out a phone may not be as elegant as glancing at a watch, but it saves splashing out on two gadgets. I stopped wearing a watch long before I got a cell phone, but it's nice to have a phone/watch/thing. It does help with #5- I'm more punctual than I would be if I didn't have one at all. And that alarm thing is handy.

11) Music stores: In a world where people don't want to pay anything for music, charging them £16.99 for 12 songs in a flimsy plastic case is no business model. This kills me. I love record stores. Mod Lang was one of my favorite places to hang out, though it's still around, it moved farther away, and I even loved Tower (RIP). Cough it up, folks, local business is the way to go.

12) Letter writing/pen pals: Email is quicker, cheaper and more convenient; receiving a handwritten letter from a friend has become a rare, even nostalgic, pleasure. As a result, formal valedictions like "Yours faithfully" are being replaced by "Best" and "Thanks". I'm so guilty of this one and so sad about it. I have boxes and boxes of mail I used to get- I LOVED writing and receiving letters. Mail time was one of the best parts of the day. And I recently got a letter and started to write back to it- it's still sitting on my desk. Too complicated to find out how much postage to mail to Mexico. Lame. Question- do prisoners still get mail in jail or do they email, too?

13) Memory: When almost any fact, no matter how obscure, can be dug up within seconds through Google and Wikipedia, there is less value attached to the "mere" storage and retrieval of knowledge. What becomes important is how you use it – the internet age rewards creativity. I guess I am not sure that the internet rewards memory in this way. I'm sure it is killing memory, what's left of mine is not being stretched by the internet (thank dawg for crosswords), but it sure is nice to supplement my memory of the bash brothers with the internet so I can remember lesser stats about Gallego.

14) Dead time: When was the last time you spent an hour mulling the world out a window, or rereading a favourite book? The internet's draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist. Although I still read and definitely still space out- (you've noticed?) I have noticed that almost no one reads on BART anymore. They're all doing something or other on their phone. And no one walks without their phone, and basically, you have to be multitasking on useless things.

15) Photo albums and slide shows: Facebook, Flickr and printing sites like Snapfish are how we share our photos. Earlier this year Kodak announced that it was discontinuing its Kodachrome slide film because of lack of demand. So true: who makes photo albums anymore? I mean, there's that whole scrapbook section in Target, but I always wonder who DOES that. I've talked about photography and documenting, and how it's changed, and why we do it, but it the internet has definitely changed it. And Kodachrome and polaroid are gone, but people still want them- I think it's for the nostalgia and "coolness" factor, more than the true awesomeness of the product (maybe both, I admit, I recently caved to the instant trend).

18) Authoritative reference works: We still crave reliable information, but generally aren't willing to pay for it. Does anyone else feel guilty when they use Wikipedia? I do, and I still use it. I yearn for the days of the complete set of World Book Encyclopedias.

25) Aren't they dead? Aren't they gay?: Wikipedia allows us to confirm or disprove almost any celebrity rumour instantly. Only at festivals with no Wi-Fi signals can the gullible be tricked into believing that David Hasselhoff has passed away. Love this and hate this (Dad hates it- the dueling iPhones racing to find the info quickest, at the dinner table): no need to argue over the facts when they're right there. No need to own the complete set of World Book Encyclopedias, either, or to wait for the Yearly Update to come, either.

27) Knowing telephone numbers off by heart: After typing the digits into your contacts book, you need never look at them again. This one pains me. As a cell phone serial killer, I need to know these numbers. I hate keeping an address book AND a cell phone, so I'm perpetually losing people. And it seems I'm not alone. How many times have you gotten a text or email that reads "I've lost/broken/had my cell phone stolen, and don't have your contact info any more."

30) Geographical knowledge: With GPS systems spreading from cars to smartphones, knowing the way from A to B is a less prized skill. Just ask the London taxi drivers who spent years learning The Knowledge but are now undercut by minicabs. Also mourning this one, though I've yet to succumb to it. I have to know my city to do my job, and am stunned that some of my coworkers use GPS to get around. How do they do that? I use maps for everything, except occasionally when I'm walking and don't have one, I'll use my phone GPS which inevitably trips me up and causes me to walk backwards. Same with printouts from google maps or something. AAA free map service is my friend.

31) Privacy: We may attack governments for the spread of surveillance culture, but users of social media websites make more information about themselves available than Big Brother could ever hoped to obtain by covert means. It's true- I'm not so worried about Big Brother, or the gov't, because I play into it, and if I don't want my stuff out there, I shouldn't put it out there. On the other hand, I *want* to be out there, to a degree (blog, flickr, twitter, etc) but I don't want my picture out there, etc. And yet I'm not that careful. Can't have it both ways.

Dear reader, #35 is concentration, and I fear I've passed the limit on blog length. However, I'm unwilling to blame the internet for anybody's lack of concentration. You've either got it or you don't. You either use it or you don't. Now, go read a book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mac Works it Out (Not Wordless Wednesday)

Mac and I have been taking an intro to K9 Nose Work class. We try to take a class every year and this year KD encouraged us to take this class- it's a little different than the basic obedience classes we normally take, because it's a "sport" class, which kind of uses Mac's innate drives to do something fun. If you read Running With Dogs ever, you can see that any dog can do sports (no offense, Abby,) and that it's often really really good for them. I contend it's almost always good for the dog/handler relationship, if done with the right attitude, but I've still steered clear of sports for a variety of reasons. One is sheer laziness. I love Mac, I do almost everything I can to do things with him, but we're both lazy. I spend every workday doing animal stuff, and when I come home, I want to do sort of- low key stuff. Mac is low-key too, which is a good fit. He's also developed from kind of a problem child into a pretty easy dog, which is a HUGE relief. So I've grown kind of lazy in keeping him motivated and drivey. It's great to come home, run him or walk him, or play some games or even do NOTHING with him. He's lazy, I'm lazy, it's great.

Second, he can be a real pill if I'm not on him All The Time around other dogs. Normal 'ole obedience classes have worked just fine for us because the dogs are always on leash all the time. I call ahead to see what the structure of the classes are and go with trainers/places I trust to make sure that they are going to really hold to the "no dog intros" etc. Mac is great in these settings, actually and seems to drop his 'tude towards other dogs. It's other handlers I don't trust. So I usually stick to taking the basic basic obedience over and over, even though Mac knows his stuff, because it doesn't involve any off leash stuff. It's still good for relationship, and it's still good to make his old mind work.

This leads to the third issue that has steered me away to more complex dog sports- lots of the training eventually involves off leash stuff (think agility tunnels or distance stays or whatever) and I'm paranoid about the off chance that a dog will break for Mac or Mac will break for a fluffy. Which leads me to the 4th issue: Mac doesn't crate. He has never crated. I used to think he had separation anxiety after he ate through (literally) 7 crates in a year, injuring himself and soiling the house in the process. I took him everywhere in my car, or to places he could go, or didn't leave. One day I had the genius idea to leave him loose in my bedroom. He was fine. Forever after. So I can't take him to classes that require crating around the training area. No big deal. As I mentioned, we're lazy. I don't have time to trial, and we're not competitive. Mac likes people, I'm not competitive, it's expensive, and I work weekends. No big deal.

But K9 Nose work is cool. Mac doesn't have to see other dogs, they set up the classes for paranoid people like me and some people crate their dogs and some people "car" their dogs. K9 Nose Work uses "hunt" drive, which is kinda like prey drive, which Mac has up the wazoo, and he gets to work for food in the early stages (and for ever more, but later with some other stuff). He thinks that rocks. He runs a tiny bit, so it's low impact for his Veteran Doggy self. And I've learned a ton about my dog. I didn't think he would work for food when separated from me, but he's cool with that, if there's food and prey drive involved. I didn't think he would work at all when we first got to the "classroom"- it's held in the STINKIEST doggy day care I've ever been to- it smells worse than my shelter. Even T held her nose. V put herring dog treats to her nose last night to get away from the smell. If it smells that bad to us, think how bad it smells to the dogs! I thought this was an unreasonable distraction to start training in for any dog, but especially for Mac, who is not used to dog smells at all because he's really not exposed to them in the way some dogs are, dogs that go to dog parks and day care and live with dogs, etc. He's sheltered, you know. But he plowed right through that obstacle. And of course, he loves this place now. He has always loved class, and in Mac style, he is now not only having fun, but hamming it up for the audience, who he is dying to meet. They're not allowed to touch him, because the dogs are supposed to be "working," but they all want to meet him, because of his antics, and he wants to meet them. He's the class clown.

Each dog has a distinct style of working. There are two shepherds who have basically wowed since the get-go. They knew the game before it was explained to them (or us) and methodically search each box, whether they are visually shown where the food is or not, then kind of look at everyone like, "Duh." They wink at us like, "I knew it was there, but I'm just a tiny bit proud of myself anyway." One of them already has an "alert"- he looks at his handler when he knows where the food is. There's a 4 month old Shiba Inu puppy who is cccccccc-rrraaazzzzzyyy which is why he is signed up for the class: his owners need a way to channel his energy. He is a little demon, and has figured out, which amazes me to see a puppy working through the serious challenges. He practically flies into the air while he is waiting to work. Mac is all bully. You imagine your bully style "doo dee dooing" through life- that's how he goes through his boxes.

Until yesterday: yesterday was our first day with "blind hides." In this video you will see Mac working through 12 identical boxes (I think it's 12) where neither of us know where the food is. I think he's actually thinking. I'm not sure, because I don't think Mac thinks much. He's not doing his normal brute drive like usual, but he's USING his skills with his nose to do what he does. He seems to space out a couple times, but he's still with his task (maybe because he's hungry) and comes back to it. When he gets close, he plays with me, and wants me to find the food, and although I was tempted, I didn't do it for him and mark the box too soon. You'll see I talk to him: I ask him where it is, right when he backs up. He is forced to choose the box, and he finds it. This was pretty much my proudest moment ever- my dog DID SOMETHING.

We may have found a sport, even though he's almost nine- I totally got what T gets every week with agility: My dog is DOING something, we're doing something together. (and yes, he's wearing a coat. It was cold and rainy. Even if he's doing a sport, he's still a princess.)



Thanks to KayVee for the video!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Obsessed with Viewing

I've found a new way to lose myself in photography: ffffl*ckr.com. Basically, if you log in, you start with a small selection of your favorite photos on flickr.com. If you click one, the program chooses a selection of this photographers' favorites, and then you go from there. The pictures are slightly larger than thumbnail, and you can blow them up bigger while staying in ffffl*ckr, or you can popout to a new page, or you can "fave" the picture right while you're in the page. It's a neverending loop of visual awesomeness. Sometimes I stay with a visual theme, sometimes I hop around from photographers I can tell that I'm familiar with, sometimes I pick a subject genre, sometimes I try to find places I know. It's addicting and amazing. And as I do this, I've been making even more "galleries"- a recent flickr feature where you can "curate" 18 pictures together into a gallery. Here are mine, a work in progress. I'm always updating them, rotating the order of the pictures, editing and deleting the selections.

I've found I've been taking less pictures lately, maybe because of the visual overload in my head. And I've noticed that many of the shots I like are film, which makes me almost brave enough to pull out my film cameras again. Almost. Watch out- you might get sucked in, never to come out. ffffl*ckr is like that.

The End of America: Naomi Wolf, Garry Wills, and Naomi Klein

I almost put "The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot" down, I was that frustrated with it. Then I went to hear Garry Wills speak on Wednesday and I changed my mind. Wolf's book, written in "pamphlet style" (though it's an awfully long pamphlet), is a "call to action" for Americans who have been sleeping too long. We are on the brink, she argues, of losing an over 200-year-old democracy for a dictatorship, along the lines of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. She understands that this argument will seem specious to many (especially the comparison to a Holocaust-era Germany, and stresses that the genocide is not necessarily a part of the future) but posits that to ignore these two historical precedents is to miss what's going on right now. Wolf is a strong believer in the "founders" and the Constitution (she almost lost me when she said we are too harsh on the "dead white men"), and believes that they really were onto something when protecting us with the Constitution. Here are Wolf's ten steps to dictatorship:

1. Invoke an external and internal threat: For free citizens to give up freedom, they must be scared of something pretty terrifying, and seek security, as they did after 9/11 in response to Bush's "Islamofascism" abroad which made so scary that it was a threat to all of "Western civilization."
2. Establish Secret Prisons: This secret prison system, according to Wolf, "starts out modestly and metastasizes," initially only containing people that most of society can agree are "evil," and that everyone knows about. Then the prisons expand, become more secretive, and contain more people, that might be less "threatening"- journalists, intellectuals, activists, clergy. Guantanamo, she argues, is the beginning of a "mission creep."
3. Develop a Paramilitary Force: Ok, I didn't know much about Blackwater, and I still don't, but I'm not sure I want to know. It sounds fucking scary. Basically, they're a private firm that operates as a military. A para-military, made up of former Special-Ops, and other people. They have $500 million in government contracts AND a "black" budget from US intelligence. Wolf writes "At the height of the war, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors in Iraq, one for every US soldier." And because they're civilians, they're not punishable by military codes, and because they're civilians, they're not immune from prosecution of war crimes. Yeah. She had me convinced right about here.
4. Surveil Ordinary Citizens: According to Wolf, "One reason dictators demand access to such private data is that this scrutiny breaks down citizens' sense of being able to act freely against those in power." We have all these frustrations with Google and other mega-corporations, but really, Big Brother IS watching (and I'm not just paranoid- in fact I'm too trusting. Wolf says my normal answer, "I have nothing to hide," is just stupid. So what if I have nothing to hide- that doesn't mean I should give up my rights!)
5. Infiltrate Citizens' Groups: The goal of infiltration is "to make sure that it becomes too costly and nerve-wracking to act out as a citizen," or basically, to violate the 1st Amendment of free right to assemble.
6. Arbitrarily Detain and Release Citizens: Wolf is on "The List," which means that each time she flies, she is pulled aside and searched by the TSA: armed guards who track her moves, and search her stuff, then let her go. The list is secret, known only to the President, the FBI, etc, and in extreme cases, can even lead to rendition to places like Syria, without charges.
7. Target Key Individuals: Scientist, academics, artists, entertainers, civil servants: they've all got to toe the party line.
8. Restrict the Press: Wolf gives some scary examples of false news, faked documents, targeting reporters for bombings in Iraq, etc.
9. Cast Criticism as "Espionage" and Dissent as "Treason": In the Constitution, "treason" is narrowly defined as "levying war" or "giving aid and comfort" against the enemy. When moving towards dictatorship/fascism, treason is used much more broadly, invoking the 1917 Espionage Act, which makes it illegal to have information relating to national security, which criminalizes even common conversations of leaked information.
10: Subvert the Rule of Law: Bush uses these "signing statements" to make law. If you've forgotten your elementary school history, the President can't make laws: the Legislative Branch (Congress and Senate) makes laws. This overrides the system of Checks and Balances, that has protected democracy for 200+ years.

So, I had read about 1/2 of Wolf's book and was going to give up. It reads poorly- she jumps around between modern examples and historical examples to prove her point, and it seems alarmist. If you read my summary, it may seem alarmist to you, too. I was feeling some connections between Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" and wishing these two had spoken to each other, or if they had, wishing they had worked together, or something. Because Wolf was basically arguing the political, and Klein the economic, but really, they go together. Wolf writes about the "security-industrial complex" early on, in her section on the first step, invoking an internal and external threat, and how the US shift to fascism is no pure ideology- it's also driven by corporations and profit: "Peace," she writes, "is bad for business." I think Klein would offer similar steps to dictatorship, and her build up to the economic Friedmanism she deplores involves many of the same steps- subverting the rule of law, the paramilitary forces, surveillance, detaining- ok maybe it involves all of them. I just was desperate for the two plots to meet up.

And then, like I said, I heard Wills speak and read the rest of Wolf's book in a hurry. I like Garry Wills a lot, and I kind of think he knows everything. He's written about historical figures and religion and historical figures AND religion, and really, yeah, I kind of maybe have an intellectual crush on him. I had no idea what his new book was about, and didn't really care, but I guess "Bomb Power" is about how the nuclear bomb changed the President's approach to the constitution, and America's approach to the President. Wills talked a lot about secrecy, and how the executive branch's need for secrecy led to the usurpation of a lot of citizens' rights, and to a lot of checks and balances falling away. He talked a lot abut "signing papers" and basically, he agreed with Naomi Wolf, but put her argument into a local historical context- how Bush got to where he got. Wills sums up his book and talk which includes that since WW11 and the development of the nuclear bomb, the US government, especially the executive branch, has operated as though we were in a state of war: first the Cold War, now the War on Terror. This has led to an immense amount of power in the office of the President, which, in my opinion, has led to the possibility of the developments described by Wolf. In Wills' words:
But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the "war on terror"—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

Neither Wolf or Klein or Wills are particularly encouraging on where we go from here. That was a sort of criticism posed at the end of Wills' talk and one I've found in his book reviews, though in that article he offers the paltry "Nonetheless, some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution. It may be too late to return to its ideals, but the effort should be made. As Cyrano said, "One doesn't fight in the hope of winning" (Mais on ne se bat pas dans l'espoir du succès)." Wolf gives us a conclusion in the for of "The Patriot's Task," which is a call to arms for left and right to come together to bring back democracy. It doesn't have any directions, but a cute little anecdote about Critical Mass. Behind the notes and the bibliography, there's an overwrought "American Freedom Campaign" which includes "The Pledge of the American Freedom Campaign." If we recite it enough, will the bad guys go away? And Klein ended her book with some local efforts at local control. But basically, it's depressing, and leaves one with the sense that the megacorporations and megadictators have taken over, and ruined democracy.

Brought to you by Debby Downer, blogging first thing in the morning.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Lure of the Local, Pt 3

Fifteen years ago, we spent a semester of middle school English reading Sandra Cisneros' amazing novella "The House on Mango Street." The book is a hyper-local look by a (presumably) pre-teen girl at her neighborhood, from her vantage point. Readers learn about her neighbors, her stoop, her shoes, etc. After we studied the book backwards and forwards (apparently, based on my notes in and around the text), learning about similes, metaphors, and different types of narratives, we wrote our own "House on Mango Street," about our own streets, neighborhoods, and attachments to the local. Though it's been fifteen years since I read this book, I think about it daily, and about my childhood home, and that book I "wrote."

Obviously, I grew up in Oakland. I think of my childhood house in Oakland as my home. I knew some of my neighbors, but not many. We walked a lot in my neighborhood- to a commercial strip that was exactly 3/4 of a mile away. There was a place in the sidewalk where tree branches pushed up the sidewalk, and that was the halfway point. When we roller-skated in our strap-over-the-shoes Fisher Price roller-skates, that was both the exhilerating and terrifying moment. There was the house with the lions out front, and the Baskin Robbins that was usually our destination. We also walked a little further to the local library, and there are many stories of me bumping into poles on the way back, because I was so engrossed in my book. This was my home. Lippard encourages people and artists (and people who are artists and artists who are people) to start to understand their homes and places (not necesarily the same, though often intersecting) by "simply learning to look around where you live." I did not, and do not, know a lot about the exact place I live. When I was growing up, there was a stream underground by my house that came up a few houses down. I know there used to be a train that ran over our street. But that is all I knew- I didn't know any more about the ecosystem of the stream, or the history of the train. I knew that the freeway that ran right by our house was relatively new, which was why trucks weren't allowed to go on it, and which is why it had divided the neighborhood: though the houses on "our" side were the same as on the other side, "our" side had become the "right side" of the tracks. Maybe none of this is accurate, but it's the history that was handed to me, and became mine.

Even though I didn't know my neighbors, I felt deeply connected to Oakland. I went to (private) school in Oakland, and ate in Oakland, walked around in Oakland, worshipped in Oakland, and generally developed a deep sense of attachment. When farmer's markets became the place to go, we went. I always loved the A's and rooted for them through the Bash Brothers era. Though Cisneros' "Esperanza" feels a need to escape Mango Street, I've always come back. I left Oakland for college, knowing I'd return, and I left for two years in Santa Cruz, and I'm still shaking my head about why. My parents recently left Oakland for Emeryville, which is another mystery to me. I live in Oakland again, in a new place- with a different creek in my backyard, and I do know my neighbors now, at least on a "hello" basis (Lippard calls this a "dehumanized urban ambience").

Lippard writes "the search for homeplace is the mythical search for the axis mundi, for a center, for some place to stand, for something to hang on to." In Esperanza's changing life, with people unreliable, Mango Street, though leaving a lot to be desired, was a constant. It was a homeplace, a center. Oakland is a home, a center. It's gritty and dirty, and disrespected, and maligned. But it's a center. A multicentered center- home of my childhood, my adulthood, sometimes my employment, many of my friends, my family. I'm proud of the inland lake and of the racial diversity. The inland lake that stinks, but looks pretty; the racial diversity that is both beautiful and so troubled. The politics that are so progressive and so horribly corrupt and disfunctional. Lippard writes "Everybody comes from someplace, and the places we come from- cherished or rejected- inevitably affect our work." My homes affect everything I see and do and think, Esperanza-style.