Archive for news/social commentary

The Future is More Convenient

On the bus ride  home this afternoon I occupied myself by reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (It’s a book worth reading. It may even possibly, perhaps get its own blog post in the future – maybe.) While reading, I came across the word encephalitic. I had a vague idea of what it meant, but I wanted a better understanding. I lay my book down and I pulled out my Nexus One (for those with technology agnosia, that’s a smartphone) and used it to pull up the Wikipedia page for encephalitis. If you’re web-savvy enough to be reading a blog, then you should know how the Wikipedia rabbit hole works. Still, for my readers that don’t know (Mom): halfway through an article, you find a link to another interesting article. That leads you to another, the process continues. In the end, you have a dozen open windows and a lot more trivial knowledge than you had thirty minutes ago.

The encephalitis article had a link to an article on photophobia. I know someone who suffers from this, though neither one of us was aware of the medical term. With a few taps, I texted them the link. The encephalitis article also had a link to an article on Oliver Sacks, the author of the book I was reading, so of course I followed that one. The article on Sacks mentioned his book Musicophilia, which I would like to read. That reminded me that I had not completed my order when I was sitting at my computer shopping for books on Amazon this morning. I switched to the Amazon App, added Musicophilia to my shopping cart, removed another book that I had added (from my home computer) this morning, and completed checkout. The article also mentioned that another Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings, had been made into a movie. I switched over to PhoneFlicks, an app that allows me to manage my Netflix account, and I added Awakenings to my queue. This all (research on Wikipedia, texting the link, ordering the book, queuing the movie) took about 15 minutes.

After doing all of this, I had to take a moment to appreciate the convenience that this one piece of technology has brought into my life. Decades ago, our visions of the future involved flying cars, colonization of far off planets, and other ideas that seemed exciting. In reality, the technology that is changing our culture is the technology that makes things more convenient for us. A flying car would be cool for a while – but a device that let’s me spend 15 minutes to accomplish what would have once required a trip to the library, the bookstore, and the video store is a device that is more than just cool and exciting – it’s useful.

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Michael Jackson

Tape recorder

On one of my earlist birthdays that I remember, my parents gave me a tape recorder similar to the one pictured above (but less curvy). Along with the tape recorder, I got my very first tape – a copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. For as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve been listening to Michael Jackson – and the songs have never gotten old. Michael’s music has accompanied me through every stage of my life. There are millions of people out there with a similar story regarding Michael and his music.

However, there are also millions of people without a similar story. As I browse through the various social networks I participate in, I am finding that when it comes to MJ, people fall into one of three categories. In category one are folks like me – folks whose lives have been greatly affected by his talent, folks who are saddened by his passing. In the second category are people who were not very much affected by his music, people who aren’t really moved by his death. I can understand where they’re coming from – if you were not affected by him and his music when he was alive, why would his death really matter to you?

The third category is made up of people who seem extremely annoyed and bothered that a likely child molester is getting so much positive attention. It seems ridiculous that people would mourn the death of a pedophile. The thing these people don’t seem to be understanding is that Michael was human. No human is just one thing. Michael was a troubled person, a talented musician, a father, and yes, a possible pedophile. Mourning the death of someone who has touched our lives the way Michael did does not mean that category one people approve of the things he was accused of, it simply means that that is not all we see of him. If Michael didn’t affect your life, fine, don’t mourn him. If you see him as a pedophile, that’s fine too, because there is some justification for that. However, whatever you feel about the man, it is not fair to hold it against the people who see more than the negative side of Michael Jackson.

I do think it’s pretty likely that Michael did molest some children and I have always been disgusted and disappointed by that possibility, but I can never forget the beautiful music he has brought to the world and to my life in particular. RIP MJ.

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Be Silent

I recently saw the movie “Waking Life.” What a strange movie. It’s definitely not for everyone. Visually, it’s a unique movie. The movie was filmed live-action, then animators basically drew over the video. Even without considering the animation though, it’s pretty unique. The majority of the movie consists of the protagonist having conversations with a series of eccentric people – and by conversations, I mean he listens to them talk. This sounds like a formula for boredom, but the strange animation style, the quirky characters, and the subject matter discussed makes it quite interesting. If you are interested in existensialism or any related or derivitive movements, the subject matter will definitely appeal to you.

As I said, the protagonist spends a lot of time listening. His behavior is startling because for most people, it’s hard to imagine having “conversations” without actually speaking. It’s natural to want to chime in with your own opinions, thoughts, and experiences, but one of the advantages of being human is that we don’t always have to act “naturally.” In this case, taking the unnatural path can lead to interesting results. People tend to say a lot when you just let them speak. Try it. Of course if you don’t speak at all, the other person would probably stop speaking too, but try keeping your thoughts to yourself for a while. Let other people guide your conversations and see what they have to say.

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Escaping the Violence

I read this joke on a forum that I frequent:

Team owner Jeffery Lurie had put together the perfect team for the Philadelphia Eagles. The only thing missing was a good quarterback. He had scouted all the colleges and even the Canadian and European Leagues, but he couldn’t find a ringer who could ensure a Super Bowl victory. One night while watching CNN, he saw a war-zone scene in Afghanistan In one corner of the background, he spotted a young Afghani soldier with a truly incredible arm. He threw a hand-grenade straight into a window from 80 yards away. Then he threw another, from 50 yards, down a chimney, and finally hit a passing car going 80 miles per hour.

“I’ve got to get this guy!” Lurie said to himself. “He has the perfect arm!”

He brings the young Afghan to the States and teaches him the great game of football. Sure enough the Eagles go on to win the Super Bowl. The young Afghan is hailed as a hero of football, and when the coach asks him what he wants, all the young man wants to do is call his mother.

“Mom,” he says into the phone, “I just won the Super Bowl.”

“I don’t want to talk to you,” the old Muslim woman says. “You deserted us. You are not my son.”

“Mother, I don’t think you understand,” pleads the son, “I’ve just won the greatest sporting event in the world!”

“No! Let me tell you,” his mother retorts, “At this very moment are gunshots all around us. The neighborhood is a pile of rubble. Your two brothers were beaten within an inch of their lives last week, and I have to keep your sister in the house so she doesn’t get raped!” The old lady pauses, then tearfully says, “I will never forgive you for making us move to Philadelphia!”

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A Few New (Pseudo) Necessities

I was told about a news story where it was claimed that on hot days we should spend some time in airconditioning because our bodies don’t get a chance to rest if they stay hot. Air conditionors are convenient, but they are hardly a necessity. We have gotten along without them for ages and many of us (me for example) still don’t own one. Well, this made me think about all the other pseudo necessities that modern technology has given us. Here’s the list in no particular order:

  • Air conditioners – making sure to stay hydrated on a hot day will keep you safe from heat related health issues.
  • Cell phone – I know this must not be a necessity because I didn’t have one for most of my life and I stil survived somehow. I just can’t figure out how survival was achieved without a cell phone.
  • Washing machines and driers – we all either own washing machines or take our dirty clothes to places where we basically rent washing machines. Once upon a time people washed clothes by hand. I’ve heard that it still works for those who care to try.
  • Cable – obviously this doesn’t apply to every, but it seems that many people consider cable to be one of the basic and necessary utilities, right up there with water, heat and electricity.
  • Microwave – Similar to the cell phone, I know that there has to be someway to exist without a microwave, I just can’t figure out what it is. I’m sure it must somehow involve stoves and ovens.

There are some technologies that weren’t necessities in the past that are now because of the way that society has changed.

  • Computer – Our society creates it’s own need for computers. If we, as a society, decided that we didn’t want computers anymore, we could simply turn them off, but if the rest of society is typing away, it’s hard for one individual to get by without some sort of computer and internet access.
  • Car (depending on where you live) – The availability of cars has made us design societal infrastructure for cars. Things are further apart now because distance isn’t as much of an inconveniance as it used to be – as long as you have a car.
  • Credit/Debit Card – It’s not safe to keep a bunch of cash around, it’s not always possible to get to the bank, and the personal check is dead. The only people that accept checks are landlords and people you pay by mail (utility companies, magazine, etc.)

Did I miss anything?

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Web 2.0 and the DIY Revolution

I’m a self-professed geek. Sometimes I lose track of what is common knowledge and what is geek-common knowledge. Where does Web 2.0 fall? Have non-geeks heard of it? Do non-geeks understand what it is? The other day it hit me that “Web 2.0″ is a horrible name for the social trend that it is supposed to describe. What we call “Web 2.0″ is really just a part of something that is much bigger than the web. If this trend is something that is only known of and understood within the geek sphere, it shouldn’t be. It will end up affecting geeks and non-geeks alike.

One of the major features of Web 2.0′s definition is the idea of user-generated content. Instead of big corporations or globally recognizable celebrities creating content, the user creates it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you’re looking for entertainment/info on the web, you’re required to make it. The idea isn’t that every user must create content, it’s that any user who is willing, can create content. For example, several years ago, you might have looked to magazines or newspapers to read editorial pieces on current trends in the media, but now you’re reading my blog instead. I’m not paid to do this, writing is not my career, I’m a regular “user” just like you.

According to Wikipedia, the term “Web 2.0″ was coined in 2003, but this idea of user-generated content is far from new. Have you ever been to a talent show? Web 2.0 is basically an online talent show . . . but it’s not just online. What was already an old concept recently became labeled “Web 2.0″ because while the idea is ancient, its worldwide popularity is very new. User-generated content has been growing in dominance over traditional, celebrity-driven media in many arenas other than the Internet. Consider reality television. Instead of watching sitcoms about quirky people and dysfunctional families, we watch realty T.V. shows that give us glimpses into the real lives of quirky people and dysfunctional families. There are no traditional stars in this this new world of media. Any average-Joe is free to enter, but few will stand out and gain recognition. Reality television is not exactly the same as Web 2.0 – it is not possible for any “user” to be part of a reality show – but they share the same spirit of average-Joe-as-star and both are part of a larger whole.

By focusing solely on the “Web 2.0″, we are fostering a misunderstanding of the scope of this thing, its causes, its possible future, and its dangers. This is way bigger than the Internet, bigger than Myspace, Wikipedia and Youtube. It may even be bigger than media. There was a time when the major social effect of new technology was to create more leisure time, but that has changed. A large amount of the new consumer technologies that have recently become mainstream have made it easier for “users” to do-it-themselves. Web 2.0 is not the revolutionary social phenomenon that we need to be studying, discussing and trying to understand, the do-it-yourself attitude is. We are moving away from a compartmentalized world, where one person entertains, one takes pictures of the show, another one writes about the show, and yet another puts the text and images into a magazine. In this current age, technology allows me to put my music together, perform it, take digital pictures, and blog about it. The do-it-yourself attitude is at the heart of Web 2.0, reality television, and the new modern gadget-packed lifestyle that many of us live. Web 2.0 is just a symptom of the evolution of our society.

As a society, we rarely come upon a sword with a single edge. As it becomes easier to be an amateur at anything, it becomes harder to find an expert at anything. This is a necessary economic consequence of the do-it-yourself revolution. Expertise doesn’t pay the way it used to. The transition is far from complete, expertise continues to grow less and less profitable. One example that is close to home for me is the effect that home studios have had on professional studios. Pro studios have been seeing a lot less business than they used to due to the abundance of cheaper home studios run by amateurs and the relative ease with which musicians can record themselves. I imagine similar effects can be seen throughout our society. Photographers lose business to digital cameras, magazines lose business to blogs, actors lose business to reality TV stars.

Ironically, as required know-how becomes watered down and distributed throughout the population, the money involved does not. Sure, some folks make money off their home studios or by selling ads on their blogs, but for the most part, the money isn’t going to the users. In the face of the do-it-yourself revolution, traditional business models are going through drastic changes. Once upon a time, the money went to the experts and the content providers, but nowadays, the big money is in infrastructure. The guy with the popular Myspace page doesn’t profit directly from his page, Myspace does. The digital camera makers are running and skipping to the bank. It doesn’t pay to be a doer, it pays to be the one enabling the doers.

Who knows what the long term effects of this will be? Perhaps in the end, there will be an increased appreciation for expertise as people come to realize that without experience and time, the proper tools don’t amount to much. Perhaps the enablers will succeed to the point where even time, experience, and dedication do little to separate the pros from the amateurs. No matter how it turns out, it seems that the people we need to watch out for are the enablers. As things are now, they are the ones that stand to gain the most from the do-it-yourself revolution, and they are the ones who are in the best position to exploit the rest of us. At what point do we call it unfair that a popular blog brings traffic to blogger.com while the person writing it is not compensated by blogger? How popular should a Myspace profile be before the individual who created it should be getting kickbacks?

I’m sure that as the industrial revolution began and picked up steam, few of the people living through it realized that they were living through such a historically significant time. I think the same is true for people alive today. As the (geek) media focuses on how the web is changing, the entire world around us is changing. Web 2.0 is not our growth, it is just a sign of our growth. Our children’s children will grow up in a world where darkrooms, publishing houses, and soap operas were never necessary. The question “who can ___?” will be replaced with “How can I ___?” We are living through a time of important social change and transformation, a time that will be clearly noted and remembered in the history books of the future. I figured that rather than wait for the experts to point it out, I’d let you know myself.

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It’s not free

I just read about a high school student who was suspended for making a fake Myspace profile for his principal. The profile said the principal smoked weed and had sex with students among other things. That’s not really what someone in the education field wants showing up when a potential employer googles him. The student sued, claiming the Myspace page was protected by the first amendment.

I think “free speech” has to be one of the most popular laws that people in this country appeal to. People constantly insist that they shouldn’t be censored or punished for their words because this is America and we have free speech. If you tell someone “that was a messed up thing to say” they remind you what country you’re in. Everyone is crying “free speech!” but no one seems to understand what it actually is.

The first amendment does not say anyone can say anything they want. It does not say that it is illegal to challenge a person’s opinion. It does not magically eliminate the repercussions of speaking.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
government for a redress of grievances.

As you can see, if you read it literally, the first amendment simply says that congress cannot outlaw freedom of speech in any way. It has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as applying to all government – federal and state – despite the fact that it only mentions congress. That is the limit of the first amendment. Government. It doesn’t give us license to make fake Myspace pages that give false information on people and hurt their reputations and job prospects. It doesn’t mean we can say whatever we want while at work and not get fired. It doesn’t mean we can voice ignorant opinions and not be told that we just said something stupid. Words have repercussions no matter what country you are in.

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Verbal Responsability

I just received a serious reminder of why it is important to be politically correct.

I finally saw When the Levees Broke. A lot of what I learned was new information to me but not surprising. I’m black. Most black folks in America are taught to distrust the government. We’re taught by our parents and our peers. We’re taught by the police that harass and target us. We’re taught by the lawmakers who don’t consider us unless they really need the black vote to win. We’re taught by the imbalances in the allocation of government resources. We learn from an early age to expect the worst from our government and the lesson is re-taught time and time again until “trust” and “government” can only fit in the same sentence if they are accompanied by some kind of negation such as “mis-”, “not”, or “never” for example.

One of the things that I learned by watching When the Levees Broke is that there’s a bottom limit to ‘the worst’ that I expect from people. The fact that for several days, parts of the government and many of the surrounding communities didn’t lift a finger to help the Katrina victims was not a huge surprise to me when it happened or when I learned the specifics watching the documentary. The fact that the government didn’t build the “levees” (which weren’t even levees for real) properly didn’t come as a shock. The fact that prior to the storm, they’d had many warnings that something like this might happen but had still not put any serious contingency plan into effect merely reaffirmed that the government is inefficient, disorganized, and negligent.

Then I got to the part of the documentary when several people talked about trying to walk out of New Orleans on I-10. I try hard to be a realist – not to expect the best or worst necessarily, but to expect the probable. Based on the way the world tends to respond to large-scale disasters, I thought that Katrina’s effects would bring out the best in people. I expected that even if the government was slow to respond, citizens and good Samaritans would be on the scene doing what they could. I knew every citizen wouldn’t be involved – some wouldn’t be able to help and some still wouldn’t care enough. What caught me off guard was that there were American citizens whose sympathy for the plight of fellow humans was so absolutely absent that instead of just apathetically standing by and letting survivors fend for themselves, they formed a barrier. I couldn’t believe it – armed with guns, they formed a human wall across the highway and forbade the starving, elderly, sickly, and the unfortunate from leaving the disaster site.

In a conversation after the movie I brought that part up and expressed my shock. The person I was talking to told me she understood why they did that. It wasn’t something I could understand. I thought they would forget for the moment that they were scared of New Orleans residents, that they normally believed that N.O. residents were criminals and temporarily just act on the fact that they were humans in need. That’s what tends to happen during disasters. “They treated them like roaches, like pests they needed to keep out!” I said to her. “That’s just it,” was her response. To the people close to New Orleans, to the people close to Baltimore, MD, to the people close to Camden, NJ, to the people close to countless other areas with “bad reputations” the people living in those areas aren’t people, they are animals. They are a plight, pests, who at all costs should be kept out of civilized areas of the country. As soon as she said it, I realized she was right. Its not that these people didn’t care about the plight of fellow humans, its that they did not see any fellow humans.

Thinking on that, I feel guilty. I tend to be a silly person at times and I do my best to laugh off the hardest parts of life. Thinking back, I don’t know how many times I teased friends from Baltimore or folks living in Camden about the reputations of their cities. It was acceptable because it was known both by myself and the victims of my jokes that I didn’t believe the things I was saying. I’ve been to Camden and Baltimore. I know that the people are the same as you’ll find just about anywhere else. I know that there are “bad apples” who cause problems. I know that the “bad apples” in these areas simply make more noise than in other places. I know that the situations in these and similar areas are very much influenced by economic, educational, and social injustices which cultivate bad apples. I know a fellow human when I see one. I never would have poked fun if I suspected that my words might fall on the ears of people who couldn’t understand these things to some degree. Because of the people I try to surround myself with, chances are small that my words did reach such people, but still . . . I have never been blind to the effects and evidence of racism and classism in this country. I know the “isms” are still very strong in our society. But, I did think we had made some progress. I knew significant chunks of the population saw some groups as inferior, less intelligent, and more violent. I did not know that there are still substantial sets of people around who can still look at a human and see an animal.

Doubtless, there are people in this country who go way too far with political correctness, but knowing that there are people ignorant enough to do and support what those police officers did on I-10 after Katrina, can you blame them. I’ve always tried not to needlessly offend people, but now I realize that not breaking those eggshells is even more important than I thought. I don’t want to help cause opinions that can lead to instances of cruelty similar to what happened on I-10. I don’t want to be part of the problem.

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