Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Thought

Short post tonight: just a thought really.

When was the last time you climbed a tree?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Can't we all just get along?

Passage of the health care reform bill in the House this past week and the ensuing reaction put me in mind yet again of how absurd our political rivalries have become. That such a watered-down excuse for a "reform" bill would cause this much vitriol back and forth across the aisle is utterly absurd to me. How is it that we've come to a point where something that should be a no-brainer-- figuring out a better way to provide health care to everyone-- leads to protests that our government is either socialist or fascist, or possibly both?

The main thing that confuses me is how we ever got anything done before this. Certainly emancipation, the New Deal, civil rights, and even Johnson's Great Society weren't uncontroversial. But they still happened. You could make the claim that extraordinary circumstances or the force of character of their proponents were the only reason they succeeded, but that seems overly simple to me. What has shifted in our society that now makes passing anything more than a weak excuse for reform all but impossible?

It seems fairly clear to me that the way ideas are presented to the public must play a major role in this. Rather than (as was the case before) elected officials working in what amounted to a vacuum where they could work simply among themselves to accomplish whatever they politically could, instead the public is fed whatever story makes the most headlines and immediately do whatever they can to send those officials off the rails. I'm not saying that the way it was before was ideal. Such a model can clearly lead to vast corruption and cronyism. But does this new model make any more sense?

We seem to be in a situation where whatever spin the media or the media face of our officials puts on an issue is what winds up shaping the debate. And for whatever reason, the media spoon feeds these angles to us instead of acting as the "4th estate" and trying to get at whatever truth is behind the spin. Outlets like Fox News are perhaps the most insidious and irresponsible examples of this trend, where there seems to be an extreme prejudice towards rhetoric over truth, with the result that absolutely nothing gets done. The ultimate irony of this to me is that in many ways Fox News is just as bad as Izvestia during the height of the Soviet Union. Viewers are told whatever the leadership want them to hear. Unfortunately the viewers are lapping up what Fox is selling them.

I have no idea how to get out of this, since the left has had to assume the same tactics in response to what has been coming from the right, and any news outlet that tries to go down the middle loses market share. All I know is that if we can't fix something as obviously broken as Health Care in this environment, how can we move this country forward at all?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I have something obscene sitting on my desk at work. Shocking, I know. But there it is. Or at least according to these fine, upstanding citizens it's obscene.

What is this obscenity? Shield your eyes children, for here it is:

Yes, it's a graphic novel. Personally, I'd maybe call this one R-rated. But apparently a couple library employees in Kentucky felt it was their duty to shield the community and an 11-year-old from being exposed to this execrable work, which was given a starred review by Publisher's Weekly and named as one of the 10 best graphic novels of 2007 by Time. Indeed, it was so insidious that it was necessary to pray over the reader to prevent the images from penetrating the purity of her mind.

It's utterly laughable to me that a few drawings of boobs and copulation without parts visible would cause this sort of reaction. Don't get me wrong, I don't think an 11-year-old should read this. And having read the book myself, I don't think she'd enjoy it very much either. It's probably over the heads of some adults (as this entire incident maybe demonstrates). But shouldn't the parent's first question to the 11-year-old upon her return from the library be "so what did you get?" And shouldn't the parent then investigate a title that doesn't quite look right?

As a librarian, I'm committed to putting works that the community and experts believe to be important on my shelves. That means that I've got Lady Chatterly's Lover and this graphic novel on the shelves, as well as the latest Ann Coulter and Glen Beck (far more offensive to me, personally). But it's not my job to judge these works' morality or quality. I'm in the business of providing access to information, and these employees should have been too.

The worst part of this story to me is the arrogance displayed by these two in believing that they were better suited to determine what that girl could read than her own parents, let alone what the whole community could read. Apparently the book was purchased at a patron's request, so clearly someone in the community wanted to read it. What made these two think that they knew better than the person who wanted to read the book? Even though I find the aforementioned works by Beck and Coulter as execrable as these two found the graphic novel, I'm not going to tell someone they can't read them.

I can't help but think that we'd all be better off if we just lived and let live.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Steampunk: an Analysis (sort of)

I first came across the term "Steampunk" earlier this year, and I had no idea what it was referring to. I was actually a little disappointed in myself that I might have missed some major cultural development. With the futuristic elements at first I thought it was based on some sort of "Blade Runner"-esque view of the future. You know, where there's lots of punks, and... well... steam.

I should have known that wasn't what it was about, but it was a while before I figured out that it referred to the Victorian period. It was capturing an alternate history where adventuresome "punks" manage to corral steam-age technology into accomplishing all sorts of futuristic feats. Ultimately, it goes back to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, who were able to envision fabulous technology in the future but based in the only technology they knew at the time.

The first thing that struck me about this, was how often the signs of a cultural movement show up before the movement is really defined. Taking punk music for example, the Stooges or the New York Dolls were performing their music before anyone was calling it "punk." In the case of steampunk, I immediately started thinking about works like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" or "Neverwhere." I also saw the origins of the style in goth style. I could even see how it developed looking at my stepdaughter's progression from something vaguely goth to more and more focus on Victorian styles to the point where she bought a top hat and dressed as a sort of Mad Hatter for Halloween.

But the most remarkable thing about steampunk to me is that it even exists. If you think about other cultural movements in recent times, they all seem to be aimed towards the future-- like hippies or new wave-- or total nihilism-- like punk. Either way they're about significant change: trying to make society something different than what it is.

But steampunk doesn't seem to be about making change now. Instead it's almost like it's an attempt to hit the reset button. We don't like how this future turned out, so lets go back to the end of the 1800's when all this wonderful speculation was happening, and let's take a different route. It's total escapism, but it reflects a deep dissatisfaction both with how things are now, and also a strong suspicion that nothing can be done about it. I think this makes it different than escapism like fantasy novels or sci fi. The former talks about the distant past or even completely alternate worlds, the latter envisions a future where at least we still exist, even if things are going significantly wrong. Steampunk seems to say "we messed up in the last 100 years, wouldn't it be nice if we could try again?"

I'm not sure if this is good, bad, or indifferent; but I do think it's worth considering what it might mean about us and about what direction we want our world to go.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Right Here, Right Now

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I've been thinking a lot about the event. Looking back on it, it's hard to describe just how shocking it was for this to happen, and so suddenly. I might have been more aware of the wall and the cold war generally, since I read a lot of spy novels and Tom Clancy books at the time, but I think it's safe to say that at the time no one thought the wall would ever come down, or at least not in our lifetimes.

I had been dimly aware at the time of how relaxed travel restrictions from Hungary and Czechoslovakia had led to large numbers of East Germans leaving the country and trying to get to the west through those countries, but I didn't think too much of it. Anytime there had been protest like this, inevitably the government would crack down, become more restrictive, and do everything they could to prevent things from getting out of hand. I just heard on a documentary about the fall that Erich Honecker had plans to further improve the wall.

But then came November 9th. News showed people standing on the wall. This was just inconceivable. How could they be there without being shot? As we watched we discovered that the East German government had tried to diffuse the situation by relaxing travel restrictions themselves, but the people realized even before the government did that this meant the wall had no purpose.

Anything could have gone wrong at any point along the way. The soliders could have fired to prevent the people from leaving: they had no orders telling them to let the people through. But the beauty of what happened that night is that the Berlin wall fell because the people wanted it to. After almost 30 years, it was finally too much, and it could not stand.

The other thing that I knew that night was that the cold war was over. It would be another year before reunification. Two before the USSR ceased to be. But it was those people standing on the wall that was the real end. And it still gives me chills.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Digital Killed the Radio Star

For a couple years in college, I got to play radio DJ. I know that I wasn't especially good, but I like to think that at least I played good music. Our college radio station was pretty low tech at the time. We liked to say that we were broadcasting with the power of a light bulb (a 100 watt transmitter on the highest point on campus). And our equipment was far from sophisticated: an ancient board hooked up to a couple cart players, a couple turntables, and a couple CD players.

As you can imagine, with a bunch of college kids running a radio station, it could sometimes be a challenge to make sure that you stayed on the air. Someone doesn't show up for a shift, or they don't pot up the right channel, and nothings going out. Dead air meant someone had screwed up, or the transmitter had crashed (again).

So it always amuses me when I hear professional radio stations hit dead air. But it never really occurred to me why that might happen until today. I had known for a while that radio stations had gone digital. After all, why have to keep swapping CDs and fading between channels when you can set the whole playlist up on a computer and just let it run?

But as I was driving home today, in the middle of the song, the radio station I was listening to went dead. I figured it was a fluke and waited for it to come back up. After several minutes of silence, suddenly, clear as a bell, the station broadcasts the Windows log-on sound.

Apparently, they had to reboot. Who knew that Windows was alternative rock?

Friday, November 6, 2009

All That We're Saying...

The other night while watching the History channel (yes, I am a nerd) when a trailer for one of the multiplicity of war programs came on, I was suddenly struck by the absurdity of it. Not the absurdity of the plethora of war programs on the History channel, but the absurdity of war.

Think about it. What exactly is anyone hoping to gain in this time and place by putting an excessively large number of people into one place with the sole intent of blowing up people and/or things? I think that what really hit me about it was watching some footage of a sea battle from World War 2. Here are these large vessels in the ocean, pounding away at each other, but all that's going to be accomplished is enabling a force to land on a small island that normally no one would want?

I suppose that there was a time when war made at least a little more sense. One group had something that was desired by another group, so the second group decides to take the something by force and the first group has to defend itself. Maybe it's still unnecessary, but it's at least understandable.

But fast forward to today, and it appears that the sole reason we're blowing each other up is, to quote a book I read recently, "this insidious idea is antithetical to our existence and cannot be allowed to flourish alongside our peace-loving, free society." Where's the sense in that? At a time when you can pick up a phone and instantly make contact with anyone in the world, surely there are better ways to resolve things than resorting to violence.

I think this shift happened sometime in the 20th century. Having lived in the last quarter of that century during a time of apparent peace, it's easy to forget that the entire century was essentially one gigantic war. It started in the traditional way: a few emerging superpowers decided that they wanted more land, and alliances were formed to prevent them from taking it. But that's where it ended. The treaty of Versailles was like no other treaty signed before: the winners got together, carved up the world the way they wanted it, and stuck it to the losers as hard as they could. The rest of the century became about vengeance for that act and rebelling against the imperialism that led those powers to think that they could simply cut the world up like pieces of pie. As soon as you start fighting about ideals like that, war seems to lose all sense of purpose.

The other major shift was away from the "band of brothers" army and towards killing machines. In a significant way, it's a shame that the World War 2 mini-series was called "band of brothers." The line from Henry V continues "for he who sheds his blood this day with me shall be my brother." Remember, that's the King speaking. Where was the "king" in the world wars? No longer were the leaders fighting alongside their men. When the people calling the shots are not putting themselves in danger, they no longer have direct motivation to protect their men. I don't mean to say that every leader since Waterloo has felt this way, but to an extent it's unavoidable. Troops become numbers. Citizens become collateral damage.

And that's ultimately what leads us to where we are today. I'm sure that many of the men returning from Agincourt also suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, but consider that society didn't recognize it until World War 1 when the men started coming home with "shell-shock." And given the vast issues that our troops return with now and the cost to their families and society at large-- PTSD, familial violence, homelessness, depression, suicide-- we have to start asking what we're getting for this and stop sending people out blindly to fight for ideals when there is a better way.

I don't mean to denigrate what the people who sign up for the military sacrifice in the name of protecting us. I think that their motivations are good, and that protection in some form or another is necessary. But I do question the leadership that continues to believe that it's worth the cost to send these people into harm's way in the name of an ideal. Ideas are meant to be discussed, not killed for. Surely it's at least conceivable that differences can be worked out and tolerated by sitting around the table and talking rather than by shedding the blood of millions.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Blow, Winds!

It never ceases to amaze me how much of a difference wind direction makes when you're riding a bike. Even on days when it's calm, on a bike you can tell what direction the wind is coming from. If you're pushing into it, just a slight change in pressure can make it harder to pedal.

Today was one of the days when, even though the wind was blowing steadily from one direction, down on the streets you could hardly tell where it was coming from. One moment you'll be straining to make headway into the wind, then suddenly it's at your back. The pattern of buildings and cross streets can play havoc with the winds if they're blowing off the street directions. Since wind can make such a difference to how easy or hard my ride is going to be, I almost always check the NWS website before I leave on my rides. It just makes me feel better knowing what I'm getting into.

This close connection to the weather and the outdoors is one of the many reasons I love riding. This week I wasn't able to ride for a couple days in a row, and I realized I had no clue what was going on with the weather. I mean, obviously I could see if it was sunny or not, and I could tell whether it was cold or warm. But I didn't feel it. I wasn't tuned into how the wind could indicate what the temperature would be later. Or whether it was going to rain the next day.

It seems that all the time we spend in cars and well lit, well insulated, cooled or heated spaces has broken our connection with the world around us. There was a time when most everyone would have a decent idea of what the weather was going to do based on the wind or the clouds. There's a reason why the ancient festivals (and even the ones we still celebrate) were tied into the changing seasons. Our ancestors were so plugged into the world around them that even without our sophisticated tools they knew exactly when the seasons changed.

It seems a shame to me that we've lost that connection. And I'm glad that by riding my bike to work every day I can experience a little of what that was like.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

One year ago today...

November 4, 2008. A day that will live in infamy.

Oh, and some guy was elected president.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Job

One of the many things I love about my job is how varied it is. The "public" part of "public library" means that we see all sorts, and see the best and the worst of people every single day.

A few events in the past two days really brought this home to me. Yesterday I had young woman come up to me to get her library card number, having lost the card. This is a completely normal transaction 99% of the time, but this time was in that 1%. As soon as I looked up her account I could tell there was something seriously wrong. Looking at the notes on her account I saw that there had been issues with reserved items going missing, and materials adding up to almost $800 checked out in February that hadn't been returned. The notes indicated that we needed to find out what was going on. So I started to ask about what had happened.

As I asked questions the girl became visibly upset. When I asked what her current address was, she told me that she had been kicked out and wasn't really living anywhere right now. When I asked about the materials that had gone missing, she said that she knew about the items that had been checked out, but her aunt had thrown them all away because "she hates me." Since there was no chance of anything being checked out or any more reserves getting placed, I gave her the card number to get on the computers, and told her that if she wanted to she could report her aunt to the police for stealing the library materials. That was the best I could do for her under the circumstances, but that was all she really wanted. This poor kid, totally on her own, just wanted to use the library's computer. As much as her situation ripped my heart out, this is exactly the sort of thing we're here for.

On the other hand side, today as I was flipping through my tweets I came across two colleagues who were having a back and forth about the sorts of questions we get. Anyone who works in libraries can totally connect to these sorts of questions:

What's really scary is that interactions like this actually start to make sense. To the point where you can probably figure out what the customer is actually looking for:

I love my job.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wanna Bet?

I arrived home this evening to find the Franklin County Democratic Party sample ballot waiting for me. Imagine my dismay when I found that the Democratic Party is urging me to vote yes on Issue 3!

For those outside of Ohio, Issue 3 is a proposed constitutional amendment to build casinos in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo. I can barely even begin to describe in this space what's wrong with this picture.

First of all, a constitutional amendment? Really? We need to have it encoded in the very fabric of our state government that there should be 4 casinos in Ohio? How is this possibly a good idea?

Next, the way that this has been promoted just rubs me the wrong way. The overall message is, "everyone else is doing it, so why don't we?" I'm pretty sure my parents taught me that's no argument for doing something. As the tired old response goes, "if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you too?" But what makes it even worse in this context is how it sets up "us" against "them". Those people in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and >gasp< CANADA are getting OUR money! Ohioans are just throwing money at them, and it should stay here! One ad featured two old high school friends on a bus to somewhere not Ohio, as they talked about how awful it was that they had to go somewhere else for their monthly gambling outing. Oh yeah, good clean fun. Let's go blow our wads on pointless games of chance where the house, inevitably, wins.

I'll be the first to admit, I'm not a gambler. I've tried gambling in friendly games of nickel poker and discovered I'm just not good at it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the game. But knowing that I'm at best an average player there's just no attraction for me to go spend my money on bright lights and loud noises.

But my last and most significant problem with Issue 3 is the reason why the Democratic Party and so many otherwise sane organizations are supporting it. Ohio needs money. Like everyone else we've been hit hard and need to find ways to make up for the loss of income as jobs were lost. But instead of doing the sensible thing and raising taxes on those who can afford it while also scaling back where we can, we're trying to find ways to get free money. The casinos look attractive because hey, it's money that we don't have to spend, right?

Friends, there's always a cost. This isn't free money. This isn't recouping the same money that's currently leaving the state. This is money taken from hard working Ohioans and given to large corporations. This is far worse than a new tax. This is lining the pockets of wealthy corporations while the state comes begging for a less than 40% share. And the people who are spending this money aren't high rollers. If we're lucky they're at least only spending what they can afford, but chances are they're not. And what of those who will become addicted, ruining themselves and their families and becoming dependent on already strained state resources in the process?

In the name of avoiding higher taxes we're pillaging the people who are least able to afford it. Give me a tax any day. At least then I know that all the money is going to the state. We can all argue about how we're spending it and whether it's well-spent or not, but we have no say in how those developers use their money. They could give it all to charity or they could buy another yacht. But we have no say.

I don't have a moral problem with gambling, but from a purely rational point of view this is a bad idea. It only seems like a good idea if you think there's no consequence to getting this money. But there's always consequences, whether you feel them directly from taxes, or indirectly as bad choices make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and lower all our standards of living. We can be so much better as a society together if we all pitch in what we can. But short-term rewards always win out. I hope Issue 3 bucks that trend and dies the death it deserves at the polls tomorrow.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Welcome Back

Yes, I know, I've been gone for far too long. It's been almost a year since my last serious post, and six months since my last abortive attempt to get started again.

So where have I been? Here, mostly:

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Why? I guess it's easier to be snarky in 140 characters or less. Or maybe I'm just lazy. I'll admit, a big part of it is that Twitter feels more like a conversation. The blog is more about self-centered navel-gazing, more or less.

    Okay, that's not fair. I'm a halfway decent writer. Maybe some people enjoy reading my rantings. OR at least it's another way for folks to keep up with what's on my mind.

    At any rate, we've rolled around to NaBloPoMo once again, and once again I'm going to try to use it to get myself in gear. What's different this time? Well, for one, over the summer I rehabbed an old laptop so now I don't have to run to the office to do my entry. And once again I need to write. I've felt my chops slipping, and that affects not only my ability to write snarky rants on the Internet, it affects my ability to write halfway intelligent sounding pieces to actually create change in my profession.

    So once more we attempt to make the Internet explode. On, NaBloPoMo!

    Wednesday, April 8, 2009

    Hammer Time

    This evening as I was riding home, I caught up with another cyclist just as I had taken a turn into the 15 mph west wind. I'm still riding my beast of an ancient mountain bike and was wearing my nylon shells, so I was basically a big sail. The cyclist I caught was wearing a nice kit and riding a nice bike, so I figured I'd tuck in behind him and let him pace me into the wind for a bit.

    Drafting another cyclist is remarkably effective. That's why you see pros do it in the races all the time. The thing is, in order to get the benefit of the draft, you have to follow fairly closely. There is some skill involved in doing this, but generally people won't try it unless they're pretty comfortable on the bike. There's also a lot of etiquette around what you should do if you catch another cyclist, but generally you should just acknowledge each others presence and then offer to take turn on the front after a while.

    So as I fell in behind the other cyclist, I saw him look back at me and I gave him a nod and a smile. He kept looking back at me though, so I said "Hope you don't mind if I catch your draft for a bit while we're heading into the wind." Instead of responding, he slowed down and waved me around saying something. I pulled up alongside and said, "What?" He said "You're too close, I'm not comfortable with that."

    "Okay, sorry." I said. But I'm thinking, you're on a nice Giant road bike. You're kitted out in race-cut spandex. And you're not comfortable with someone drafting you? If you were some kid on a fixie or another commuter I would understand, but a roadie in full kit?

    So I did what any self-respecting cyclist would do. I put my head down over the handlebars of my 40 pound tank of a mountain bike, dialed it up into the highest gear-- a paltry 44x13-- and proceeded to put the hammer down, leaving him in my dust.

    Moral of the story: if you're going to wear the kit, learn the rules.