Thursday, May 29, 2014

Difference of Being

I have always been fascinated with what makes people different.  Every single one of us is different in some aspect or another, and while I understand it is human nature to want to surround ourselves with the familiar - with those people who are most like us - even within the province of similarity I am most intrigued with the differences.

I work and live with a group of people who were raised in the same general area as I was raised.  Outsiders would consider us all Midwesterners; in fact everyone in the group, save myself, would agree with those outsiders.  Of the five of us, each of our home towns are within fifty miles of each other.  On a global scale, we were born and raised within a stone's throw distance from each other.  The only dramatic difference between any of us is our age range.  I am the youngest, sitting pretty on the last leg toward the top of the hill, and the other span a range of twenty-five years.

There are a lot of things that are similar between us.  For the most part, we rarely argue about religion or politics.  Most of our views on these subjects either align completely or fall into the realm of indifference.  In fact, the greatest disparity among us is traditionally our sense of humor.  It seems to range from very dry and clean to filthy and oozing with innuendo.

Yet, something happened today that made me feel a little bit like Texas sports anchor Dale Hansen when he said, "I don't understand his world, but I do understand he is a part of mine."

As part of duties of my occupation, I spend a lot of time with a group of women.  Our time together is spent cleaning.  We're basically housekeepers, but on a larger scale.  Today's task was spring cleaning a large common area that had only been used as a catchall for recent company purchases since last fall.

In an attempt to "get our blood pumping" and "get us psyched" to get into the the nitty gritty filth of our cleaning project, our wonderful employer took it upon herself to select some music that she felt would be the best way to motivate the unmotivated.

It wasn't that we weren't into the cleaning.  After all, who really wants to spend their Saturday on hands and knees scrubbing who-knows-what off the floor.  The temperature hadn't risen above forty all day, and the building wasn't heated.  The sky had that steel grey look of impending rain, and the wind whipped branches and fallen leaves across the yard and cut through any amount of layered clothes.  And our schedules were overrun.  I had just come off of two twelve-hour shifts and was looking forward to at least two more.

Needless to say, we were tired, depressed, moody, and facing a seemingly insurmountable cleaning project.

Like I said, our employer saw this and took actions to do something about it.  She put together a play list of "uplifting" songs that were meant to get our feet moving and lift our spirits enough to start cleaning.

I can hear you asking, "What were these wonderful songs?"  Allow me to share a sample:

Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys by Willie Nelson, and Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town by Kenny Rogers were three of the highlights from the list.

My knee-jerk reaction to this type of song was initially very strong.  As someone who likes upbeat music I have a different opinion of what is going to motivate people to do shitty work.  Even if I were going to take into account the "rainbows and unicorns" type of personalities of the rest of my cleaning crew, I probably still would have chosen song by Pink or Christina Aguilera or perhaps Maroon 5.

My employers list sounded like something a tired, broken man would listen to in the middle of a rainy night and a bottle of scotch.

I wanted to laugh and ask her if she was serious, but I couldn't because she was floating around the room from task to task singing along with her dirge of musical choices.

So, instead of reacting poorly to a decision that she was clearly proud of, I was instead in awe of our differences.

As I stated, she was raised no more than fifty miles from where I was raised, and in this particular instance there isn't more than ten years of age between us.  Yet the music that she finds upbeat and uplifting is music that I would have playing as background to a suicide attempt.

How can that possibly be?

We both have fairly similar backgrounds - at least, at the early development stages, and yet somewhere along the lines she veered off into one realm of musical interest and I veered off into another.  And it isn't even the type of music, or genre, that confuses me.

I wouldn't question that she predominately enjoys country music while I enjoy rock/pop.  That wouldn't be an issue.  It's that the type of music she sees as motivating is so clearly and obviously different from my own.  In my ever growing "Running" playlist, one of the staples that has never changed is Sabotage by Beastie Boys.  That's a song that can really get a person's butt moving.  One of her song choices for "butt moving" uplifters was Old Man by Neil Young.

Now, before anyone starts arguing the musical validity of any of her choice, let me reassure everyone that all of her choices are songs that I would listen to, and most of them are on my iPod.  They just aren't songs that I would consider "motivating" (unless you're trying to motivate yourself into depression).

I don't really have a point with this tirade, other than to create an awareness about the differences between us, and how small they really are.

We all get bent out of shape about people like Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling because they prove exactly how far humanity has come in the last two-hundred years (which is clearly not all that far).

Wouldn't be simpler to simply acknowledge and accept the differences, like I did with my employers choice of music, than to force your opinion on others?

I'm not sure my new motto will be accepted with open arms, but I believe the phrase, "Equality through Apathy and Indifference" is a great slogan.  I don't care what you do, why you do it, or how.  Be yourself and let me be myself, and we'll get along.

It's those differences, no matter how small, that cause rifts in our lives because all we want is a homogenized world - even if (a crippling ignorant) half the world doesn't want the prefix homo- to be any part of that world.

That's all.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Freedom vs. Privacy: An American Dream

Since the birth of Bulletin Board Systems and dial-up modems, the notion of online privacy has been an issue with anyone who utilizes online materials.  Today, of course, we are seeing more and more stories and legislature regarding online privacy.  The NSA is gathering "information" on American communications, including telephone calls and emails.  Thousands of businesses (some legitimate, some not-so-much) have sprouted like weed claiming they can keep American's identities safe from thieves.  Some governments are even going as far as utilizing software to access a user's computer, sort through their files, and even view them through their own built-in webcam.

I understand how all of this can seem pretty scary.  However, I don't understand why.  Why is it happening, and why are people scared?

I know, I know.  I'm sure I could find a million commentators to expound upon how important it is to maintain an individual's level of privacy, or perhaps dictate to me how large and uncontrollable our governments have become.

I don't disagree.

There is a small part of me that doesn't want anyone to know certain things.  I'm a little shy, after all, and having some stranger poke around inside my computer or reading my emails doesn't settle too well for that part of me.

But there's a larger part of me that simply doesn't care.  What does it matter of some dude in a suit two-thousand miles away rummages through the files on my computer?  What will he find?  Probably porn.  A couple of eBooks.  An essay or two still saved on my hard drive from university.  A video game.  Big deal.  What about my emails?  Correspondences between my boss and myself on our next upgrade for the company.  Purchase confirmations and receipts from Amazon, eBay, PayPal and the like for various junk I felt I had to have but don't really need.

Maybe I'm not the normal person though.  What if I were the kind of guy to have all kinds of correspondences with prostitutes from Craigslist, or a guy with a hard drive full of torrent files and pirated material?  Again, I'm going to say, so what?

The issue really isn't about what "they" will find by collecting this data or invading our computers.  "They" might find all kinds of illegal activity.  The likelihood of acting on that illegal activity is probably fairly minimal.  I don't know the statistics, but I guarantee you if there were only a handful of people pirating software over torrent and other peer-to-peer sites (a la the infamous Napster) those sites would have been shut down easily.  This leads me to believe there are so many people using these sites that it doesn't make sense for "them" to go after end users.  Like The War on Drugs, "they" don't really want to arrest the user, they want to arrest the supplier.

That being said, my take on what the real issue here is, is that I didn't give them permission to collect data from me or to access my computer remotely.

Thing is, though, I kind of did.  I gave them permission when I didn't get involved with the government I am supposed to be a part of.  For the people, by the people.  I am part of "the people" and if the government is by the people, that means it is by me.  So what happens when I take a back seat to the way the government is run?  Exactly this.  Only, I haven't been taking a back seat when it comes to our government.  I've been dead.  I haven't done a thing to steer this government one direction or another.

There is still action through inaction.

By not weighing in for or against one thing or another, I am simply allowing decisions to be made for me.  I'm not talking about voting here.  Voting isn't nearly enough, is it?  With a system like the electoral college in place, what good does an individual vote do, anyway?  No, I'm talking about lobbying, petitioning, getting in the face of the oppressors and screaming at the top of my lungs about why I'm upset at everything they are doing.

Today's post comes to you because of Firefox.

I'm a fan of Mozilla's products.  I use both Firefox and Thunderbird for my online activity.  I absolutely love Google and nearly everything they make, but for some reason Google Chrome just didn't work for me.  That isn't important for this post, though.

You see.  I opened my web browser this morning.  I have the default set to take me to the Mozilla Firefox Start Page when I open Firefox.  It's pretty much just a search bar, but often times there are little messages from Mozilla regarding updates, new products, or legislature they want their users to be aware of.

Today's message had to do with "joining a community working toward designing a web we want" or something to that nature.  You get to make a decision about what is most important to you on the web, and then scroll through a series of infographic-like data depicting how others around the world think on the same topic.

Of the 29 million people voting world wide, nearly 40% of these want more privacy in their online interactions (38.6% in the U.S.).  The other options were Opportunity, Accessibility, Freedom, Learning, and User Control.

As I've said, I get the argument for privacy.  But as I've also said, I don't really care if someone learns that I look at porn, or that I have an Amazon Prime account and use it to watch The Americans, Justified, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I don't think I would even care if someone could use the information on my computer to prove that I was a racist (which I'm not - that has to do with my level of apathy, as I'm sure I'll write about in a later post), or maybe "they" can confirm that I might be Facebook friends with someone from Iraq who might have ties with Al-Qaeda.  It doesn't matter, because if those things are true, then that is who I am, and I should have no reason to hide.

Here's why.  In this Mozilla blurb about what kind of web you want, I voted for freedom.  We live in the free world, in what is supposed to be the freest country in the world.  Don't we?

You see, with absolute freedom, I would never have to worry about privacy.  I would be free to hold my head high and say, "Yes!  This is who I am!  I have every right to be the person I am, and do the things I do because I am that person.  You have no right to judge me, because I am free."

So, while we may believe we live in a free country, in a free world, we all know that isn't the case.  Don't we?  We are anything but free.  We might not be slaves in the traditional sense of the word - you know, the way Cliven Bundy sees the term.  But we are certainly not free.

We are bound by the rules of popular culture.  We idolize entertainers and athletes, and bow down to the wishes of every corporation in the world because they have the money and the rest of us have just enough to purchase the products all of these people produce and endorse.  We destroy the land and kill ourselves because someone somewhere wants to make a profit, and we don't even question why.

You see, absolute true freedom can never happen in a capitalist society.  Too many people searching for money and power will always find a way of crushing out someone else to get to that money and power, and the victor will be applauded and rewarded for his cunning and skill.  The crushed will be forgotten.

The truth is, there can never be absolute freedom anywhere humans exist because humans are terrified little creatures who believe they need someone else to guide and protect them.

The internet is no different.  We have parental controls to guide and protect children.  We have search algorithms designed to guide the user to "appropriate" sites.  We are allowing fear and paranoia to dictate how we live our lives, and corporations are taking great advantage of that and limiting our freedoms even more.

Let me ask a question, and allow you to stew in the pot for a while.  If you could do or say anything without fear of repercussions, why would you ever need privacy?

I made a statement to a friend once, regarding internet privacy, that so totally offended her sense of right and wrong we couldn't speak to one another for a month.  I was making this same argument, that privacy wasn't really that big of an issue.  That governments and corporations were using the argument of privacy to drive fear into the hearts of citizens in the hopes that the citizenry will give up more of their freedoms for the illusion of privacy.

She asked me what I would do if anyone could know everything about me.  My only response could be, "Nothing."

If everyone could learn everything about everyone else at a given moment, I think the world would quickly understand that we are all much more alike than we want to believe (or that we are being told to believe).  Do you believe that Bill Clinton's blow job in the oval office would have been such a big deal if we could learn that practically every man in a position of power has probably received sex in exchange for work-related favors at some point in time?

For years the people have argued that we are all equal.  The civil rights movement, women's liberation, gay marriage, it's all part of a struggle to identify equality between various subcultures within our world.  The problem, as I see it, is that we are still blinded by the emotions that course through us on these particular issues to understand that there is one thing in which we are all the same.

We are controlled by the fear of exposing our secrets because we believe that exposure will prove exactly how different we are from the world around us.

My opinion is that it won't.  It will simply prove how similar we all really are.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Warped Mind of the Modern Human

Okay.  I'm sure this will be the first in a long series of posts regarding the absolute evil that is our current capitalist society.  Before the comments come pouring in about capitalism being the American way, and anyone who thinks differently isn't American, allow me to say the following:  As with any sociopolitical structure, I believe that the core principles behind capitalism are quite fair.  "Use the means at your disposal to further better yourself and your loved ones."  That's great, and it truly sums up the American value system as it is applied today by the youth of America.

I StumbledUpon this article today, which in turn lead me to this article.  You can read the articles, but I'll explain the gist of it.

It was an overcast night in late October.  A group of teenagers (the boy who died was 17) were out riding their bicycles.  They wore no bicycle helmets.  They were wearing dark clothing with minimal reflectors on the bikes.  They rode three abreast on a rural highway in Canada.  It was "early morning" (shortly after 1:00 a.m.).  A woman driving a black SUV at five miles over the speed limit struck the boys, killing one and seriously injuring another.

Okay.  I understand why that is tragic.

According to the articles, courts did not place the driver at fault for the accident.  She was not intoxicated, from the reports.  She simply couldn't see the cyclists.  The courts blamed low visibility:  overcast night, improper safety precautions on the part of the cyclists, etc.

Just an unfortunate accident.

Unfortunately none of us have all of the details.  All we can do is speculate based on the information given to us by (presumably on my part) biased news outlets.  (Biased because news delivery is a business and all news outlets are concerned about viewership and readership, and as such they will write and phrase things in ways that pull on the emotional heartstrings of their demographics to generate additional sales revenue.)

Based on the information we do have, I would personally fault the cyclists.  No helmets, riding abreast without proper visibility, dark clothing, 1:00 in the morning.  (I'm getting a little bit off topic here, but what were three teenagers doing riding their bikes around at 1:00 in the morning on a Sunday in October?  Don't they have school the next day?  Shouldn't they be at home in bed?  That isn't a reason to blame them for this accident, but it's an interesting point.)

My point with this post actually means to deal with the law suit now being filed against the victims of the accident.  The woman driving the SUV has filed a lawsuit against the families (and estate) of the three boys for over a million dollars.  She cites that she is still in shock (two years later) and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Okay, I get that.  Being responsible (though not at fault) for someone else's death is quite a traumatic experience.  I'd probably take some time to come to terms with that as well.  I don't know that I'd ever want to drive again (though, to be fair, I'm somewhat anti-automobile anyway - which I might cover in another post - so I'm not sure my opinion should matter).

My question for this woman is...  Will money help alleviate your pain?

This is something I don't understand in our country.  I spilled hot coffee on myself, I'll bet there's a way I'll never have to work again.  (Yes, I know that McDonald's was actually at fault there; their coffee was actually too hot and the lid was not on properly - it's just an example.)  I pushed my kid into participating in sports he wasn't interested in, and when he was kicked off the team for never showing up I found the perfect way to retire by suing the school.  I'm thirty-something and don't have a job and my parents refuse to help me out because they think I'm lazy, I'll sue them for "indifference" and open up a couple of Domino pizza restaurants.

The capitalism of our society has moved from the bright and shiny, "Make something of yourself through hard work and dedication," (you know, that thing immigrants are told they can do when they move here) and has been replace by "Take advantage of your situation and the trust and livelihoods of others so you don't really have to work."

Maybe we can blame it on Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales.  I recall him saying quite often to Huey, Dewey, and Lewy, "Work smarter, not harder."

Maybe it is "smart" to sue the person you killed for causing you trauma over their death.  If it holds up in court it is likely the woman will never have to work again.  She'll be set for life, and who really cares about the pain and trauma she caused to other people.

Is the narcissism of our society that deeply rooted that this woman hasn't even stopped to think about the pain and suffering the dead boy's parents are going through?  What about the "seriously injured" boy who broke his pelvis?  She's suing him, too.  Did she stop to think that maybe he's suffering just as much as she is?  It's doubtful.

"Oh, no.  I can't sleep at night.  I have too many nightmares about murdering a teenaged boy.  I'll bet a shit-ton of cash will help me feel better.  I'm sure everyone else involved with this accident are doing just fine.  In fact, they're probably doing better than fine.  The broken pelvis boy is probably going to prom and laughing and partying."


Here's the thing.  Money is not the answer to anyone's problems.  (To be fair, though, I absolutely hate money.  I believe it to be the worst creation of all time.  It makes people lazy and selfish.)  I'd like to know if she believes that her life should go back to normal after being a part of something so horrible.

Hell, I still have nightmares about my dog's leg getting caught in the spokes of my bicycle one morning and breaking in half.  Traumatic things happen and we need to learn to cope, but we also need to understand that nothing will ever be the same again.  There is nothing - NOTHING - that can make her depression go away besides owning up to what happened.  Facing it head on is the only solution.  "Yes.  This thing happened.  It was horrible and I feel like shit about it."

$1.35 million dollars isn't going to erase the pain.  It will only further serve as a blanket to pull over herself and help her to blame others for something she is ultimately responsible for.

I don't care that she was found to be not "at fault."  As an avid cyclist I understand that each of the boys could have done a million things better than what they did to protect themselves from an accident.  But, as the father of the dead boy said, "They're kids; they're allowed to make a mistake."

I would go further and suggest that because they are human, they are allowed to make a mistake.  And that segues nicely into my final point.

This woman is also human.  She is also allowed to make mistakes.  I would suggest that she made a huge mistake by not being as vigilant to the road in front of her when driving.  But I would also suggest that she is making another mistake with this lawsuit.

My hope is that somewhere, someone will find a way to help this woman understand that what she is doing isn't going to help her with the pain she's struggling with.  It is probably that pain that is clouding her judgment, and while that is understandable it is still detestable.  (Her reaction is exactly the argument I make against criminals and gang-bangers in regards to the use of guns, but that's for another post.)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Internet Security and Identity Theft

I am cynical and skeptical by nature, and it is often frustrating to witness the blatant inconsistencies and contradictions policymakers put into place compared to the day-to-day usage those policies are supposed to handle.

For example:  My financial institution is small by most standards.  They have close to ten branches, but they offer online banking so I was sold.  Their online banking is heavily encrypted.  I must have a password that is at least eight characters long, contains number, letters, and at least one capital and one lower case letter (they haven't gone as far as asking for special characters yet, but I'm already ahead of them on that one).  I have a picture I'm supposed to verify before logging in.  If the photo is not the photo I chose, and if the caption to the photo is not the caption I wrote, then I should know I've been re-directed (as if I wouldn't be able to tell from my browser).  I am asked a random security question each time I attempt to long in.  These are questions I answered when signing up for my account.  Finally, I am asked to change my password every ninety days to ensure proper security measures.

With all of that, I have forgotten my most recent password.  I attempted to log into my online banking, and after three attempts my account was locked and I had to actually call the bank to unlock it.

That's pretty impressive.

However, when I called the bank all I did was explain the problem I was having and tell them my name.  The person on the other end of the line reset my password for me to something benign, let me know that when I logged in again I would be prompted to change that benign password to something more personal, but that otherwise I was good to go.


With all of the security in place to ensure the safety of my financial information (which is a TON of security, by the way - check out this article from LifeHacker, specifically the chart that discusses the amount of time it takes a computer to generate a password, if you think all of that security is necessary), you're simply going to give a voice over the telephone a brand new password to an account with no more information than a name?  No need to verify my account number, my social security number, my address even?  Just a simple, "We're sorry about that.  Here you go, please have unlimited access to this account.  Thanks for calling!"

I'm not paranoid.  In fact, I'm pretty secure in the notion that nobody's out to get me - nobody's going to hack into my system and steal my identity.  Maybe because I don't really have much of an identity to steal.  I'm pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  That being said, it is still pretty ridiculous to install so much security to then simply give out a password to a voice over the phone.

What can I expect from this country, though?  These are probably the same people who believe arming teachers will keep their children safe at school, or the same people who believe that the inconvenience to business professional of having to take off one's shoes at the airport can simply be bypassed through a higher ticket price.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Thoughts of the Future

Our culture today seems to revolve around mass media.  There has always been a circular connection between art and life, and that connection is clearly visible in today's society where what we see in television and on film become things we covet in life, and likewise things that happen in life become fodder for television and film.  But, do we ever stop to think about those things from the media that on in popular culture and how they might be used to study our society today?

Right now, I work full time at a small professional photo lab.  One of the services we offer is the transfer of hold home movies recorded on VHS to DVD.  Of course, for those of you old enough to remember what a VHS is, or the many benefits we used to reap of having a VCR at home, you will surely recognize that on occasion home movies might have been erased and recorded over for any of the great media of the day.  I can recall taping over my 5th grade choir recital (the only time I was ever part of any sort of extracurricular activity in school) so I could tape a couple of episodes of "Saved by the Bell" (what can I say, I wanted to be Zack Morris - but I was too much like Screech to make the change).

Legal issues aside, I think we can all safely say that this was common practice.  As such, it was no surprise to me when a home video of a church choir I was transferring to DVD suddenly stopped and gave way to a scene of two bikini-clad women rolling around in an inflatable swimming pool filled with mud.  My first thought was, "That's fitting.  Tape over the church choir for Porky's."  Alas, I was wrong.

The film in question, the film that was deemed worthy enough to record over the church choir...the film that was deemed worthy enough to record period, was not Porky's, but instead a barely known film called...wait for it..."Prayer of the Rollerboys", staring Corey Haim (interestingly enough without Cory Feldman - didn't they do everything together?).  Here, we have a story about a mafia group of, what can only be seen as high school-aged boys rolling around town on roller blades, wearing white trench coats and black t-shirts, and extorting money from local business owners and selling drugs on the street.

Granted, the film is supposed to take place in the "not too distant future" of a bankrupt Los Angeles.  But it isn't the film's plot that drew my attention, it was the wardrobe.  If, for some unforeseen reason, some global catastrophe occurs and the only historical document of our society is this film (or those like it), what will future generations think of how we lived?  Will they believe that we all wore super wide bandannas on our heads to keep our floppy-cut hair out of our eyes?  That all the "cool kids" wore some sort of strange uniform of trench coats, sunglasses, and roller blades?  Or that the women (police women, for that matter, - and Patricia Arquette in this instance) wore short leather jackets over their bras?

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the wardrobe cast-offs from "The Wedding Singer" were used as costumes for this movie.  Just to drive the point home, check out the film's trailer.  If that entices you enough, it looks like, with a little digging, you could watch the whole film on YouTube.

Back to my original argument:  do we think about how we will be seen by future generations when we come up with crap like this?  I realize it's a style, after all, what did Neve Campbell say to Matthew Perry in "Three to Tango"?  "It was the 80s, they made you look like that."  But still, I can't think of another time period when we made ourselves look so horrible, and yet thought we were so fashionable.  Or, maybe, we never thought it was fashionable.  Perhaps some studio executive somewhere thought it would be a good idea to dress actors up in the tackiest clothing possible, hoping that it would catch on.  Perhaps said executive had stock in the clothing companies that made the tacky clothes.

I don't really have a point here.  I saw this snippet of a movie today, and this was the first thing that popped into my head.  I think I am going to find a way to watch this entire film though - just to see how bad it really is (I guess I like to torture myself - and to prove it I will admit that I have watched a film entitled "She-Wolves of the Wastelands" from beginning to end even though I wanted to turn it off during the opening credits).

Perhaps I only want to bring to attention this notion that mass media affects popular culture so dramatically.  As an example, this film is a documentary about film and fashion and how they feed off of one another.  In it, there is talk of how the sales of men's undershirts plummeted after a film as released where Clark Gable sits topless on a bed.  The manufacturers of men's undershirts went to Hollywood and begged them to put Clark Gable back in an undershirt - which they did, and sales went back up.

So, maybe I just want to bring awareness to all of those people out there in pop culture land to understand why it is you want to purchase a product, or look a certain way, or dress a certain way.  Is it because that is who you are, or is it because you are trying to be someone else?  (Not that we are in as extreme of a situation as the events of "Josie and the Pussycats", however.)