Saturday, September 12, 2009

Goodbye, Snickers

A week ago, my sister's cat Snickers was put to sleep after a short but brutal bout with liver cancer. My sister wrote a beautiful blog remembering Snickers, and I will add nothing to it other than this. I adored that cat. He was the pet that made me love pets.

I will miss Snickers almost as much as my sister will.

What Kind of Day Has It Been

I was sleeping. I was awakened to a loud banging at my door. God, the banging.

Usually, in my sophomore year in college, if someone was banging on my dorm room door, it was to irritate me. This time was different. I didn't wake up irritated. I woke up instinctively cringing. Something was wrong.

Joe was the one who knocked at the door. He yelled something unintelligible. I heard the words "crash" and "New York City", though. My first thought was, "Why would I care?" Not one of my proudest memories, obviously.

I woke up groggily. I honestly don't remember if my roommate was in the room. I think he was. I just knew that something was wrong. The banging didn't make sense. It wasn't persistent; it was urgent. I had to go to someone's room and find out what was going on. While preparing to get ready for the day, I could hear footsteps and loud voices up and down the hallway. People were getting up and scrambling to a friend's room.

It was Keenan's room. I was still dressed in my sleep clothes. My glasses were crooked, and my eyes couldn't focus. I remember stumbling into his room asking, "What's going on?" "SHHH!" Then I saw it.

I saw a clip of a plane flying into a building. Was it an accident? Where was that? Was it a movie clip? What am I seeing? I could hear the anchormen talking, but I couldn't comprehend their words. I just kept watching the same clip, over and over. And finally, something clicked with me. The other building had smoke coming from it, too. It was not an accident.

I believe that humans can instinctively predict or assess danger. There are many times when we are uncertain of danger, but we are never wrong when we are certain there is danger. When I woke up, I already knew something was wrong. I was right, but I clearly did not gauge the magnitude of it.

Bits of news came flooding out of the television. The Pentagon was hit. A plane crashed in Pennsylvania. The first tower was expected to fall. And then I saw it. Live. It was the most horrifying sight of my life. It was on television, but it was not a movie.

I remember looking at the CNN webpage frequently that day. The whole page was covered by a brutally ugly photograph of the carnage. I remember reading e-mails. Classes were not canceled, but attendance wasn't required. I had to go. I had to look away from the television. I had to learn something, anything, to keep my mind off the crushing reality.

I didn't think I could become angrier that day, but after an hour and fifteen minutes of hearing honor students somehow, mere hours after the attacks, claim without an ounce of reservation that the attacks were a message, were a response to our actions, were somehow "necessary" in their eyes. Who the attackers were was pretty clear, even by that point. Who we were was altogether uncertain. And as I watched this scarringly unbearable conversation unfold in the room, I said nothing. I was now no longer angry but alone. In a few hours, my life and the universe around me were forever changed.

I went to geology class later that afternoon. The professor kept a strong face and ruefully continued lecture, as if nothing was going on. I kept looking around the class, everyone with eyes on their cell phones waiting for the latest news. He was speaking to an inattentive class, and he knew it. I happen to believe it was his way of coping. All I could do was take notes and keep a strong face until I made it back to my room.

As I walked back, I finally looked up to an empty sky. No sounds of planes, no leftover contrails. Nothing. It was actually even more devastating than the footage on television. No television cameras for this image. Only my own eyes, finally awake to the bitter reality. The attacks had finally reached me.

That night was full of walks, with friends who have come and gone in my lifetime. Everyone, it seemed, was outside. The pain of what was going on inside the rooms was too much for anyone to bear. Only fresh air amidst the murmurs of anguish could somehow rid my world, indeed everyone's, of what had happened. After discussing the day over and over, I walked back to my room in a daze. I knew the world would never be the same.

I looked up at the sky one more time, hoping to hear something far above. I only saw stars mysteriously not twinkling. Then, I saw a meteor falling, fading out, fully aware of its mortality. It was a crushing final moment during the worst of days.

Each year, we are forced to ponder the events of that day, the floodgate of memories unrelenting. All of the cliches are mentioned time and time again. "We will never forget! Freedom is not free! God bless America!"

Are these lines supposed to make me feel better? Are they supposed to show our resolve in the midst of catastrophe? Are they philosophical and human truths that somehow manifest themselves as coping words? For me, they are meaningless words, responding to a meaningless act, in an often meaningless world. Words are not enough for me to cope with the attacks. Time does not heal all wounds. I don't know what the salve is that will heal this wound, my wound. I still cannot watch the footage of the attacks. It nauseates me. It makes me cry. It makes me unbelievably sad.

I see a world so beautiful, so devastatingly phenomenal. I wonder. Why can't everyone else?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stories from the Road -- The Metro

I lived in Silver Spring, MD, in 2004, during an internship with the Meteorological Development Laboratory (MDL). Sadly, I've only lived in four places during my lifetime (Tekamah, NE; Norman, OK; Silver Spring, MD; Huntsville, AL), and easily my favorite was the DC area. So many people, so many places, so much food, precious little time. The year went by in a flash, and I cherish each moment I had during my temporary stay.

It took maybe a day for me to realize that the best way to travel in DC was by public transportation. New York City has "the Subway", Chicago has "the L", and Washington, DC, has "the Metro". I love all three of them, in different ways. I love the Subway for its attitude, the L for its ease, and the Metro for its silence.

The MDL is located on the "Red Line". The Red Line goes right into the district, so basically any use of the Metro I had during the year involved the Red Line. I remember the stained orange-brown floors, the uncomfortable seat cushions, the smell of the streets, and the grim looks on everyone's faces. Sounds terrible, I know, but the Metro is a symbol for city routine. Thousands of people enter and depart, typically on their way to and from work, to the hard lives they face at home. The Metro was a place for the people to take a breath and to think about what lies ahead. Hearing people talking on the Metro is rare. Even when people travel in groups, dialogue is at a minimum. All that is heard is the whir of the Metro speeding up and slowing down, and the "ding dong" of the automatic alert system notifying the passengers of an approaching stop.

When people take public transportation for the first time, one of the problems creating apprehension is the dirt and grime of city wear and tear. The orange and brown stains of the burnt siena floors are actually a symbol of pride, a necessary part of the Metro experience. Looking out the windows of the Red Line, you can see the hard life of low-income city life passing by. The rust on the cars, the crumbling rocks on the local shops and chains, the sticky grime growing on the apartment buildings, the cornucopia of graffiti, and the hard faces of people eking out survival the best way they can. Everyone walks fast, drives with one hand on the car horn, and keeps on going, even with shoe laces untied.

The Red Line eventually goes underground and under the Washington Mall. My first time at the Washington Mall was late in 2003, when my mother and I were finished checking out apartments in the area. We stopped right in the mall area, and walked up a long set of stairs to see a big empty blue sky above us. Soon, we could see the sights DC is known for. The Capitol Building sat right in front of us, with the Smithsonian's beautiful buildings lining the streets on either side. We saw people running in all kinds of wardrobes, others reprimanding their carefree children, still others conversing above the roar of police motorcycles and bus engines. It was an experience I will not forget.

Mom and I made this trip each time she visited during the year. We walked along the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial, up and down the Mall with the Washington Monument staring down at us wherever we went, through each of the Smithsonian museums, around the endlessly busy streets. We stood quietly for a long time at the Vietnam Memorial, walked slowly through the Korean Memorial, and looked for the "Nebraska" at the World War II Memorial.

Each time, we would take the Red Line to get there, and each time Mom would comment on how simple it was to reach such a destination. The simplicity is even more amazing given the complexities of the views, the suburbs, the inner city, and the people. So many lives of varying difficulty would come aboard the Metro, and take in the sound of that high-pitched breeze the train would make as it accelerated and decelerated to the next stop. Taking the Metro was one of the most memorable parts of these trips, despite the sights that awaited us each time.

Life is hard, and city life can be particularly so. The constant noise of cars, people, and business seemingly drown out the sanity of silence. The Metro was one way to put on the ear plugs. The grim looks on the people's faces were not negative. They were focused, intensely so, on a transitional serenity. The relative calm of the train as it took a person from one noise to another. The people's grim faces were not about the present, but instead its unfortunate brevity, for which they could simply sit and wait. The "ding dong" would be coming soon enough.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wham, Bam, No Thank You Spam

The following was inspired by a series of events on Facebook yesterday that has finally put me "over the edge" on the issue of free marketing on social networks...

There is a growing epidemic on Facebook that is following a path already traversed by yesteryear's e-mail. Spam is beginning to show up, in multiple ways, on the Facebook news feed. This spam consists of several variations, of which I will specifically discuss two.

The first is "application spam". When a user downloads an application, be it "Mafia Wars", "What State Are You?", or "Grow a Facebook Garden", typically the application seeks information from your wall. Usually, the user is warned of this beforehand. Of course, the obvious question is why. Why would an application need to know your e-mail address, AIM username, education, favorite quotes, and personal biography? The answers are many, and most of them are not desirable. Phishing is a common problem ailing Facebook these days. Only recently, Facebook has gone on the defensive, with several public announcements showing the social network's resolve to find and evict such undesirable behavior.

What does this undesirable behavior include? Well, some applications have an "option" to suggest the application to friends of the user. (Note, by the way, the difficulty in finding the "Skip" button for these pop-ups.) Phishing applications will then use this information to post "advertisements" on the walls, many of which are completely false, or at the very least misleading. These advertisements appear on the walls of the selected friends as well, whether they have accepted the application or not.

A corollary of the phishing wall post is the inundation of application e-mails. An example was the "SpeedDate" application, which notified a user via e-mail and Facebook notification daily or multiple times daily of interested users, almost always being rather skullduggerous in nature (in terms of the people interested or the links provided). This application was recently removed by Facebook for its "fishy" ("phishy?") activities.

A second corollary is the inundation of "news feeds" regarding use of applications by particular users. Personally, I couldn't care less which state you would most likely be happy in, or how your character is doing in a Dungeons and Dragons rip-off, or how many fish are growing in your e-quarium. But the application news feeds are trying to obtain more users. Why? The applications are free to use (mostly). Why would the applications care if more users became members? Certainly, there is money at work here. If some users like the application so well, they may want to check out the website or company responsible for it. And so on. Application "news feeds" are quickly approaching textbook spam.

A separate form of spam occurring on Facebook news feeds is personal free advertising. When a person creates a product and recommends buying that product using the Facebook news feed, they are advertising to their friends in "bulk manner". This is textbook spam, except maybe for one caveat. The caveat is that you personally select the news feeds of other users. E-mail spam is purely unsolicited. The user does not sign up for the bulk e-mails and has no way of removing his/her name from the e-mail list other than by blocking the user. This is not true with the Facebook news feeds.

However, this does not preclude the free advertising found on news feeds from being categorized as spam. How many people have experienced the "obsessive forwarder"? A rather annoying problem in the e-mail world, when a person forwards e-mail after e-mail, often with the phrase "You will die today if you do not immediately send this to ten of your friends" or something similar. Often, the forward contains a list of bad jokes, political propaganda, or blatantly false computer information. Though this forwarding may not qualify as the textbook definition of spam, it is definitely in the spirit of unsolicited bulk e-mail. Not many people seek out ten forwards a day of things spread like a virus throughout the interwebs, purposefully misinforming them or failing to entertain them.

Along the same vein, the Facebook free advertising in news feeds is quickly becoming the "obsessive forwarding" that plagued the e-mail world 5-10 years ago. A person informing others of the work they are doing, the products they are making, or the services they are providing is not spamming. A person seeking out their friends to buy their products, for free, using the Facebook news feed, in which the list of users cannot control the feed without explicitly removing them from that list, is spamming his or her users. It is the same as receiving a mass e-mail from a friend in their e-mail address book, in which that friend asks the recipients to buy their products. This is not what the e-mail list, or Facebook list, of "friends" ask for when they sign up to be included in these lists.

Fortunately, Facebook allows for two alternatives, one of which is costly and one of which is not. You can advertise on Facebook, for a charge. Or, you can sign up as a user of a company, organization, or corporation. This allows users to become fans of the relevant user, in which they can sign up for the news feed of that company, organization, or corporation. In essence, this is solicited bulk e-mail, which is not spam. A fairly simple solution to a fairly annoying problem.

Spam is an unwanted inevitability of social networks. However, just because your friends are doing it does not disqualify it as to what it is. Unsolicited bulk messages that solicit its recipients is spam, no matter what genre of interwebs you are using. A "social network" or not, spam is spam. And if we allow spam to percolate further into the depths of whatever we are using on the interwebs, the "news feeds" will defeat their own purpose of informing users of what they actually want to know.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Indoctrination: An Actual Example

Another day, another "racist undertone, McCarthy-style scare tactic" spun by the far right (or the far out, depending on your perception). Obama is indoctrinating children by ... talking to them! AHHHH!

And, as expected by sane people, the speech was as politically "neutral" as humanly possible. Strangely, there were a lot of "indoctrinating" topics, such as individualism, working harder no matter the circumstances, and learning about math and science. Scary.

The obvious retorts to these outlandish and malicious fear-mongering tactics have been convincingly documented elsewhere. However, I thought I'd give one example of actual child indoctrination that few have considered but many if not most already are familiar with.

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I was first asked to recite this in kindergarten. How many 5-year-old children do you know are fully capable of understanding that passage? Vocabulary rarely includes the word "indivisible" that early, and concepts of liberty and justice are maybe only beginning to develop at this stage.

According to the United States Flag Code:

The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.", should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute."

You can imagine, or remember, day after day kids with their hands to their hearts reciting words they may or may not understand in unison. I've seen videos of cult members in awfully similar circumstances.

By the end of first grade, I began to think of the "ritual" as creepy. Soon, I began to refuse to recite the words, even though I made sure not to be noticed. By the end of elementary school, I was fully aware of the vocabulary and still refused to recite based on principle. It is something I have refused to take part in in every situation I have encountered since that time.

My problems with the text, or meaning, are minimal. Obviously, the "under God" addition is bothersome, and I believe a violation of the US Constitution. However, if people can comprehend its meaning and are willing to participate in its recitation, so be it. Requirements of its inclusion in schools is where I draw the line. Children in unison forced to recite words they may not understand or may disagree with -- that's indoctrination.

Tomorrow: Inspired by numerous events today on Facebook, I'll have an entry about "spam" infiltrating "social networks".