Monday, October 31, 2011

In Support of the Occupy Movement

I wholeheartedly support the Occupy Wall St (OWS) movement. I've been highly vocal in my support, and with that presence comes the obvious question: "then, what is it about?" We all know how it started - a bunch of disenfranchised wanted to "bellow" at the wealthy. Not because the "1%" have money, it is deeper than that and I would accuse anyone of trivializing OWS of deliberate reductionism much in the same way people use a straw man in a debate.

But I can appreciate that some people don't "get it." The objectives, as OWS grew and eventually went on to become a global phenomenon, were never plainly laid out for the passive observer. Such is the nature of emergent and organic cultures, and that is exactly what this is. What it is not is a collection of easily-defined stereotypes that want what other people have, who think that the rich, simply by virtue of having money, should give some, or much, of that to those who don’t. To the layman, and by layman I mean the person who has no vested emotional interest in OWS one way or the other, this protest just started. The truth is, the catalyst started somewhere around 2008 when banks went out of business, were bought by the Fed or propped up with tax payer dollars after having been infamously described as “too big to fail.”

I had always wondered why, for so long, people spat their vitriol at the "one percent" (though I do recall a time when the percentage was spoken as 5%) and the corruption of government and it's rotating-door with big business. By so long, I mean I've been hearing this since at least the early 90's, and only then because I had begun to listen. Reaganomics wasn't winning many hearts either, as I understand it. So here we are, people have coalesced into something, but it's messy and it's not clear what they point is beyond a reaction to recent economic downturn, huge bank bailouts and a lack of oversight and accountability from the federal institutions in which we have placed our trust.

Well here's the purpose I assign to it: it's a start. More than that, it's people getting up and getting mad. Sure, millions of people haven't suddenly gotten up and stopped watching Jersey Shore so that they could go outside and shake their fist to the heavens, but it's a start. The OWS movement, and all its satellite movements, will all eventually go away in some form or another. But a movement which has sparked unified protests by people all around the world is not something I don't think I've ever heard of.

Sure, people have made a show of solidarity during times like the protests at Tienanmen Square, but it was never a template to start a protest in your hometown, even if your hometown isn't a hotbed of capitalism. Whether it fizzles or explodes (and that is a concern, despite the best efforts of protest organizers to reinforce the importance of peaceful protest), OWS will hope be the catalyst that can be seen in other movements or ideas moving forward. I mean, outside of a singular voice of what OWS is, what it's achieving, whether deliberate or not, is starting a conversation - and that can be very powerful.

I have to admit that this is largely my interpretation of these events imbued with my own hopes of a positive change. And hearing about the lynching on Facebook is disappointing, because it reminds me of how often and easily we sacrifice reason to passion and instinct; how we will fight tooth and nail to prove ourselves right, even if we're wrong, because, for some of us, changing our outlook is akin to an existential crisis. And OWS NEEDS criticism and combative adversaries in order to develop that thick skin that is required to survive, not only scrutiny but the movement itself - as OWS attempts to define itself it risks fragmentation and disintegration if it cannot establish an identity with intent.

Already I've seen Occupy protesters, even here in Philly, start rallying people to start protesting in other locations for different reasons that only serve to further muddy the already fuzzy message of the Occupy movement. Here’s the dichotomy as I see it with the OWS message. The first part is that it has thus far refused to distill the message down to bumper sticker one liners, choosing instead to start a conversation. The other side is that there is a mission to raise awareness, or perhaps ire, over the incestuous partnerships that exist between government and business. OWS doesn’t want mantras, it wants sincere consideration and a list of demands won’t work: while the overarching message is accountability and responsibility, there exist so many nuances in the quagmire of concerns that one person or groups definition may alienate others. This is a time for unity, not semantic disparity.

Where does the movement go from here? It’s getting cold and there are news reports daily of unnecessary police brutality, calls for blankets, food and water. For all the support I and others give to the OWS protesters, what can be accomplished? First, in many of the conflicts with law enforcement, you’ll hear calls to remain peaceful. These are not angry mobs, although they may be upset, they’re civil and exercising their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. It seems unreasonable to expect some kind of shift in the way commerce happens here in the U.S., but OWS has been using its power of disruption positively by raising awareness of the issues, and encouraging people to boycott businesses, switch banks, do what they can to make it know that if 99% of the people change the way they do business, or 60% or even 30%, it’s a shift toward change. Ultimately, this is just as much a call to motivate people to get off their asses and do something as it is a protest of corporate and government corruption.

I’ve long said that we get the government we deserve. We’ve been a society in absentia, preoccupied with instant gratification while ignoring those who we allowed to run our country and economy into the ground. Occupy Wall St is a call to wake up, to think about what is happening to us and to come together collectively, as a civilized society, and decide our own fate.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Steve, from the laundromat

I made a mistake not too long ago. I gave my number to a guy I met at the laundromat.

I haul my laundry bag into the facility and typically keep to myself, as does everyone else. and read my nook. I walk past a chubby Latino with a neckbeard, emphatically discussing technology with a less-than-enthused girl folding her clothes. I load the self-service machines, slotting coins and then sit down to get some reading done. Uninterested Girl now leaves the building and Neckbeard finds his way over to me, inquiring about my iPad. I tell him what it is, and he gives it the pseudo-recognition: "Ohh, yeah, yeah. Right, I heard of that." I get the sense that I have now taken up the mantle of Uninterested Guy now that Girl has left, and I will not be left alone to read. I am not. What I did get was this guy's life story, which I believe was about ninety per cent fabrication. His name is Steve. He told me he is a programmer, and replied "Spanish and English" when I asked him what languages he programmed in. Ultimately it was harmless conversation from a harmless guy who simply interrupted my reading. No big deal. He leaves and soon after, I leave.

A couple of Thursdays later I'm back at the laundromat and there is Steve, having captured another too-polite-to-say-fuck-off launderer, and he's chatting away with the same inexhaustible energy as before. He sees me and leaves the first patron to engage me, his new laundromat friend. He catches me up to the recent events in his life, tall tales of Atlantic City, police, and entrepreneurial betrayals. It's a stream of consciousness story that I can tell he makes up as he goes along because of the little details, such as the fluctuating number of kids he has (Steve is, I'd say, in his early twenties) and that he can't make up his mind whether to refer to his sig-other as girlfriend or wife. These things happen.

He asks to exchange numbers because, well, I don't know why. And I also don't know why I didn't say "No." I guess I thought it would be rather defensive to tell him that I don't know him and it is inappropriate, particularly since I didn't actually believe he was ever going to call me. But he has, several times in fact, at various times of the day, including 1am. I ignored them all but once. Today he called me while I'm at work, and I figured I'd see what he wanted. Turns out, he wants to coordinate laundry times so we can do our laundry together. Repeat that last sentence, only imagine Chet from Weird Science saying it. He asked me if I was at home, which I find really odd I guess, although it's really an innocuous question, since I'm not worried about a home invasion. It is stalker-like though. I'm sure he doesn't know where I live, although statements like that are inevitably followed up with questions such as "Are you sure he doesn't know?" To be honest, no I am not sure.

I've included two of the voicemails, which aren't all that interesting, but I have them nonetheless.

10/2/10 10:55 PM

10/10/10 8:19 PM

Friday, October 23, 2009

Electronic Books

Technology to read books has been around for a long time, mostly for reading books in some kind of friendly format on a computer. When Amazon released its various iterations of its eBook reader, the Kindle, it initiated a conversation about books beyond the paperback and PC. And the Kindle has been successful in doing for literature what mp3's did for music. Entire libraries can be digitized and stored and a reasonably small device. It's convenient and practical, if not cheap (still in the early phases of this particular type of technology). I figured I'd wait until a better looking, cheaper eBook reader with a touchscreen came out. It still makes me laugh that whenever we have new interactive hardware, the screens are some kind of ugly binary of gray/black, green/black, green/gray (from old Gameboys and PDAs to original iPods and now Kindle).

Barnes & Noble are releasing their Android-powered eBook, the Nook. Dual touchscreen interface (one using that ugly two-tone e-ink) and another interface, in color, utilizing the Android OS for menu control. Still not cheap with a 259 dollar price tag, but it's the early adopters' cross to bear.

I wasn't initially warm to the idea of a battery-powered device that would cost me the equivalent of approximately 43 actual books (softback, $6 each), not including taxes and actually buying books for the device. B&N asserts that there are thousands of books that are free of charge, but I've learned that if someone is giving something away for free, it's because its value is equivalent to roughly zero. But I've been giving it some thought, particularly since I'm moving into a new place soon, and I would be nice if instead of boxes of books, I had one book-sized device to carry. I'm certainly not moving hundreds of CDs with me, as my music collection is almost entirely digital. Why not books? I do enjoy, as it has been stated by many, the tactile experience of holding a real book. But it's irrelevant to the task, because all I really want to do is immerse myself in the story or information and be as comfortable as possible.

Convenience is a big deal for me. I enjoy perusing a book store while I'm there looking for what I actually want, as it's easily my primary method of discovering new books. But I also get out to books stores (more specifically, Barnes & Noble) less frequently because I have less time and less desire to navigate the traffic. An internet-enabled eBook reader affords me the luxury of getting the book I'd like to read the moment I want to read it, provided it's available. And there's no rule stating that I'm henceforth prohibited from physical book stores, should I feel inclined, post-acquisition of an eBook reader.

The price is steep and I can't imagine the price will go down with the first six months, but I'm considering the cost/value of owning the Nook, and with native PDF support I'll already have a healthy cache of books to read before I even begin considering what I'm willing to pay for an electronic book