Saturday, July 21, 2007

More About Stuff

Nothing makes you more cognizant of the amount of Stuff that you have in your life than moving it all from one place to another. Depending on how you lay out and organize your place, the vast majority of your Stuff can be hidden from view at any given time. But when you have to pack at all up and ready it to be shifted, you come face to face with all of it, and then you can realize just how much of it there is. But it can also drive home the point that it's just... Stuff. It's nice to have, or it's fun to play with, or it's useful in one degree or another, but it's just stuff, and at that particular moment, it's all a royal pain in the posterior.

I was once asked the question: "What are five things that you can't live without?" I like to think that I don't have anything that I couldn't do without - after all, you don't really own the Stuff that you can't live without - it owns you - and defines you, more or less. But, if I had to take it on the lam, and could only keep five things, they'd be: my digital camera, my laptop, my bicycle, my stuffed Cat Bandit and my Renaissance Pimp Hat. To be honest, my digital camera really isn't "one" thing. I'd need my speedlights, and my tripods, et cetera. But I suppose that if you defined it as "everything that fits in the camera bag," then it could be one thing (although not having my large tripods would be a pain). But I've always wondered what it would be like to just drop everything but the five items on the list, and clothes on my back. Having to take the time to pack everything else into innumerable boxes makes that really tempting.

Maybe one day, I'll give it a shot...

Monday, July 16, 2007

Is Trek Still Connected?

Back in mid-2005, an article in the Los Angeles Times sparked a minor controversy when it brought to light a bizarre correlation: that a number of the men busted by the Child Exploitation Section of the Toronto police Sex Crimes Unit were clearly Star Trek fans. Blogger Ernest Miller picked up the story, and thinking such a strong correlation unlikely, he began to look into it. In the meantime, Canadian publication Maclean's picked up on the story, and used "The Star Trek Connection" as a hook to discuss the work of the CES in general, and the dearth of information about pedophiles. The story found its way into the rest of the Blogosphere, finding a home on BoingBoing and the Huffington Post where Ellen Ladowsky served up an analysis of the sexuality (and lack thereof) in the original Trek, seeking an explanation of the correlation.

"We always say there are two types of pedophiles: Star Trek and Star Wars. But it's mostly Star Trek."
Detective Ian Lamond, Child Exploitation Section, Toronto Sex Crimes Unit.
But that was then. Where is this now? By the end of 2005, this was yet another burnt offering on the altar of Old News. This wasn't what you would call a major news story - it had that "news of the weird" vibe that made it an entertaining curiosity, and that was really about all that it ever had going for it. That, more than anything else, is likely the reason why we haven't heard much about it once the initial burst of interest faded. But I am very curious as to where this story has gone. Not that I think that Star Trek fans should be rounded up en masse and brain-scanned or anything, but "The Star Trek Connection," despite the somewhat misleading title (but that's another soapbox), makes a very good point - there is a lot that we don't know about pedophiles and child molesters. Therefore, you'd think that if there really is a reasonably strong correlation between certain types of science fiction fans and pedophilia, that the connection would be worth really looking in to. There are really only two stories that anyone seems to know about that deal with this - the original L.A. Times piece and the article in MacLean's, and they both deal with the Toronto findings. Most of the other coverage of this is from I'm curious to find out if any other police departments have found this same correlation. There are enough big cities that have sex crimes units that it should be fairly simple to find out if child molesters in Portland, Oregon, Glasgow, Scotland, or even Los Angeles, California have the same sort of predilection. I'd be surprised to find that it was limited to Toronto, so I wonder if anyone else has looked into this, and what they found. It would be interesting to know.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sign Here

It's a safe bet that if an everyday member of the public enters into any sort of contract with a company, especially a major corporation, that contract is going to state that in entering into said contract, the average citizen agrees that they give up a number of their legal rights, while the corporation obtains or retains a number of legal rights, sometimes even in the case of gross negligence or sometimes even deliberate wrongdoing on the part of said corporation. These agreements are so plainly lopsided that corporations rarely, if ever, allow themselves to get the short end of the stick when dealing with other corporate entities, and we as the public question the judgment of people who enter into such agreements with other private citizens. So, why do we enter into contracts with companies and corporations that contain clauses that would clearly screw us over if they ever went into effect?

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not an idiot, so I understand a number of the reasons that people would give for allowing themselves to be bent over a barrel this way. I'm asking more from a chicken-and-egg standpoint. What started this trend, and allowed it to gain so much momentum that it now seems unstoppable? And what would it take to reverse it?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Snitchin'

Today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a story dealing with the dead-end investigation into the shooting death of Tajahnique Lee, killed when a stray bullet struck her in the face. Despite the fact that she seems to have been in a small crowd of approximately a score of her neighbors, everyone claims to have seen nothing that would help law enforcement secure a conviction, and so the case faltered, and two gang members who were arrested in connection with the shooting were eventually released. While the words "Stop snitching" never appear in the peice, which was reprinted from the New York Times, judging from the P-I's URL for the story, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/322930_snitch09.html, it seems that it was on someone's mind. I come to this conclusion because we don't routinely refer to everyday witnesses to crimes as "snitches" if they give statements to the police, or testify in court. We call them, well, "witnesses." So seeing "snitch" in the URL stood out for me, and prompted me thinking.

The Stop snitching campaign is a complex social phenomenon within the black community; supporters, researchers and detractors alike all list a number of reasons that are given for people to refuse to cooperate with the police, even if they themselves are the victims of a crime. Some are reminiscent of Omertà, the south Italian idea that it is contemptible to rely on or work with the authorities. Others are pragmatic - why risk yourself by crossing people who are perfectly willing to murder you if you do, if you have no protection? Some are tied up in what is essentially a call for official accountability - don't testify against your own people until the police and other authorities are willing to do the same. There's even the idea that it refers solely to the more common understanding of snitching, where criminals or suspects point the finger at others to get better deals for themselves.

And like many complex ideas, the Stop snitching campaign runs the risk of being boiled down to a single, easy to digest concept, providing a convenient rationale for any instance of potential witnesses to crimes in black neighborhoods declining to speak out or cooperate with authorities when black perpetrators are involved. Outside of the potential to create or perpetuate negative stereotypes, the overbroad application of Stop snitching tends to reinforce the idea that disparate minority communities are parts of singular monocultures, thinking and acting in lockstep from coast to coast; with individual leaders that all members follow, and universal concepts and attitudes that everyone subscribes to.

Given the number of people whose only frame of reference for people of other communities is the media establishment, it's imperative that the news media, which is intended to deal in facts, not allow itself to become sloppy in this manner. If a democracy (or republic, or what have you) really relies on an informed populace for its survival, it's a matter of national survival. But hysterics aside, it's a necessity for unity. Portraying entire groups of people as monolithic "others" isn't the least bit helpful in building the sort of single national community that makes a nation durable. That's something that we've never had in this nation, and when you look at the longevity of more unified cultures and nations, it's hard to deny that it comes in handy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Isn't That Special

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies
In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this famous sentence from the Declaration of Independence is that it's become pretty clear that this particular truth ISN'T self-evident - (even leaving aside the question of whether men have a "Creator" or not) it flies in the face of much of human behavior and history. Since pretty much the dawn of societies, people, as individuals and/or in groups, have yearned to be decidedly UNequal, through the use of the label "special."
Special (adjective)
1. Exceptional or out of the ordinary
2. Worthy of more or better privileges than others; not subject to the same rules and restrictions
3. Worthy or deserving of more love, approval or consideration than others
4. Physically, mentally or socially handicapped
I list some of the connotations of "Special" because whenever the topic of the various "isms" comes up in discussion, this is what's really on everyone's minds. At its base, fill-in-the-blank-ism is about defining one or more groups as being Special, in either its positive or negative connotations, based on their skin color, religion (or lack thereof), ethnic background, sexual orientation, birth caste/social rank. Apply the first or the last connotations to whomever you want, in any order you choose - as long as it means that you make a legitimate claim to 2 or 3 for you and/or people you like, then it's worthwhile.

And the real issue that many of us have with one group or another being Special is that it doesn't take much to be an astute enough student of history to realize that "Special" often means "abusive" or "abused." History is rife with examples. But perhaps more importantly, in the context of history, no-one ever sees themselves as being abusive or evil, or their targets as being undeserving of their fates. Hardcore war criminals don't run around sporting smart black capes and Snively Whiplash mustaches. Nor do they consult the "Big Book of How to Do Evil," that they bought on Amazon when they need ideas. At the time of the acts, and in the vast majority of cases, for decades after the fact, they see their actions as perfectly justified. "Well of course it would be a major atrocity were someone to just go into a community and kill a number of people," they would tell you, "But this circumstance when WE did it? Well, that was SPECIAL."

As a result, there is a certain level of fear, in both liberal and conservative circles, of people finding a "legitimate" means of making themselves or someone else Special - usually at someone's direct expense. This can lead to a certain level of aggressive egalitarianism. But it can also lead to a race to the top, wherein several groups compete to be the most special, the most deserving.

For my part, I don't believe that any one group is more worthy or deserving than any other group. Under any circumstances. Regardless of history or social standing. Notwithstanding admittedly exceptional individuals within that group or their achievements. And I realize that this is going to put me at odds with certain people some of the time, and a small slice of people all of the time.

Whether or not racist, sexist, jingoist (et cetera) ideas are based at all in reality is beside the point. That really shouldn't matter. If we remember to treat that one simple truth from the Declaration as, self-evident or not, important enough to teach to our children (nieces, nephews, students and/or any other young people one can catch), aggressively work for, and maybe even to fight for, then it won't matter. If we decide that we're all together in taking exception to "Special," we won't need to fear lame justifications any more.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Can't Buy Me Love

$100 million. Estimated amount that Gap, Apple and Motorola have spent on marketing the RED Campaign, launched a year ago to benefit the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria
$18 million. Amount the RED Campaign has raised worldwide
"Numbers" Time Magazine 19 March, 2007
One suspects that everyone involved would have been better off if Gap, Apple and Motorola had simply given the Global Fund $82 million, and then spent $18 million taking out advertisements to tell people how generous they were. Perhaps people in other countries are more familiar with the RED Campaign than I am. I seem to recall having heard of it, but I don't think that I could have connected it to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria if money rested on the answer. I most certainly don't recall Gap, Apple and Motorola being associated with the Fund. I don't remember these three companies spending last year waving their arms in the air, and shouting "Hey! Look at me and how supportive of disease control and prevention I'm being!" Perhaps, the cynical view of this is incorrect, and I wasn't meant to.

It could be that in today's media environment that last year's global health crises is as much ancient history as the Black Plague, and I've simply forgotten the posturing. Or, it could be that they invested heavily in media that I don't spend much time with, or in foreign markets that I'm not plugged in to. Or it could be that they honestly miscalculated the return that the Global Fund would realize on the investment. Yeah, yeah, I know. But here's hoping.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Activist Little

One day, my father and I were talking health, and through a circuitous rhetorical path, found ourselves on the topic of AIDS. Now, my father is a fairly conservative person, so as soon as the topic breached the surface, I was preparing myself for a tirade about how AIDS was a punishment for bad behavior, preparing my counter-arguments, and bracing for one of the famous blow-ups that occur whenever my father and I talk for more than an hour.

My father made a simple point: AIDS is not as much of a threat to people who don't engage in gay sex or IV drug use as AIDS activists, through the media, lead us to believe. These activists, he continued, were promoting numbers that they knew to be false. I was ready to pounce when he took me off guard by saying that such deceit was more than forgivable - it was required. Most people, he explained, didn't give a rip about AIDS. After all, add up all the gays and IV drug users in the country, and you don't even get close to a majority. But AIDS was so serious a disease, something so demanding that action be taken, that you couldn't afford to have it ignored by people who felt that it didn't matter to them. So they had to be convinced that it WAS a threat to THEM, so that they would feel compelled to press lawmakers for more funding for research, and pressure drugmakers for more effective therapies.

Once I got over being thunderstruck concerning his attitude towards AIDS, I was able to digest his opinions about activists. Now, nearly a decade later, I've come to realize that many people look at activists that way. To the average person on the street, I've come to believe, activists place their calls to action before the truth. If it takes people believing that there are a million people a year dying of AIDS in the United States to get the public to act, goes the logic, you can bet that the activist community will make sure that SOMEONE says that a million Americans a year are dying of AIDS. If it's true, wonderful, if not - well, that can't be allowed to stand in the way of a perfectly good call to action.

This widespread belief - that activists view motivating people to act as being infinitely more important that having them understand the truth - is perhaps the single biggest handicap that activists have. Because to non-activists, everything that an activist (real or perceived) says is now suspect. Once people come to suspect someone of activism on an issue, a certain level of credibility is lost.

As I've grown older, I've come the believe that this effect points to a damning habit of ours, as a public - the willingness to ignore problems that we think of as "small," or as afflicting someone else, or as not having a high enough ROI when fixed. We've become focussed inwards, and willing to overlook things, for fear of rocking the boat. Only when there's a crisis do people feel a need to act. Note the President's rhetoric concerning Social Security reform a couple of years back; you'd have through that he was talking about a looming worldwide catastrophe. But he knows that the threat of disaster is more convincing than a simple appeal to something better.

Perhaps we need to shake off a lethargy, an attachment to a status quo, and become more active, more motivated by issues before they become looming disasters. Were we less inclined to dismiss "the small stuff," perhaps we wouldn't feel that we were always being told the sky is falling...