Friday, June 30, 2006

pining for summer

It's the last day of June, but this morning it was all I could do to refrain from turning the thermostat dial up to 70. Yep. I would've turned on the heat if my conscience had let me. Instead I layered a black sweatshirt over my t-shirt and black sweatpants. This bit of accessorizing had the happy side-effect of making me look like a small disheveled ninja warrior with severe bedhead. Or so I was tactlessly told.

San Francisco has no summer.

I'm not wearing this black sweatshirt as a fashion statement, buddy. I'm no ninja. It's cold. And damp. And there's the morale-crushing weight of a summer fog hanging over the city.

Did anyone mention to the powers-that-be that it's almost July? My patriotism will be stifled if I can't wear flip-flops while I'm setting off my Safe 'n' Sane Fireworks on the 4th.

I don't bring up this business about the unseasonal cold and damp to just anyone. It's something I don't like to do, because every fool feels that it's necessary to quote Mark Twain. Or misquote Mark Twain. Or misquote what they think to be Mark Twain. They always do it with a sly smile, as if they're the first one who thought to sagely quote that bit of wit and wisdom.

Unfortunately they usually stumble over some part of it: "The coldest summer -- I mean, the coldest winter -- uh, no. I mean, the coldest SUMMER -- oh, you know what I mean. The thing Mark Twain said. You know."

I do know. That's why I don't mention the cold. I just don't want to hear it. Perhaps it's obligatory. Maybe there's some rule I don't know.

If I do the standard journalistic trick of googling for "Mark Twain" "San Francisco" quote, I get more than 326 THOUSAND hits, most with variations of that damned quote, and many with earnest travel-writerly advice to Bring a Sweater. It'll be colder than you imagined. Wear your galoshes. Wear your motherfucking down parka! And your earmuffs! Mucklucks too. In case there's a freak snowstorm. Bring an ice axe!

According to the authoritative, the quote is reputed to be, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." And according to Snopes, which I've always found to be reliable, Mark Twain never said nor wrote this.

If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Say that instead. It's just as trite, but admirably inappropriate and loony. The Summer of Love was 40 years ago. The summer cold kept the flowers fresh and unwilted, I'd imagine.
So I don't complain about the lack of summer very often. Except when I'm talking to myself. Because I know better than to say that bit about the coldest winter. I know that I'd slap myself silly if I did.

But last night I felt it -- the summertime chill -- acutely. My flight landed at SFO at about 10pm. I scuttled away from my detested fellow travelers and ran up five flights of stairs in the parking garage to avoid even the distant possibility I'd get trapped in an elevator with any of them and their bloated rollerboards and sticky squalling offspring. And burst out into the summer night.

It was fucking freezing. The cold wind even made my eyes water, as if it were a brisk day in late fall and I was on my way to the homecoming game. To quarterback the team to victory! Yes, I can feel it in the cold air. The rustling of blue-and-gold pom-poms. The cheering crowds. First and ten and do it again! First and ten and do it again!

See: the unexpected chill has brought on actual delusions. It's plain old cold. Not inspiring. Not brisk. Cold.

Damn it! It's late June. Even Redmond, where I'd been during the day, had been warm. I'd felt a pleasant sense of lassitude as I wandered back from a meeting through my company's verdant corporate campus. It's a beautiful corporate campus; I can't even say anything nasty about it. Even about the use of the word "campus." I can't bring myself to do it. I'm used to a setup that's more building-building-building-parking lot-building. Maybe a marked-off place for emergency evacuations. But mostly buildings and parking lots and perhaps some HVAC apparatus in a chain-link enclosure. Like those architectural temptresses R6 and M5. Or the beguiling Building 1. Or even the lovely and talented SVC-4. Oh, maybe there's a weathered old picnic table somewhere, covered with bird shit and globs of mostly dried catsup. But nothing like this.

This corporate campus has what amounts to well-groomed hiking trails with pine needles crunching underfoot and lush expanses of grass tempting you to nap in the sun. Or at least, to bring some reading outside. It's very nice.

"Do they spray Chemlawn on the grass here?" I asked one of my colleagues.

It was warm enough that I was really tempted to sprawl on the grass. And who knows -- once you're that comfortable, soaking in the afternoon sun, maybe a primordial urge to graze will come upon you. To graze and ruminate. In the warm summer sun. Thus I needed to know about the Chemlawn.

"Chemlawn? No. I don't think so," he said.

I wouldn't be thinking about Chemlawn here in San Francisco. Because it's too cold to be ruminating. I'd be shivering and thinking about going inside. I'd be able to retain my cynicism about corporate campuses.

Not far from my building in Redmond there's a small pond. Koi circle in the just-right murkiness. A few geese wander on the shore. There aren't enough of them to be a menace, just a few. Clusters of nerds migrate from Building 4 to Building 9. And it's warm. Winter's over. I'm tempted to take off my shoes.

But now I'm back in San Francisco. Oh sure, there'll be a few hot days in September, days that'll remind you that no-one bothers installing air conditioning in San Francisco. Days where the boys down in the Castro will be wearing their short-shorts and strutting their stuff. Nights where we'll open all the screenless windows and lie in the dark, serenaded by the endless whine of mosquitoes.

There aren't very many days like that. And because we don't have them, I miss them.

So until global warming takes hold, I'll be following my errant suitcase and going somewhere else -- anywhere else -- because IT'S WARMER.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

summer intern

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even my summer intern job. They’d offered the scientific programming internship to another girl, but she'd backed out at the last minute. The gods of aerospace neopotism had smiled upon her. Belatedly. But they'd smiled nonetheless and she got a better offer than this particular scientific programming internship. So Digital Command and Control was left with money in the budget and a reluctant 17-year-old intern understudy in the wings. Me.

"You can start Monday," they told me over the phone on Thursday. Their real intern hadn't shown up.

That other girl, the one favored by the gods of aerospace neopotism, must've gone to my orientation, because I didn't. No-one told me about the Summer Intern Orientation. I appeared on Monday promptly at 9:30am.

Almost 2 hours late.

Almost 2 hours late and an understudy to boot: I felt like the last donut in the box. A Friday afternoon donut. The one with congealed pink icing and sprinkles. The donut that's left when the coffee's turned to mud and the non-dairy creamer floats in it in little partially-hydrogenated islands. The donut that's still in the box when everyone's ready to head on over to Building M. M for Marguerita.

"I'm heading over to Building M," Kitty would say. If I looked over my shoulder into her office, she'd be reapplying her makeup. Friday afternoon. Building M. Digital Command and Control would soon be out of control.

Building M was the code word for a local restaurant that served giant Margueritas, endless bowls of tortilla chips, and vats of salsa. My co-workers would head there several times a week for lunch and sometimes after work too. Building M. I never went along. I’m not sure whether they didn’t invite me, or whether I had the great good sense to know that I couldn’t possibly pass for 21.

In fact, I seldom left Building R6 during the workday, even to take a turn around its soulmate, Building M5. R6 and M5. Aptly named buildings. (Every once in awhile, I harbor the disturbing thought that I've got them mixed up, M5 and R6. Then I harbor an even more disturbing thought that it matters which one was R6 and which one was M5. What if it's even worse than that? What if it's really R5 and M6? A girl could make herself crazy thinking about things like that!)

I hadn't thought about my summer intern job in the Digital Command and Control division for many years. But a college-aged friend was describing her lame summer intern job to me last night. How it'd almost be better to be a barrista at Starbuck's. How the summer was promising to be endless in a way that wasn't exactly Endless Summer.

It's a matter of perspective, really. It's why a certain infamous summer intern thought she was in the throes of an intense, passionate relationship with the POTUS and the POTUS thought he was picking low-hanging fruit, conveniently ripe and obscenely juicy. It's like that. You're a summer intern and nothing is particularly obvious to you, except that you're the Last Donut in the Box.

"Why did they hire me if there's nothing for me to do?"

But in my case, there was nominally something for me to do: write an algorithm to analyze LSI designs to find shortest-path connections between electronic components. I developed an algorithm that might've done that. It might've worked. It might've. But maybe it didn't. I had no idea what the designs I was supposed to analyze even looked like, nor what the real input data was. It was before you could simply google, download some Java code, and be done with it. By the end of the summer, I suspected no-one was very interested in my algorithm. I don't remember anyone asking me about the algorithm or the file on the CDC 6500 that contained the Fortran code. I might as well have written a book report on John Rechy's City of Night, the book I read while I ate my bologna sandwich at my desk. Every day. One piece of bologna. Two pieces of white bread. A yellow swath of French's. A Delicious apple. And a chapter or two of City of Night.

My boss Virgil wore disco bell bottoms and had his brown hair permed into a white-boy Afro. His divorce became final a few days into the Endless Summer. He flirted with the beautiful Pilar, our secretary. She was only four years older than me, but she was married and had a two-year-old son. Sometimes Virgil typed his own stuff, sitting at Pilar's IBM Selectric. He jabbed his index fingers at the keys until Pilar came back from lunch and rescued him. To this day, I can’t remember talking to him beyond my initial interview. He was suffering too. Everyone was suffering.

Surely I must’ve taken a whiz that summer. Perhaps not. No-one told me where the bathrooms were. Maybe I pissed in the corner behind the file cabinet. Nor did anyone let on where an intern could pour herself a cup of coffee; after all, if they showed me the coffee, certainly they’d have to point out the restrooms. I never found the vending machines either. The long windowless corridors with security posters -- "Don't let the cat out of the bag!" "Share your rides, not your secrets!" -- didn't invite exploration.

Digital Command and Control. What did that even mean? I didn't know at the time.

I spent a lot of time on the Harbor Freeway that summer, Rosecrans to South Arroyo Parkway at rush hour. I marked the days by looking for the fluorescent yellow tennis ball trapped in a grate where the Hollywood Freeway peeled off to the left. It was better than thinking about earthquakes, stopped there amid the giant overpasses and the other distracted commuters. What were they thinking about? Not the yellow tennis ball. That was mine. My tennis ball. I saw it first!

They called our work schedule flex time. It meant you could start anytime between 7:45 and 8:05am. And you could leave anytime between 4:45 and 5:05pm. But you couldn’t come in at 8:05am and leave at 4:45pm; it wasn’t that kind of Flex Time, where you could scrub 40 minutes per day off the time you spent in Building R6. 40 minutes x 5 days x 11 weeks. That'd be 2200 minutes less of Endless Summer! Then Flex Time would've been an actual benefit. But as it was, Flex Time was a cruel joke.

My housemates hated me. I parked my Opel station wagon on the scrubby brown lawn behind the house, under the persimmon tree. Where the birds could crap on it freely. The Opel was an inappropriate shade of orange, lighter orange than a persimmon, but oranger than a car should ever be. It started with great reluctance and stalled with even greater enthusiasm, especially at 6:55 A.M. My housemates hated Flex Time almost as much as I did.

My Opel would start and stall, start and stall, start and stall the whole length of our driveway out onto California Boulevard. That way I restarted my Opel under each roommate's window. John, Beck, Blue, Jeff, Chuck. I'm sure they hated me, Flex Time, and my orange Opel. In a way that increased monotonically every morning.

My last day of work, my co-workers finally took me out to Building M. We ordered drinks. I could easily pass for 12 when I went to the movies. Naturally the waiter carded me, and denied me my due on that last day of that Endless Summer. It was Kitty, I think, who ordered an extra drink and mock-surreptitiously passed it to me. They weren't unhappy to see me go.

That last afternoon of work dragged on even longer than usual with a mild alcohol buzz and the creeping hint of a headache. I had nothing to pack except my copy of City of Night. I don't think I even bothered taking any office supplies (for that's the first joy of the workplace, discovering that there's a supply cabinet where you can get free office supplies. Free! Office supplies! Staplers! Tape! Pens! Quad pads!). Nope. I didn't even make off with any office supplies. It was that bad.

The fog had already begun swirling in by the time I left at 4:57. The tennis ball was still there when I drove up the Harbor Freeway.

Being a summer intern can suck.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

pomade, pumps, and poetry

Garage sales. Here in San Francisco, you don't need a garage to have one. You don't even need to have much in the way of stuff to sell. Or have an idea of how much it's worth. Or have a window-dresser's uncanny eye for creating attractive displays. Nope. You don't have to have very much at all.

You just have to have a willingness -- and in fact an absolute drive -- to socialize with passers-by.

In fact, if there weren't a person sitting in the midst of this random assortment of household stuff, I'd have thought someone's blue recycling toter and black garbage toter had fallen over in the wind (as they sometimes do). And that this stuff strewn on the sidewalk was trash. Waiting for its owner to come home, curse briefly, and shove all the shit back into the toters, ready for next week's Sunset Scavenger pickup.

My erstwhile neighbor's face is red and his spit is foamy and he is anxious to TALK. Were those clothes ever his? Surely those high heels would be too tight on him: you're gonna get a heckuva blister on your heel from those, Mister. And that rhinestone-studded t-shirt? I think you'd better pack that midriff off to the gym. Must be why he's selling this stuff. It surely won't make him look his best.

Or maybe he just recognized an opportunity when he saw one and sat down in the middle of a trash spill. Maybe this isn't even his icky stuff.

From the inexplicable to the sublime: three half-used tubs of pomade in a ziplock bag. Used pomade? That's gross. But that's why Mark sent me off to look at the goods spread out on Castro's wide sidewalk. He didn't realize that the long tail phenomenon applies to hair care products too. He thought it was genuine antique pomade.

Genuine antique pomade. Genuine antique half-used pomade. Ewwww.

I always feel depressed when I look at someone else's discarded stuff. Old electric frying pans. Broken Mr. Coffees. One piece place settings minus the soup bowl; the lone coffee cup's got a crack in it too. Dusty artificial flowers. Rickety shelving. T-shirts with yellow armpit stains.

But even among garage sales, this guy's offerings are pretty pathetic. I think I'm going to have to go on Prozac if I stand here much longer and look at it. How did his life come to this? Or maybe inside that corner apartment, the one I'm assuming is his, it's all haute bourgeoisie, Pottery Barn and Kiehl's and these things are truly the discards of a life that's in order.

"How much for the books?" I ask Mr. Red-in-the-Face, who is holding forth frothily to another passer-by. Is that pomade that he's smeared on his skin? The sheen doesn't look natural.

"Make me an offer," he tells me.

Make me an offer. I hate that. I don't really want to think about how much I want any of these books; I just want to think to myself, "Well, it's less than a Muni fare." Or, "Who'd pay $5 for that?" And this whole deal is so sad that I can't bear to offer him what I think the books are worth: maybe he really has fallen on hard times.

So now I'm faced with a random selection of books, none of which I want very much. But I'd buy a couple of them if they were practically free. Or at least pretty cheap. I've finished with this week's New Yorker, finished with most of the novels I have lying around, and I'm too lazy to watch TV.

Yes. I'm too lazy to watch TV. The remote control doesn't work any more. To flip through the channels, you have to stand there right next to the TV, put on your reading glasses to decipher Sharp's weird iconography to find the channel changing buttons, go up or down a promising number of channels, take off your reading glasses to see if that's really Gilligan's Island you've found or whether it's some kind of cheap-assed reality show based on Gilligan's Island instead, put on your reading glasses again to deal with the buttons, take 'em off to check out the program, and so on.

It's exhausting to watch TV that way. Exhausting!

No TiVo, no remote control. Exhausting!

So I'll buy a book or three. If they're practically free.

But what I really have my eye on is a battered blue spiral-bound notebook. Most of the pages have been ripped out, but there are a few left. I open it quickly. Yep. I want this. I don't even know why he's selling it. Who'd buy a beat-up spiral bound notebook with about seven sheets of ruled paper left in it?

I suspect he wants to say he's sold his poetry.

He's trying to pick up some hottie at the bar down the street and he says, "Yeah. I'm a poet. I've even sold some of my poetry. Recently. And it wasn't even my best stuff."

And he won't even be lying. He didn't say, "Someone published my poetry." He just said, "I sold my poetry." He just omitted the fact that it was in a blue spiral bound notebook abandoned as garbage.

"I sold my poetry."

I bought his poetry. I'm not sure how much I paid for it. I got 3 books and the blue notebook for 3 bucks. And he looked pretty darned happy to be getting 3 bucks, so I figure he thought it was all worth less than that. Tama Janowitz wrote this one well after her days as an A-list celebrity were over; but I figured The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles) and Jane Wagner's The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe probably compensated for the Janowitz and Mr. Red-faced Dude's poetry. A slender volume, Pomade for the Recycled Soul, let's call it. Tama Janowitz aside, Mr. Red-faced Dude is lucky to be keeping such substantial company.

"I sold my poetry. It's been featured alongside Paul Bowles and Jane Wagner."

"I sold my poetry. It has a lovely negative capability."

"I sold my poetry. I'm worried that commercial success will cheapen me."

I realize that from the smallish image of his notebook page, his poetry doesn't look bad if you go by shape alone. An acceptable number of scratch-outs lets you know Mr. RFD cares about quality. And it's quality that counts with poetry. Not quantity. Quality. It's like pot. The qual goods as my old roommate Davey used to say.

But if you take a close look at Mr. Red-Faced Dude's poetry -- well, it's better not to take too close of a look. Let it suffice to say that his handwriting is the best thing that's happened to his poetry: it's hard to decipher some of the most suspect words. Did he say "coma"? I think so. The coma room. The room where you sit and wait in a coma, pausing until consciousness and your loved one reappear. Waiting for time to pass and give you the ass.

The problem with Bukowski and Whitman and all of those Poets of the People is that they make it look too easy: Any Red-Faced Dude, sitting and waiting for time to pass, can write a page or two of poultry.

Actually I think the other sheet I found in the notebook is far more poetic. It's a list. I think the unifying theme is online shopping, but I'm not sure. Considering the items on display, this guy has ambitions greater than his financial reach.

No for the Red-Faced Poet slick with antique pomade.

I'm not going to any more garage sales. If they're on the same side of the street that I'm on, I'll cross. I'm not buying any more garage sale poetry either, no matter how cheap it is.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bukowski scholars, take note

It's hot in Pasadena and Linda Lee Bukowski has donated ol' Hank's papers to the Huntington Library to keep company with Chaucer and Shakespeare. The papers are being moved 'cross town "bit by bit" in an effort to keep both men -- the Henrys Bukowski and Huntington -- from turning over in their graves. At least according to the Pasadena Star News.

From the article, we also learn that:

"There's an irony to it," she [Linda Lee Bukowski] said from her San Pedro home. "Bukowski was known to be a garrulous old S.O.B."
I'm not sure that it's actually ironic. Maybe ironic in the strict Alanis Morissette sense of the word. But I wouldn't be willing to bet that either of the literary giants mentioned in the article was never referred to as a "crusty old fuck" in his day. [Note the suspect double-negative here: I like to keep my bases covered by introducing an element of confusion.]

What I mean is that neither man was self-consciously literary. On the contrary, like ol' Charles Bukowski, they demonstrated a taste for the vernacular, for the dirty joke, for the entertaining story. "Old" may be the only element of the epithet that bears quibbling with -- Bukowski had at least 20 years on the older of the two others. Probably from all that clean living.

Here's what I like about the idea of the Huntington Library being home to Bukowski's personal papers: it will become a magnet for Bukowski scholars. Bukowski scholars. Bukowski scholars work with a variety of legitimized topics: big steamy beer shits; systems for picking the horses at Santa Anita; dive bars downtown; manual typewriters and so on.

Bukowski scholars. Makes me smile.

Bukowski scholars note: I must confess to thinking of Post Office as a fine ethnography of postal work. Seriously. I once saw a letter carrier in Pasadena drop an entire bundle of mail and just walk on. It sat there in street, on Maple, near Marengo. He didn't even turn around. I took one look at his face when I bicycled by him; I decided not to mention it. The bundle of undelivered mail was gone by the next day.

What makes me smile even more is the effect of making the Huntington Library a magnet for Bukowski scholars: they'll want those tenure-track jobs on the faculty of Caltech. Caltechnicality as the decal on the window of my decrepit Opel stationwagon used to read.

I was told that Shakespearean scholar Hallett Smith had been lured to Caltech because of its proximity to the Huntington and some kind of arrangement they'd worked out such that he could work in the library's closed stacks. Certainly he wasn't drawn to the California Institute of Technicality for the sheer joy of discovering the one earnest English major per class, a "where's Waldo" sort of exercise in which a closet humanist is hidden in plain sight. Rather, the teaching load is light and the Huntingon is close by.

Of course, scholars who take on the literary output of a particular writer don't really assume much of the other baggage. Burroughs scholars aren't themselves junkies; Hemingway scholars may not even know how to fish; and Pynchon scholars no doubt have a higher rate of output than their subject.

So Bukowski scholars aren't apt to be quite as colorful as the "garrulous old S.O.B." that they study. (And Bukowski is, of course, somewhat different than the Hank Chinaski character, the vessel for his appetites. A quick foray into the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This is ample evidence. All this does argue for the value of the literary letter as opposed to the literary blog or the magazine interview. If you don't believe me, read some of Burroughs's later-in-life off-the-literary-grid writings. I find the sentimentality more shocking than anything Doctor Benway can dish out.)

I've curbed my enthusiasm here, but still I can see new offerings in the staid old Caltech catalog:

En 151: Garrulous Old S.O.B.s of 20th Century American Letters
En 152: Poetics of Midcentury Crusty Old Farts
Caltech's a small place: there shouldn't be much of a waitlist for these courses.

Friday, June 16, 2006

big yellow taxi

I'm sure Joni Mitchell wasn't thinking about lost luggage when she sang Big Yellow Taxi.

But that's the song that's running through my head as I jump through US Airways' Missing Baggage Recovery Service hoops, trying to locate my poor scummy lost bag.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

The bit about paradise and parking lots doesn't apply, of course, but it is true that you don't remember what you packed until you arrive home without it.

My bag is a Type 22 (small) according to the luggage identification chart. I told that to the Asian woman who managed to look simultaneously bored, harrassed, and exhausted as she filled out the Official Luggage Incident Report for me. I was the last victim in line. She'd taken down the other travelers' information, and now she was left with bedraggled me and my missing scummy Type 22 (small) bag. Not black. Beige. One of the other missing luggage reports in front of me in line was the result of a switched bag: these nice people thought they were going to a wedding, and now they've ended up with madras plaid golf shorts and hot pink Izod shirts. I say, wear 'em with aplomb! You'll start a trend.

But me, I don't even have the wrong bag to use as fodder for a swap. I came up empty-handed.

All I know is that I checked it in with plenty of time to spare on Wednesday afternoon at the Raleigh-Durham airport and that's the last I've seen of it. And my brief interaction with the woman who filled out my Official Luggage Incident Report was the last time I talked to a human.

US Airways has the nerve to name its automated phone baggage service system. Alex. Alex is the name of the automated voice recognition 'tard (auto-'tard, for short). Alex can't understand a word I say, no matter how clearly I think I'm enunciating my File Reference Number. He's been trained on a voice other than mine with an accent other than mine. The esses are possibly less silibant. Or more.

"Let's try this again. Arrival airport?"

"S-F-O, for fuck's sake! S-F-O!"

"I think your arrival airport is Florence, South Carolina. Is this correct?"

"NO! NO!"

"Say the name of your arrival city."


I don't like to shout into the phone. But by the time we are done, I'm sure I'm audible all over the neighborhood.

The simple truth is that auto-'tard Alex is US Airways' way of saying Fuck Off. We don't know what happened to your luggage. We don't care what happened to your luggage. We haven't gotten raises for the last four years. The company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. You think we care about your goddamned luggage? We have to push credit card applications when we serve beverages. We have to sell Fun Snack Boxes to people who don't have a bill smaller than a twenty. We have to clean the filthy planes ourselves. Bus drivers have more dignity.

Your type 22 beige wheelie bag (small) means NOTHING TO US. NOTHING!

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

I suppose the advice is: don't pack anything you care about in your checked bag. Just fill it with recycling, lint, and half-eaten sandwiches, and then you won't care when it goes missing. Actually, I thought I'd more or less done that, but it's not 'til your bag's gone that you realize how little redundancy you have in your life. That was my only roll of dental floss, darn it. And my comments on Megan's dissertation? The ones I promised to send her when I got back home? Gone. All of my presentable warm-weather clothes -- gone. My favorite University of Arkansas Razorbacks t-shirt. Gone. The power cord for my laptop? Gone, daddy, gone.

For most people, a small bag like mine doesn't make that much of a dent in their wardrobe, but I'm not much of a shopper: that overhead-bin sized Type 22 bag represents at least half of my clothes.

I bet they detonated it at RDU. They x-rayed it and some darned thing looked exactly -- but exactly -- like a nuclear (or is that nucular?) weapon. So they blew it up.

I can't think of any other reason it's not trackable. I mean, it's not like my bag has a mind of its own and thought, "I see a flight to Paris -- think I'll just pull up stakes and go. June is a swell time to go to Paris if you're a smallish piece of beat-up beige luggage. Discounts galore. Special tours of the Louvre. Let me just put on this beret, upgrade to the Business Class overhead bin, and I'll be on my way." No, my bag has no whims, no flights of fancy.

But you'd think that if they'd detonated it, it would've been on Fox News. They like to show suspected bombs exploding. A guy makes a joke about a car bomb and they blow up his car. You don't joke about this stuff around Brit Hume: those Fox News guys'll blow up your suitcase in a heartbeat.

Want to know something troubling? There's apparently a whole operation devoted to selling stuff found in "unclaimed" luggage. Sure there's some weird stuff, but there's also a depressing array of other peoples' clothes and belongings. And a number of hard cover books about grilling: I think those books have been abandoned, tucked in the seat back as bachelor sons return to their Beverly Hills cribs after a visit home to see Mom in Lubbock.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

It's been 48 hours. Should I go to Walgreen's and spring for a new dispenser of Wal-Floss? Even if I get my bag back, I doubt the floss survived the explosion.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

the privacy divide

I've been known to fetishize my privacy. I can't deny it. I visibly flinch when the checker at Safeway says, "Did you find everything you need, Mrs. Marshall?" instead of "Can I help you with those bags, Mrs. Glenn?" (For those of you who don't know, at Safeway, I'm Mrs. John Glenn, the proud, straight-spined, Tang-buying astronaut's wife.) They know because I've purchased Mrs. Glenn's groceries with Ms. Marshall's credit card. Damn those giant Medjool dates! Food is such an expensive vice. And now Safeway knows exactly what I buy and they'll swap the data with Netflix so they can correlate it with the movies I rent.

Jonathan Zittrain has just delivered some bad news about my privacy in his JCDL 2006 keynote about redaction, restriction, and removal. I think he has anyway. I'd say the gist of it is, "Get over it, Cathy. See all those kids walking around with the iPod ear-buds in their ears? They have. You can do it too." Jonathan's a Harvard-trained lawyer and it's easy to listen to him make an argument -- to be amused, to be swayed, to be totally CONVINCED, but not be completely sure of what you just bought. What I feel sure of is this: My privacy -- I may as well forget about it. I've apparently swapped it for my identity.

In creating an online presence -- in publishing our whereabouts, in listing what we read, in documenting what we eat, in cataloging who's seeing whom -- we're back to living in a small town. And despite all my protestations about how we're not paying enough attention to digital archiving, someone is. You might be surprised by how few of those Usenet news postings have gone away.

Jonathan did suggest that one should have the ability to declare reputation bankruptcy. You know what he means: one too many pictures has been posted of you singing karaoke and dancing like a spastic. Or your students have taken too many liberties using your image in a creative re-enactment of your battle with Mr. Valenti. Maybe you've even written one too many blog posting that maligns 'tards or made one too many links to pictures of little pink caffeine pills. Or maybe you've even gotten some rotten tomatoes tossed at you in Or been caught canoodling with Hugh Grant on Gawker Stalker.

You'd like to start over again. With a clean slate. Or a clean Slate.

Jonathan Zittrain himself wouldn't have to do this, of course. It's very clear he's one to watch. His own reputation looks to be on a sharply upward trajectory. An eBay red shooting star, so to speak. He may even be able to sell or swap his reputation on eBay; it's safe to say I couldn't afford to snipe on a reputation like that.

Y'know, I can't remember how things fit together, but he variously referred to:

He talked about redaction too, but I seem to have blanked it out. (My own impression is that we've begun to hide things in plain sight, and it's pretty darned effective.)

I wish I could remember the line that connected all these dots. As Pee-Wee Herman would have it: "Connect the dots. La-la-la-la. Connect the dots. La-la-la-la." And all I can think of is how Casey Kasem was on the KHJ Boss Radio line-up after the Real Don Steele. Or was that Robert W. Morgan? That's surely not part of the argument, is it? Why did KHJ have a Boss 30 and KRLA a Top 40?

It was quite a good talk though, despite even the most attentive audience members' seeming inability to remember exactly how the hypotheticals unfolded. We all seem to have resonated with different ideas, different hypotheticals, and different images.

I'm afraid I got distracted at some point during one of the Wikipedia examples, thinking about the propagation of bad information, and how correction doesn't reach out and correct what's already propagated. In other words, the average IQ of Pittstown is going to stay at 68, even if a Pittstown booster goes in there and fixes it up. But then again, if we'd listened to Ted, and done links as transclusion, we wouldn't be in this fix. So -- as I said -- I let my mind and browser wander, although I'm not certain my attentiveness would've guaranteed an ability to reconstruct Jonathan Zittrain's mobius strip of an argument.

Damn! I pity the fool who messes with Jonathan Zittrain! Damn!

A side point: Pronouncing the acronym GUI as "gooey" and talking about mash-ups starts getting pretty silly. That's gooey mash-ups. Then you add a couple of protocols and you've got soapy gooey mash-ups. Which can be cleaned up with AJAX. This is why I've drifted away from CS. I can't talk about these things with a straight face.

I'm the slowest blogger around. That's because I get transcluded in the gooey mash-ups.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Chapel Hill chow

When I visit the South, I have certain expectations about food: I'll have that deep-fried, Mister, with an extra pat of butter and some bacon, please.

So when I finally wandered down the red-painted stairs of the Carolina Inn and out into the eye-blinkingly bright North Carolina early afternoon sunshine, my thoughts were on barbequed pork, fried okra, and sweet tea. Not on health food. The healthiest I'll go, I thought, is to order that sweet tea half-and-half. That way it won't make my teeth ache. Maybe chase it with some sweet potato pie for ballast.

So how'd I end up in the Weaver Street Market? Well, the name "Weaver Street Market" seems innocent enough. It looked a little tony, but it was near the railroad tracks and I really couldn't see in the window all that well; it was darned bright outside and I had my eyes squinted just about closed. The white dude with the dreadlocks eating at the picnic table in front of the market should've given me a clue, but I chose to ignore the warning.

White guy with dreadlocks. Big dog with a bandana around its neck. Chick wearing an Indian print bedspread. The semiotics of this aren't difficult. Why can't I read the signs?

I hadn't had anything to eat yet except three of my hot pink Canadian WAKE-UP caffeine pills. Not much nutritional value in the pill-filler evidently. My blood sugar was too low to detect the obvious.

In my hunger, I'd bumbled into a high-end health food store. In the South.

Where's my deep fried stuff? My pig? My refined sugar in high concentrations?

It's okay as long as you stick with the organic locally grown produce (although if you inspect the produce carefully, you'll note that it's just organic; it's still been shipped 3500 miles); after all, there's not much you can do to a cantaloupe. But in my sugar-challenged state, I made the crucial error: I bought something compounded from multiple ingredients. It looked safe: like, what can you do to chocolate and almonds that'd make nuggets that tasted like ass? I mean, you can buy a Hershey bar with almonds and it'll almost always taste great (say what you will, food snobs; I think Hershey bars taste just fine), even if you've bought it from the OLDEST VENDING MACHINE ON EARTH (which I do frequent. Frequently). Even if the chocolate's developed that white powdery coating. Even if it's melted and re-set dozens of times. Still tastes just fine.

These nuggets taste like ass. Chocolate and almonds. Organic. $6.99/pound. Months before their expiration date. To make it even crueler, they look like Idaho Spuds. And my check-out person's name was Buddy. Buddy. Chocolate and almonds.

Buddy, how could you do this to me?

Did I accidently buy doggie treats? Because high-end pet food looks an awful lot like high-end health food. In fact, I once bought Merrick Turducken Cat Food for Mister Lumpy, a cat with exhaustingly high culinary standards. The ad copy made it sound like something I'd be looking for during my stroll in the glaring North Carolina sun this afternoon:

This gourmet dish has been favored by the southern society of felines for years and its no secret as to why. Turducken is the sure way to end a long day for the hard working feline in today’s hustling and bustling workplace. The exquisite pairings of turkey, duck and chicken lay hiding in every sensational bite. As if this wasn’t enough, this sensational trio is complimented with farm grown sweet potatoes, peas, carrots and savory cranberries. Take it from us; if its one thing the South wrote the book on, its how to cook and believe us, this dish cooks. The Merricks hope Ya’ll enjoy this Bayou Classic.
Needless to say, Lumpy wouldn't touch the stuff. He gave me a hurt, puzzled look like "Who're you kidding? Where's my Fancy Feast Chunky Chicken?"

It's the same look I had on my face after I tasted the Chocolate Almond Chip nuggets.

This can't be right. I re-read the label. I inspected them; dissected them; chilled them; cleansed my palate with that Vanilla Chai Tea with Soy Protein I bought at the same time. They still taste like ass. What on earth do they put in these things to make them taste like carob and cardboard? And yes, I have tasted cardboard, so this is an authoritative comparison. I think some of the texture comes from that weird quinoa grain stuff and sunflower seed parts. This is not chocolate and almonds.

Ah, the Carolina Inn's turn-down service just delivered two pillow mints. Saved in the nick of time. Should recharge me for long enough to find somewhere where I can get myself something deep-fried. Or vinegary Carolina barbeque. Or sugar-saturated.

free falling into YouTube

I resisted a foray into YouTube just about as long as I could. It’s been just a little too prominent in the trend watching reports, a little too over-hyped, a little too MySpace.

“Narcissistic New Media. Hrrrmph! America’s Funniest Home Videos. Hrrrmph! Whole thing gives me the ass.” I sit at my laptop, muttering. Talking to myself.

But then someone sent me a link to the video of the guys doing the Bellagio fountain bit using 500 Mentos and 200 liters of Diet Coke. Which in turn had a link to the exploding British lass who had performed a bio-assay on the Mento/Diet Coke formula. Pepsi Girl's Super Burp was on YouTube. My heart and mind were won over; how can you not like such creative silliness?

I’ve wasted quite a bit of time there in YouTube-land. YouTube – and a family trip to Carmel, a town with no apparent purpose except to elect a celebrity mayor and give dozens of banal art galleries and Thomas Kinkade outlets a place to go – are to blame for my lack of bloggage for the past week. (Even Carmel’s “more Los Altos-than-thou” attitude couldn’t wreck some of the most beautiful coast in California. The sand is as white as the gallery-goers and much finer.)

How can you blog when you’re watching a video of two cute-as-a-button Korean girls singing and dancing (apparently as part of a bad TV show; one can only guess at the premise)? It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand any Korean.

How can you blog when you’re assembling a day-in-the-life playlist of MTV videos circa 1983, when Twisted Sister was still a happening thing and MTV hadn’t fallen victim to advertisers’ demands that the network follow the constraints of conventional programming? I’ve been pining for the Free Falling Tom Petty video (starring a young Johnny Depp and an always fabulous Faye Dunaway), and there it was. There’s plenty of poorly shot concert footage, but most of it is new to me and fun to watch – lots of punk and glam shows taken pre-MTV.

I might’ve gone crazy if I were really looking for something – tagging video is even more of an art than tagging images – but I wasn’t. Without closed captions or some kind of extended narrative, it’s notoriously hard to search video. But sometimes girls just want to have fun and browse without a care (or an information need), and I did. No worries that I don't own a TiVo -- if it's important, it'll be posted. Fox News wouldn't have had to run that Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction every half-hour on the half-hour; everyone would've been able to live the notorious (but disturbingly uninteresting) event over and over again until they were satiated.

Soon after my gluttonous dumpster dive into YouTube’s extensive collection, I listened to a discussion about the site on NPR. Naturally there was a caller whose first thought was, “Oh my god! It’s going to be filled with porn! The children! The children!” I envisioned her wiping her fevered brow with the back of her hand and seeming almost to swoon.

I do wonder why parents have such dirty minds; their first thought about *anything* seems to run to sex, perversion, and porn. Perhaps that’s why they have children: too much attention to sex, perversion, and porn to remember to use birth control. This mom could not be reassured. For every reassurance, she’d worked out a scenario where the kids’d see porn. YouTube visitors can easily mark a naughty video as being inappropriate for the site; but in her mind, the kids’d be right on top of the submissions, just waiting for the porn to come gushing in.

Really I doubt she’s taken a careful critical perspective on homemade porn: often it’s horribly unappealing and it’s darned hard for the uninitiated to identify what’s what and even what’s going on. The lighting and camera angles reveal that it’s just as difficult to make good porn as it is to make good comedy. All the pros are in the San Fernando Valley, and they aren't giving it away for free.

Unfortunately it’s clear that what’ll do the site in is not hypervigilant parents, porn, copyright violations, or bad cinematography, but rather the lack of a good advertising model. I’m guessing that even Axe Deodorant Body Spray won’t want to sponsor a half-naked guy lisping frantically about how *hot* it is and how *bad* his video is (it’s actually quite funny and he is disturbingly sweaty). Nor will Coke want to sponsor a pirated 25 year old Purple Rain video nor MySpace the MySpace parody skits (which are funny in an in-joke sort of way -- "the MySpace angles").

Even though quite a few of the videos are better than The Simple Life and more informative than the 367th Hitler show on the History Channel (and still others are illicit copies of The Simple Life and the 367th Hitler show), there are many that are just plain bad. It's the "million monkeys" effect though -- some of the monkeys are going to shoot some great videos; others will pirate just the clip you want to see (thereby eliminating the need to watch a whole movie or find an ancient music video); and still others are evolved monkeys who have collected the classics (I didn't even know about that incredible Crispin Glover interview on David Letterman; Crispin Hellion Glover made Mr. Letterman look like quite the assclown: "I'm a movie star," says CHG, sounding on the verge of tears).

I can see there are still many hours to waste on YouTube, 5 minutes, 19 seconds at a time.