Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dumb and Dumber

Two stories in the news Friday suggest two different ways in which we're endangering ourselves in our thoughtless rush to become the global Borg. In the rush of events and the rush we get from new technologies that dazzle us--as we are hotly encouraged to be dazzled by marketing and advertising, but also mostly by peer pressure. As well as the mindless acceptance of warped economics while ignoring the immediate dangers, let alone the longterm ones.

Let's start with what seems to be the smaller problem but isn't--it's just more intimate to those reading this on the Net. It has to do with the wisdom of one of our many agricultural-age bits of nevertheless universal wisdom: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. The tech version of this is called redundancy.

The first story comes from the SF Chronicle, and it's about two hours on Thursday when Google was apparently inaccessible. "Frustration, distress over Google outage," the headline reads. Panic set in with some users, who discovered they couldn't get access to their e-mails, fearful that urgent messages were being missed. Companies that store their documents online with Google suddenly found they couldn't access them, raising fears their work was lost."

Google's troubles got a big airing online as users vented. The topic was among the most popular on Twitter, the micro-blogging service, where people posted things like "Google's down and the world stops ... Scary" and "Uh oh, Google is having issues. Let Internet calamity ensue."

Scary is right. The conclusion? In recent years, Google has marketed to companies the use of its online products, such as e-mail and documents, as an alternative to desktop software. But these outages could persuade potential customers to keep the technology in-house rather than paying Google to take care of it.
Andrew Kovacs, a Google spokesman, acknowledged outages like Thursday's attract a lot of attention. However, "cloud computing," as the online software is generically known, is more reliable than companies operating their own data centers.

It's the thinking--or lack of it--behind such dependency that bothers me. And business practices that make it uncompetitive to use common sense, like storing vital data both online and on site.

When people fail to take common sense precautions for possible if not inevitable technical problems, it's bad for them. But when redundancy and thinking ahead to possible calamity is normal thinking, then we may really be in trouble. Are people thinking about earthquakes and storms? Are they so tied in--so hooked to GPS that a solar flare or some microwave hoohaw can endanger people, perhaps a city, a nation? Etc.

It's time to put some paranoids--or at least some farmers--on the payroll. Meanwhile, I'm going to do my best to keep a landline even if I have to get a cell phone.

The second story is more directly frightening, and in a sense larger. It was on the front page of the New York Times: it turns out that nobody can find out what may cause salmonella in prepared food. Here's the money graph: Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show."

Let that sink in. Companies we depend on for food don't know who is supplying their ingredients. THEY DON'T KNOW WHO IS SUPPLYING THEIR INGREDIENTS? How in a sane society is that even possible? Yeah, I know, that's an unwarranted assumption about this society. But the insane economics of gathering ingredients from great distances in order to make food cheaper--cheaper? Maybe that's the essence of the craziness. Only lunatic bookkeeping would suggest that transporting huge amounts of foodstuffs halfway around the world is cheaper. It eco-illogical.

Where I live we have much better than average knowledge and choice of local food, and much more choice of fresh food than much of the country. But I may not always have the choice of living here, so it's yet another nail in the coffin: if lack of good medical care doesn't kill me, maybe my food will.

Could we think ahead a little please? Could we think a little?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Waterboarding Is Not A Virus

Waterboarding was always a stupid term for what had previously been known as the drowning torture. Waterboarding sounds like some fun form of surfing. Guess what? It isn't.

But waterboarding was the term the media adopted. Now that more information is coming out about how often and how sloppily it was used by interrogators authorized by the Bush Administration, how useless and counterproductive it was in obtaining information, and how cynically it was used to extract predetermined and false information, the word is more current than ever.

And so it is being bandied about with little regard to its gravity or to its specific meaning. Comedians like Limbaugh and Wanda Sykes use it for punch lines, and others are adopting it, mostly for its current attention-getting value, and using it where it has no specific meaning.

The worst offenders I've seen so far are environmentalists. The failure of the Obama Administration to extend habitat protection to the polar bear that includes the effects of global heating--a decision I strenuously disagree with--has been stupidly characterized (in the message line of an email from the Center for Biological Diversity) as a decision that "waterboards polar bears."

That is a misuse, though it has some metaphorical claim, since the effect of global heating is to melt the ice, and polar bears drown. But now another environmentalist headlines his piece "EPA clears waterboarding for Appalachia." The topic is mountaintop mining, a horrifically destructive practice. But it has nothing whatever to do with the drowning torture. Nothing.

Language is not a virus. Memes don't exist. Words and expressions get adopted--more swiftly now in the age of Twitter--and so they are fads for awhile, or perhaps slang, until they fade away or are adopted as useful.

But people can choose what words they use, and how to use them. The use of a word is either apt or wrong, intelligent or stupid. The use of waterboarding in these contexts is wrong and stupid. The word becomes watered down to the point that it becomes meaningless, and why? To capture somebody's roving eye in the fast and heavy competition for attention. At best, these misuses of "waterboarding" are lazy, at worst exploitative.

We ruin our language at our peril, especially now, when small ripples of information make enormous changes quickly, and as attention moves on, those changes can keep operating in unforeseen ways. When we diminish our language, we lose another tool of insight and communication, when our survival and our future depends on them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Congratulations to Brooke Grant of nearby Hoopa, CA, voted Miss Indian World at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in New Mexico. She has lineage in three of our North Coast peoples (Hupa, Karuk and Yurok) as well as Chippewa. This is her Traditional song, part of the ceremony of coming of age for young girls.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it... Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that." Martin Luther King. Photo is of two galaxies becoming one.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Name is Kafka, How May I Help You?

Our phone hasn't been working for weeks. Apart from the blessed silence, there has been the never-ending battle to get some attention from The Phone Company. Back in the day, when they first were The Phone Company, Ma Bell, etc., the monopoly and public utility combined, you could at least call the nearest office, talk to somebody, and get the appropriate repair person. Now, even though we live in a town the population of which would fit easily into a middling college stadium, with a larger but still fairly small city a few miles away, we're left with 800 numbers that don't work, talking to robots and India, and an online system designed to discourage anyone from using it.

And guess what, the monopoly never left, just the service. For us, it's the same company: AT&T, which bought up the various local and regional companies that were formed when Bell was forced to shed them in the 1970s. Well, Ma Bell is back, only now she's even more Kafkaesque.

The Phone Company got broken up because it was a monopoly, and because as such, it controlled the introduction of new products and limited choices. They owned the phones and everything else connected with them. So now we have a bewildering array of choices, plus all the complexities of what the phone company is responsible for and what they aren't. And the monopoly, where it counts: the wire.

The alternative for Internet is the cable company, another monopoly, which is just as allergic to service.

Check out their web pages and try and find how to contact them to get a problem diagnosed and repaired. If you accidentally hit upon the right 800 number, try getting a repair appointment out of their robot voice. You can scream "agent!" and "operator!" at him, and after a wait you might get one. Who will refer you to another number--and the same robot.

Our problem is complicated, having to do with the DSL jack, even though the DSL is fine at the moment, but the phone doesn't work. We've figured out that much, with the help of an electrician and the one human being apparently not in India I managed to talk to.

We're seriously considering joining the now one-third of Americans who have cell phones but no land line. But that's not much of a solution. We still have to deal with the DSL, or else go to cable, and the cable company is just as service-averse. Their web page is no better. They all offer you a stunning array of options to buy stuff and services. AT&T is apparently in the satellite TV business now as well. But try to find a contact number.

In addition to discouraging low-profit services like repair, there is the additional motive of discouraging land lines altogether, partly because they aren't as profitable in general than cellular, but also because there are legal requirements, in order to insure that all Americans have the basic right of phone service, no matter where they live. That makes the whole business less profitable, and therefore, something to discourage.

The cynicism of all this is pretty sickening, but equally sickening is the ethic behind it. It's all about buying, not repairing. That's a big problem with the alternative: the cell phone is the epitome of the throwaway culture. There are millions of cell phones--perhaps billions by now--that had a brief life of use but will exist for much longer as long-term toxic waste. E-waste is a growing problem that will soon be overwhelming.

I don't have one, although this now probably means I will have to give up my goal of being the last American to have a cell phone, but I'm pretty sure that the idea of getting a cell phone repaired would create blank stares in an entire generation. It does not compute.

In the meantime, don't call us, we'll call you. On Margaret's cell phone.