Saturday, October 25, 2008
Other People's Blog Ideas

I got a request from my friend Diana to use this blog to direct some attention towards a recent interview done with Stephen Spoonamore, a Republican computer fraud expert and vote-fraud whistleblower. And I'm quite happy to oblige. I think we can assume that at least two or three more people will hear about this now. :)

Here's a link to Mark Crispin Miller's page on the subject, which links to the entire interview in ten parts. Of if you'd prefer a more succinct run-down on the issue, here's an interview with Miller in which he hits the main points.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on the theory. On the one hand, it's obvious that electronic voting machines are waaaay too easily tampered with, and I don't really doubt that various interested parties have probably used those vulnerabilities to their advantage. And obviously if our ability to vote is in any way compromised, then our entire political system is bankrupt. This is a crucial issue that arguably transcends every other issue, in as much as if we can't rely on our votes, then all other issues become moot for us as voters. So I think this is something that absolutely has to be addressed, and so I'm always interested in what knowledgeable people have to say on the matter. And Spoonamore certainly seems like a very knowledgeable party.

On the other hand, while I wouldn't be remotely surprised to learn that some tampering has been going on, and maybe even enough to make the difference in certain crucial elections, I have a little trouble believing that it could be so widely used that a serious challenge could be overcome through election fraud alone. If McCain et al. are planning to steal the 2008 election, why do they so convincingly act like a campaign that's about to lose? Do we really believe that the Obama campaign doesn't understand the threat, however large or small it might be, and hasn't considered how to counter it?

As it currently stands McCain has to win at least nine battleground states -- Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada -- to have a chance of winning the election. And that means nine states that he HAS to win, every single one of them, with no losses among them. If it were one or two states, I'd be quite worried; but at nine, or more, it seems implausible to cheat his way to victory, even with a few electronic aces tucked in his pockets.

Again, I don't doubt that shenanigans are afoot. There have already been instances of irregularities in a few states, and weird goings-on in others. And it's not just electronic voting that's an issue -- mass purges of voter rolls, interference at polling places, and disinformation directed at specific demographic groups make it fairly obvious that there are some very corrupt, dirty games being played. You see stuff like this, and you know that our electoral system, already imperfect, is being badly damaged. Assuming Obama wins, I really hope that among the big priorities of his first term will be to address the widespread tactics being used to undermine our elections. This shit has to stop.

But I just can't bring myself to believe that even cheating is going to deliver this one for McCain. I could be wrong, and in a few weeks we'll know for sure. But at this point even McCain is acting like he doesn't buy it.

For whatever it's worth, it seems to me that Oregon's voting system is as good as it can realistically be. I got my ballot in the mail about a week ago, and spent an hour or so that evening going over all the measures and local/regional candidates with my laptop, filling in all the appropriate ovals on my nice paper ballot. Then I took it to the library and dropped it off (I could've mailed it in, but it seemed like a waste of stamps), and that was that. It was easy, convenient, verifiable, secure, etc., and judging by Oregon's election turnout numbers, it definitely encourages participation. I don't doubt that there are ways to game any system, this one included, and I've heard occasional mutterings about ways in which Oregon's system could be compromised. But that will be true of any system that's designed to be accessed by millions of people, and the benefits obviously outweigh the drawbacks.

It seems like it must be time to establish a more coherent means of voting, and a paper trail would be so simple and would do so much to alleviate the issues involved in electronic voting. Just give me a fucking receipt for my vote, you know? In addition, it's painfully obvious that private enterprise has absolutely no place in any election. No private firm -- right-leaning, left-leaning, for-profit, non-profit, faith-based or secular -- should be handling elections. I absolutely agree that we've got a big problem, and one that should be easily fixed. So for that reason alone, if you're interested, the Spoonamore interview is interesting stuff.

Totally unrelated, but I liked it a lot, and I hope Greensmile will forgive me for stealing his entire post -- it's just that it was so short. :)

If there is not at least one person to whom you would literally never lie, one person to whom you fiercely and at any cost, present your truest self in every moment and circumstance, then your life is shabby, a string of compromised amusements, a toying with the devil as he grooms you for his version of eternity.

I have no such person, so I feel like a failure now. :) However, I also think it's a beautiful sentiment and quite true, and when I read it earlier today I wanted to tack it up on my wall. I've thought I might've found that person a few times, but it always turned out that I was wrong. I think this is probably the closest I've ever found to my definition of real love; it's the ideal to which I have always been drawn. It's why I've learned to mistrust being "in love" -- being in love is the most gratifying part of being alive, but by definition you're never really, honestly yourself when you're in love. It's impossible. Being in love with someone is by its nature a delusion, a projection of perfection onto an imperfect human being. There's no such thing as love at first sight. Capital-L Love, real love, worthwhile love, is only possible after all that ends and much time has passed, when you can no longer hide behind the veil of perfection that someone else drapes over you; when you're exposed as the dysfunctional, ugly, fucked-up person you are and accepted anyway, and can in turn accept the dysfunctional, ugly, fucked-up-ness of someone else. It takes years to find, or decades, a lifetime. And I haven't even begun yet.
11:45 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Wednesday, October 22, 2008
On Secret Knowledge

I think this is likely going to be the first of several posts on this subject -- I know I've got more to say about it than I can coherently fit into one short post, and even in sections it might not be entirely coherent. But I'm really hoping that people will speak up in response. I'm not aiming for any particular conclusion, and I'm not looking for the answer to any concrete question. It's just a sort of floating conceptual cloud I've found myself in from time to time over the last year or two, and I'd like to chew on it for a while if anyone else is game.

When I was young -- 12, 13, in that neighborhood -- I got a book that kept me occupied for several years: High Weirdness By Mail. I initially got it for various reasons, but I was fascinated by it for just one -- it told me about stuff no other kids my age knew about. Thus, as a newly-minted teenager, and well before the internet was accessible to anyone but university folks and determined enthusiasts, I was learning about William S. Burroughs, the Principia Discordia, the Children of God, the space brothers, and lots of other less pleasant delusions. None of this stuff was so much as whispered in daily life when I was coming up -- unless you somehow wormed your way into some urban underground somewhere, where I was far too timid to venture -- so that book became my thin, shining, clammy link to everything I wasn't supposed to know about.

Being a kid, and a slightly gullible one at that, I bought into some of the gentler stuff more than I wish I had. But fuck it, that's what kids do, and as a grown-up skeptic it clearly didn't do me too much harm. I even expect the eventual disillusionment inoculated me against a lot of the crazy shit I see people lapping up every day at my job. And while my peers were reading Sweet Valley High and listening to Guns N' Roses, I was digging in to Burroughs and Kafka, and listening to Talking Heads and Negativland. I didn't fit in anyway -- ungainly, unstylish, and perpetually the new kid for seven years -- so it was just as easy to create my own mobile youth culture, built on whatever random elements I could scrape together from the outside world. I wasn't the only kid on earth to have done it, but I was the only one I knew of for a long time.

Now, however, this stuff is all just assumed. If I look for differences between my generation and those coming up more recently, the one I perpetually land on is that everything that was illicit and hard to acquire back then is now easily accessible. If I wanted a Talking Heads CD when I was fourteen or fifteen, I had to wait until we took a trip to a city with a decent record store, and then hope that they had one in stock. Alternately, I could send off (by mail) for a catalog, wait a few weeks for it to arrive, and mail-order the damn thing. It wasn't easy for a kid in rural Arkansas to expose themselves to much more than base culture in the early 90s, much less anything remotely fringe-y. Now a brief visit to the iTunes store or the Pirate Bay will net me then entire catalog of the fringy-est, most obscure bands in minutes, at most. Any dumbass teenager can go digging around in any murky cultural backwater at the faintest whisper of an impulse. Stormfront? Smart drugs? Whatever weird shit Japanese kids are into these days? You probably don't even have to be able to spell it to get access. It's all just there.

And we won't even get into the porn situation. When I was a youth, we had to work to get our hands on real pornography. These days, one simple link can end with you watching Two Girls, One Cup.

This isn't intended to be some kind of "get off my lawn" thing -- I think by and large this is a very positive development. A lot of people -- well, most, really -- aren't going to make much good use of it, but the ones who do will have an easier time getting through their own ungainly adolescences than I did. But nothing is obscure anymore, according to the formal meaning of the word. Nothing is hard to find. I'm not sure if there's any such thing as an underground anymore, or anything left on the periphery on society. Information has become one all-encompassing blob, Katamari Damacy-style.

But here's the thing: people love, and maybe even need, to have access to "secret knowledge." This is something I've become much more aware of by doing my current job -- people desperately want to know something that nobody else knows, or to find some knowledge that was previously denied them. Different people look for different things -- how to attract the people they desire, how to become rich, how to manipulate others, how to avoid being manipulated, how to exert power, how to finally be happy. The Secret is the most obvious example (and the most all-purpose), but I'd posit that fully half our inventory is devoted to "secret" solutions to the universal problems involved in being human. Kevin fucking Trudeau has gotten filthy stinking rich by offering questionable advice to the gullible specifically as forbidden, secret information. And David Icke, as laughable as he is, still has plenty of avid, if furtive, readers. More than you would ever guess if you didn't see them hunched over his books in the "speculation" section.

And the whole concept is further muddled to my mind by questions about what constitutes this "secret" knowledge. Absurd conspiracy theories, absolutely; the rules for attracting a husband, sure. But what about quantum physics? Sure, the information is fairly readily available, but beyond the most superficial level it becomes arcane in the extreme. How does string theory fit into the secret knowledge continuum? I know more about evolutionary biology than the average citizen, enough to know what Hox genes are and a little bit about how they're expressed in an organism. But I certainly don't know enough to understand how the proteins they encode controlled my fetal development, so that I find myself sitting here with four limbs rather than six. I could, if I were determined, learn. It's not being kept from me. But I don't know, and if I am honest, I probably won't bother to dig that deeply into the subject -- or if I do, then I probably won't ever put the effort into attempting to understand quantum physics. And that really is information that very few people possess.

Which knowledge is more "secret": intelligent design, or the best current theories about abiogenesis?

I suppose this is all my way of trying to sort out what information is worth seeking, and what's not, and how I make the distinction between the two. And I know the answer to that, really -- reason, and her daughter science, can be relied upon to separate truth from bullshit eventually. But then, the conspiracy theorist mutters, that's exactly what they want me to think.
10:44 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

So Is There Still A Blog Here Or What?

Yes, sorry. Sorry for not posting, or sorry for resuming posting -- take your pick. I've been indulging in a brief hiatus, only because everything I feel like saying I don't feel like saying quite this publicly. Sometimes that's just the way it goes.

It'll come back around, I'm sure. It generally does.
12:09 AM ::
Amy :: permalink

Friday, October 03, 2008
Doesn't Seem Like It's Been That Long At All

It's funny -- I've spent most of a year considering this post, but now that it's come time to write it, I'm having trouble.

A year ago tonight I rolled into town in a car with no tail lights and one headlamp out. It was raining that night, a bit like tonight, and I missed most of the Columbia Gorge because I spent the last two hours of the trip trying to keep my car between the lines on the road. When I got in, I was exhausted, my hands trembling from stress, I had no idea where I was or what would greet me, but I was glad to be off the road and ready to get started in my new city.

The year since has been a little bit of a mixed bag. There were some losses, some disappointments. But in retrospect, I've managed to pull off most of what I hoped to do during this first year. I moved and made it stick; I've worked consistently, if not always contentedly; I've made more new friends than I left behind in Memphis; I've done at least a little bit of work in my preferred field; I've gotten to know the city a little bit and have established a few regular spots. I went to the coast, I went to a few shows, I taught some kids how to make films, I read a huge pile of books. I have a comfortable little room. I still have my car, but not for much longer -- I've got a bike, and I'm riding it a lot. I've met so many people that I now recognize someone almost everywhere I go. I've drunk with an opera singer, met both the current mayor and the next mayor, and I've held someone else's Oscar. I found a beer I think is tolerable. I've wandered the streets at 2AM. I've tried the donut with the bacon on it. I've gotten rained on a lot. I don't have all the people around me that I would've wished, but I've got the friends I need, if not all the friends I want. My job sucks, but it's not the worst I've had, and many days I feel relatively lucky to have a job at all. My life isn't yet everything I dreamed it would be, but it's a pretty good start.

Portland itself is amazingly hospitable. Almost everything I want is here; I've never gone without. And a year on, this still feels like a place I could finally establish a long-term life, a place that could serve as home, or at least home-base. I spent much of the first thirty years of my life on the move, constantly leaving people behind; now that I'm settling in here, it has occurred to me that I might be entering a phase where I am the one being left. Already I've made friends with new(er) arrivals who've since moved on to the next place -- it's a weird feeling to watch people go. I've never really done much of that before. But it feels like it's probably my turn, and that it'll all work out okay.

There's a lot of work still to do. I have to forge some kind of working life for myself that doesn't involve selling books (at least not retail.) There is so far still nobody here who really knows me, but there are a few potential candidates hanging around. And there's still a whole city left to map out -- I've got the outlines down and I've roughed in a few details, but much of Portland is still a generality to me. I have a beginning, but no history. But that's the point of staying, I suppose.

So by and large it's been a good first year. I'm happier on the whole than I have been in a long time, since London at least, and whatever sadness has come along hasn't been enough to throw me too far off-track. I was thinking recently that the trip I made to get here turned out to be analogous to my time in Portland so far -- some setbacks, slower than I'd hoped, with moments of serious doubt whether I was going to make it at all. But whatever else happens, and however frustrating my lack of progress is at times, I have never yet failed to get where I was going in the end. And that'll be true with this as well.

I have no idea what my second year in town will bring. Unlike this time last year, I have no real expectations, just the hope that a year from today my life will have changed again. You'll know as soon as I do.
8:34 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Bike Love

Yeah, so, sorry for the silence this week. I'm writing a post to go up in a few days, but mostly all I've been thinking about is 1) Kurt Vonnegut; 2) my bike; and 3) politics. And I don't have much to say about any of those things that y'all don't already know.

Have I mentioned, though, that I love my bike? I wish it were more huggable, because I'd definitely hug her if it weren't for all the hard pointy bits. I still can't ride as far or as fast as I want to, but that will come with time. As it is, I'm riding it to work more often than not, and getting the hang of riding in heavy traffic and all that other stuff that comes with riding in the city. And the city changes completely from a bike. Portland is peculiarly bike-scaled for an American city -- you could ride clear across the east side in 30 minutes. From my house, it's a short fifteen-minute ride to the supermarket; or I can buy flowers or go to the video store, I can buy Italian pastries, Mexican coke, or obscure Indian spice mixtures. I can go out for breakfast, I can go read in the park, I can shop for shoes or tools or specialty light bulbs, I can pick up a pizza, I can get to one of the better show venues in town, or I can go get a damn fine margarita. And that's just within a range of a short, easy ride, up here in my unhip, transitional neighborhood. That's not even crossing the river or getting on a bus.

It's pretty nice, that's all I'm saying. And it literally makes me happy -- I feel better in general on days when I ride. Only six weeks since I got back on a bike for the first time in twenty years, and already a day without riding feels like a day wasted. I'm going to miss driving, which I've always loved; but I think I can be satisfied with this instead.

Anyway, I'll post again in a few days.
10:58 PM ::
Amy :: permalink