Thursday, September 29, 2011

Big Brother Married Nurse Ratchet

Uh, oh.  Mark Zuckerberg is at it again!   

First we caught him sneaking his face-recognition software into Facebook without letting us know.  Now he’s following us around the web, even when we’re not logged in to Facebook. 

Oh my goodness, Mark, Mark, Mark!  You megalomaniac, you! 

Of course we lost control of our Older Male Sibling long ago.  Back when we put our Social Security numbers on job applications we surrendered ourselves to being watched and dogged by what has become a voracious, titanic mogul in the sky. 

Until recently, I didn’t feel watched or dogged.  In fact, I had a hard time imagining that any one person up there in the cloud could be bothered with the mundane routines of my comings and goings.  Ho hum.  

But of course it’s not my comings and goings that interest the industrious Zuckerberg clan.  Their interest lies in my willingness to spend my money on their stuff.  

Case in point:  My experience with Spanx.  It’s underwear, OK?  Specialized body slimming underwear – the latest thing in the 100 Years War of the Waistline.  If you want to know more about Spanx, you’ll just have to look it up.  But do so at your own risk. 

I confess I went onto the Spanx website and shopped around.  I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t buy their pitch.  OK, I kind of do accept their squeeze-it smooth-it pretend-it’s-not-there premise, but their stuff is ‘way too expensive for me.  Still, I noodled around with the detached interest of a shopper who hopes to find a comparable product at a reasonable price at Kohl’s. 

Let’s say that was Monday.  WEDNESDAY, I got a catalog, from Spanx, with my name on it, in the US mail!   

Did Mark Zuckerberg just send me a Spanx catalog?  Now that’s weird. 

And he’s meeting with all kinds of powerful people – House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan - the President!  What’s that all about?! 

I’m starting to feel a kinship with all those conspiracy theorists who believe “they” are reading our mail and tapping our phones.  Pass the aluminum foil. 

You know, my crazy Aunt June thought her sister-in-law (my crazy Aunt Daisy) was reading her mail, opening her electric bills, and examining her cable viewing habits.  Turns out, she was!  Caught her red-handed steaming envelopes!  Not so crazy after all.

Now Zuckerberg unveils some of the most drastic changes ever made to Facebook's service.  The fear among users relates to what some say portends a worrisome privacy situation on the social network, led by Mr. Z’s new feature, “Timeline,” and changes to “Open Graph.”  Zuckerberg said he believes these “improvements” will help users share every single facet of their lives on the social network.

Timeline provides users with a way to view "the story of your life," including a collection of all the “stories” users have shared on Facebook over the years, as well as the pictures they've posted, and the applications they've used.  Oh yes, it’s all in Mr. Z’s sky-vault.

Facebook's updated Open Graph enables users, thanks to Timeline and a new addition, Ticker, to see what a “friend” is doing in real time, for example if he’s watching a movie on Netflix or listening to a song on Spotify (whatever that is!).  Then the viewer can engage in that same activity from within the social network.  Imaginary friends have become virtual friends.  

If that’s not enough to make you twitch, over the other shoulder comes OnStar following us around town even if we cancel their GPS service or never activate it in the first place.   

Not only does OnStar store data on your vehicle diagnostics like oil changes, tire pressure, the gas type you use; information about crashes such as whether you’re wearing a seat belt or whether an airbag deployed; and the car’s GPS/location information – including the speed of the vehicle, when the vehicle moves, and the precise location of the vehicle moment-to-moment.  All the more ominous when we’re reminded that GM offers a “free” trial of OnStar with each new vehicle it sells.  

I haven’t had that kind of monitoring since I was a teenager trying to elude my dad. 

Of course, OnStar reserves the right to sell aggregate data to third parties likely to be advertising, insurance, and analytics companies eager to gather as much information about us as they can for their own prying, greed-based reasons. 

And you thought you were alone. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Your Mother Doesn't Live in Outer Space

I’m not one to lose faith in the human race, but even a person with my high level of patience and boundless optimism can be tested.   

Some things just make me wonder if we humans will ever grow up.  Are we evolving? 

OK, sure, we’re standing upright.  That’s important, but so 2 million years ago.  We created Facebook and yogurt-on-the-go, though some may question whether these represent progress. 

It’s just this news item I ran across the other day:  “Orbital mess may require high-tech maid service.” 

Come on!  Really? 

The brain trust that developed our space program, the brilliant thinkers who put the International Space Station and all manner of satellites into the sky bringing us everything from the NFL Red Zone to GPS pet tracking, the brightest and the best among us merged onto the intergalactic highway and just threw the trash out the window? 

It’s so disappointing.   

Twenty-two thousand objects large enough to track from terra firma circle above our heads, not to mention the countless chunks of space rubble too small to track, but still large enough to damage human-carrying spaceships or valuable satellites.  The International Space Station had to maneuver out of the way of this cosmic flotsam more than once.  That involves a bit more effort than swerving to avoid a cast off tennis shoe on the freeway. 

“We’ve lost control of the environment,” admitted a retired NASA senior scientist.  That’s a pretty big environment!  It’s not just a teenager’s bedroom you can close the door on.  

To be fair, 25 years ago, when scientists around the world first noticed their slovenliness could cause problems, they came up with agreements to limit new space junk.  They signed a pact guaranteeing what they sent into orbit would eventually fall back to Earth and burn up.  It actually worked. 

That was a close one. 

But wait…what’s this?  Another headline?  “Earth braces for giant piece of space junk.”   

You mean the grand “it’ll flame out and fizzle on re-entry” scheme is flawed?  OMG.  A six-ton NASA satellite the size of a school bus reported to be “tumbling in orbit and succumbing to Earth’s gravity”…will crash to the surface Friday [today].  Or maybe Saturday.  They’re not sure exactly when, or where. 

Great.  “Out-of-control crashing satellites don’t lend themselves to exact estimates even for the precision-minded folks at NASA.”  Ha ha ha.  LOL.  NASA scientists did, however, calculate the odds of a person being struck by a piece of this debris at 1-in-3,200.  I feel much better now. 

Adding insult, two recent incidents dumped enough junk into our cosmic greenbelt that the original problem re-asserted itself.  (We may be able to write that sci-fi disaster screenplay after all.) 

First, two satellites crashed into each other.  Go figure.  In the vastness of space they found each other, like that guy wandering in the desert who trips over the only log for miles.  Looks like we have a surplus of circumnavigating high-tech tree trunks.  

Then, in what’s characterized as an anti-satellite weapons test, the Chinese used a missile to smash one of their aging weather satellites into more than 150,000 dangerous hunks o’ junk, more than three thousand of which are large enough to trace with ground radar.  

In response to this, an expert panel at the Department of Defense huddled up and began developing all manner of unusual strategies, techniques, and weird space technology to vacuum up all the extraterrestrial trash accumulating above us. 

They’ve designed cosmic nets, magnets, even gargantuan umbrellas to collect the clutter and dispose of it properly.  I guess that means they’ll bring it back home and take it to the dump.  

The good news is the demand for these gadgets means jobs.  The project requires a wide range of workers, from those with high levels of technical skill and expertise who will create the machinery and launch it, all the way to those who will operate the levers on the colossal garbage trucks patrolling our solar system like so many Wall-E’s. 

The bad news is we must scale down our noble dreams of celestial exploration.  We’re reduced from Galaxy Quest to orbiting street sweepers.  

Considering this and the budget cuts to NASA and SETI, we won’t be exploring new worlds or seeking out new life forms and civilizations.  We won’t boldly go where no one has gone before.  

No.  Like chastised adolescents, we’ll go timidly right back where we went before and clean up after ourselves.   

Friday, September 16, 2011

Confessions of a Retired Domestic

So I found myself scrolling through photos of the top 20 Worst Wax Replicas of celebrities in Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum.  Thanks, Yahoo!   

Some of them really are unrecognizable.  The one that’s supposed to be Julia Roberts looks like an age-progressed Bristol Palin.  Oh wait, could that truly be Bristol Palin in a borrowed dress?  A little sad, a little saggy.  

Nicole Kidman’s wax figure looks like it’s been shot full of Botox, but then that might make hers the most realistic.  Michael Jackson’s likeness is extremely unnatural, and, ditto.

I’m sure the wax sculptors worked long hours in climate controlled studios yet they managed to make someone as beautiful as Jennifer Lopez look like a self-conscious teenager – too much make-up and a dramatic pose.  They even made a stiff little Brad-Angelina baby with Jolie’s full, fleshy lips.  Oh my God.  Why?  Why? 

All is put into perspective by the disclaimer on the museum’s website:  “Please note that Madame Tussaud’s reserves the right to remove or alter figures for technical, operational, health and safety or other reasons without prior notice.”  Ewww! 

Of course you know what this means:  I’m avoiding the floors.  We have lots of hardwood, which I love.  So warm.  So cozy.  So dusty.  When the morning sun is just right, I can see our traffic patterns trailing a clean path through the hallways in the dust. 

And speaking of dust, I’ve neglected it long enough that our dust bunnies have morphed into dust rhinos.  And dust hippos.  I swear I saw a sooty lemur skulking under the bed this morning.  I could round up this menagerie, buy a flea circus, and take the whole show on the road.   

When do spider webs officially transform into cobwebs?  Is there a stigma attached to that?  It seems there is.  Cobwebs don’t add character, no matter how much you squint your eyes and think of days gone by.  And what’s up with this cadre of arachnids that so diligently constructs its wonders of nature, only to abandon them and build again?  Why don’t they just move outdoors?  Honestly. 

We have a beautiful view except for those water spots on the windows.  So the windows are on my list as I gear up for Spring Cleaning.  You know I’m on the Aztec calendar, right?  It’s an extremely workable alternative to our traditional Roman calendar – so 2010. 

Actually, the windows are on the waiting list.  They’ve not reached the top priority “must clean” status.  A few spots do not a big deal make.  I’ll wait ‘til they start to look filmy.   

I use my Grandma Simpson’s TV set as the standard for filmy.  Once when my husband and I visited her in Casa, Arkansas, the three of us watched the PGA tournament on her giant box of a console TV.  Vijay Singh was her favorite golfer.  But he was hard to make out on the screen.  All the players seemed to have dark hair and fuzzy edges.   

You need to understand Grandma Simpson smoked her first cigarette before she got out of bed in the morning and continued lighting up all day long, her last puff drawn in when she reclined after Johnny Carson and began drifting off to sleep.  Kools menthol.  Awful.  Thank goodness for flame retardant bedclothes or she probably wouldn’t have survived to her full 81 years.   

So, when my husband crossed the room to adjust the picture (remember “contrast”?) he accidentally bumped the screen.  It was sticky. 

After a vigorous session with Windex and a scrub sponge, voila!  Shocking and beautiful all at once.  Bright colors and crisp borders defined players, fairways, sand traps, water hazards, and greens.   

I couldn’t help wondering about her carpet and drapes.  Love ya, Grandma, but yikes!  I don’t think I’ll wait for that kind of film around here! 

I could always water the plants or do some laundry, but what’s this?  “Odd Hiccup Cures that Actually Work.”  The old standards are fine for your humdrum run-of-the-mill hiccups.  But for persistent or intractable hiccuppers, and you know who you are, try acupuncture, sex, or medical marijuana.  Really. 

You can’t learn this stuff just anywhere.  Only on the internet news.  Check out One-minute Ways to Live a Little Longer (by Dr. Oz) and the House Built by Chipmunks. 

This stuff can’t wait.  But the vacuuming can.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

One American Ten Years After

The youngest child in a family gets special privileges, especially if the she is gifted. 

A gifted baby not only gets special recognition, but also special protections.  Much is forgiven the gifted child.   

All are delighted when a golden child performs.  Soon her talents afford her special dispensation:  the golden child is exceptional.  Family members take note and look to her for a model to follow, for leadership. As the golden child goes, so goes the world. 

In fact, family members soon expect the fair-haired one to share the rewards of her special skills with those less fortunate.  If things go wrong, siblings look to her to take the lead in making them right again.  With privilege comes responsibility after all. 

Naturally, based on her experience, the exceptional child develops her own expectations.  She expects the special treatment showered on her to continue.  She dons the leadership mantle and steps to the forefront without looking back, knowing that the others will fall in line. 

The extraordinary girl grows to believe she is loved by all, held up by all, respected, admired, emulated by all. 

But all is not well in the exceptional young woman’s world.  While many rejoice in her success and gladly look up to her beacon of enlightenment and goodwill, others become angry, jealous, surly.   

They see she is imperfect.  What’s more, she blocks their sunlight.  She steals their place leaving only cool shadows.  They are tramped upon when she exceeds her bounds, bounds she does not recognize at all. 

And so a sibling plots and plans to show the world and the gifted girl.  The wounded, angry sibling strikes out with the fury of a betrayed lover, brazenly, publicly, on a stunning scale, on September 11, 2001. 

And from that day forward, we citizens of the exceptional United States have trod more lightly.  We have thought twice.  We have heard the gossip and the sneers from behind our backs.  We’ve seen our flawless grace and our bright innocence fade, our altruistic motives challenged --- they were altruistic, weren’t they? 

For our gifted, exceptional country, the legacy of September 11th, at least in part, has been humility and circumspection.  Maybe it’s not all about us after all.  

On September 11th, I was principal at a middle school.  We had 750 students aged 11 to 13. 

As the news from New York streamed in that bright day, I had the TV on in my office to see the Twin Towers battered and aflame.  Smoke billowed and flowed without end across the cloudless sky. 

Already, we had suffered the loss of a sixth grader, hit by a car.  I knew these students and the staff would want calm and security.  So when the requests came into my office to watch the news in classrooms, I said no.  Social Studies teachers did not agree with my decision.  We should let these kids see history in the making. 

Then the Towers fell and fell and fell.  A second volley of requests came in.  The teachers wanted to see, but they were unsure if it was okay to let the kids watch.  Better ask Carolyn.  No, I said no. 

We had a peaceful day at school September 11th.  The kids ran and played almost like always.   

Our son was a junior in high school and played defensive line against a formidable rival that Friday.  My husband and I sat in the stands with the same parents we’d known through elementary school bunch ball (soccer), baseball, and wrestling.  We cheered and chanted like always, on the skin of the bubble at least.  Beneath that fragile membrane though, our hearts constricted and our eyes turned skyward too often. 

A year later I moved on to the high school.  On a crisp fall day all 1700 students and staff, released for lunch, milled about the corridors and the quad, when olive drab Air Force transports began flying low overhead.  Again and again they banked above us, hanging ridiculously close and impossibly static in the air.  

Touch and go practice flights, I surmised, though I’d never seen such a pattern so close to the school.  The quad, normally alive with the laughter and squeals of healthy teenagers, grew still, edgy.  Feeling ill at ease myself, but hoping to allay the kids’ anxiety, I raised my hand to wave at a pilot.  Just then, a sophomore jogged to my side and said, “Look Mrs. Plath!  Osama!” 

So for me it’s ever-present now, part of the legacy of September 11, 2001, those threads of disquiet woven into the fabric of our formerly golden lives. 

But it’s not about me, or is it?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Devil's in the Details

I heard this morning that the forward for Dick Cheney’s new book, In My Time, was written by Satan.

Just kidding of course.  Satan doesn’t write forwards, though he might have stood at Cheney’s shoulder during the writing of the memoir, offering reminders about how things went down during their time together in the Bush administration. 

Again, a joke.  Too easy I know.  I should be ashamed. 

It’s just hard to look at Mr. Cheney while he confirms that he advocated the torture, excuse me, “enhanced interrogation” of prisoners of war in US custody on his watch.  It was the right thing to do, he says.  It was “safe, legal, and effective.”  Safe for whom is unclear.  Legal unless you’re bound by United Nations’ regulations.  (Cheney would be arrested if he were to stray into Europe.)  Even its effectiveness is in question.

Nevertheless, he says he’d do it again.  Without hesitation. 

OK then.  How about this:  Other foot.  Gander and goose.  Is it OK for our enemies to torture US citizens they have in custody if they are suspected to be spies?  No, says Cheney.  “We would object.”  He implies he expects US citizens to be treated according to the aforementioned rules of the UN.   

But…but….isn’t that a contradiction?  What about turnabout?  We didn’t “interrogate” American citizens, says the Dark One.  We only water-boarded 2 or 3 prisoners who were not US citizens. 

Oh.  Well then.  What’s all the fuss about?  Haven’t yet heard John McCain’s take on Cheney’s do si do. 

Word has it that Cheney drove Bush into the war with Iraq.  He doesn’t deny it.  Bush was on the fence about Sadam for too long in his opinion when, according to NBC News, Cheney turned to him and said, paraphrasing, “Are you going to take this guy out, or what?” 

Asked about the 4,000 American lives lost in Iraq (not to mention the uncounted, devastating, life-changing injuries), the 100,000+ Iraqi casualties, and the $1trillion cost of the war, Cheney says without equivocation – worth it.  To him, I guess. 

Of course, what else can he say?  It wouldn’t do for him to express remorse now even if he felt it.  That would be tantamount to serial killers caught and convicted who then apologize for their crimes.  Just doesn’t cut it.  Of course we’re also outraged if they show no shame or repentance.  What’s a poor serial killer to do? 

While memoirs are by nature introspective, Cheney’s cannot offer up insights gained from self-reflection since he does not engage in it.  In hindsight he instead looks outward, assuming credit for saving Americans from further “mass casualty” attacks, the demise of Qaddafi, and by extension it would seem, the entire Arab spring. 

During a pre-release interview Cheney responded to questions about how his book would be received in Washington.  He said with a chuckle, “Heads will explode all over town.” 

The New York Times allows that most Washington memoirs follow a pattern:  The author explains the events that transpired during his or her time in office according to the “I was right and if they agreed with me, they were right too” doctrine.  It naturally follows that “If they didn’t agree with me, they were idiots.”  The difference with Cheney is the bluntness of his declarations. 

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on Face the Nation saying Cheney’s marketing hyperbole and “cheap shots” are more expected of a gossip columnist or a grocery store tabloid than a former vice president of the United States of America.  Guess Powell didn’t agree with Cheney back in the day. 

Cheney admits to revealing the content of private conversations with then-President Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and others, shrugging his shoulders saying he can’t see how they would feel betrayed.  Indeed. 

It’s certain that Cheney relishes in his characterization as the most powerful vice president in US history.  He even called up the moniker “Darth Vader” when his interviewer failed to mention it.  

Dick Cheney’s role in our history is secured.  Historians will pour over his words, those of Secretaries Powell and Rice, and certainly those of former President George W. Bush, piecing together a dispassionate chronology and even an objective assessment of the impacts of all these players on the world stage.  Cost-benefits analysis.  Means and ends.  Hindsight with wave-length laser surgery. 

Who writes the afterword remains to be seen.