Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Privacy

I have been fussing around on this topic, mentally writing a blog and contemplating the issues of privacy in the age of electronic access to myriads of information.

Herewith some of the impetus for these thoughts.

# 1--I watched an interview on CBS 60 Minutes today--Julian Assange was the interviewee. Combine that interview with the fact that he is also the topic of the New York Times Sunday magazine--quite some exposure for an incredibly self-assured cocky self-righteous self-designated savior of the world young man.

# 2--we recently went to see the movie The Social Network. This movie recounts the creation of that most ubiquitous of websites--Facebook--from its days of infancy as the brain child of Mark Zuckerberg, while he was a student at Harvard. Of course, those of us who now have Facebook profiles are constantly being warned about guarding our privacy on our Facebook settings. Why, even Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook profile was hacked, just the other day. (Oh, if only I were teaching a literature course right now--that would be the PERFECT example of irony.)

# 3--a blogger whose wonderful writing I have been reading indicated, right after the horrific shootings in Tucson, that the writer of one of the blogs she reads--by someone named Ashleigh Burroughs--was one of the victims. So, I scooted off to The Burrow to read what I could. I am naturally curious, and wanted details. I read a couple of posts--posted from before the shootings, and after. I learned--via a post her daughter made--that she was doing as well as might be expected, for someone who had been shot and survived. It wasn't until days after I began reading that the proverbial lightbulb went off. Several clues, along with her being "outed" by her own admission, made me understand--I had been reading Suzi Hileman's blog.

I include this last example because it speaks directly to the issue of privacy in the age of electronic information overload. She had decided, when she began blogging, to use a nom-de-plume. In the context of her blog, she became Ashleigh. And people read her blog, responding to her, calling her Ashleigh. She wanted this other persona, no doubt for many reasons, but at least in part to preserve privacy.

When I began blogging, I used my own version of a nom-de-plume. Not a full fledged alternative identity, but one which did not use my real name. Over time, most people have figured it out. That has been part of the fun of blogging for me--figuring out the names behind the pseudonyms bloggers choose to use. I understand completely the desire for privacy.

In this electronic age, some people choose to go entirely underground--no online identity of any kind. That kind of anonymity is very hard to achieve and maintain. Frankly, our identities are practically plastered all over the place--what the electronic age with the Internet has done has made it EASIER to find out someone's name, address, phone number and maybe much more. I recently made a request to put a list of names and addresses online, and got the response--what about privacy? My first thought was--those names and addresses are available in any phone book. Even when the paper version of the phone book goes away, the online version will still be there.

So, how do I pull together the three impetus inspirations for this blog. Certainly what Julian Assange has done is a cautionary tale. He has decided that it is his right, no--make that his duty to share information with the world. He believes that only the harsh light of revelation can lead people to make correct decisions. The information he deals in is weighty--world-changing in fact. Privacy be damned, inan Assange world, we all have the RIGHT to know whatever, even if it results in someone's being killed--as it surely has. Mark Zuckerberg's brainchild Facebook demonstrates that no tidbit of information is too trivial to keep it from being shared. Sadly, there are people who use such a social network to berate, belittle and besmirch people. Information becomes a cudgel with that approach. The world of blogging is different from the first two examples. The exposure there is slower developing--some blogs may have large readerships, but most probably do not. Sometimes bloggers long for more readers, but certainly not at the cost of what Suzi Hileman has had to endure.

Truth be told, I really don't know where my thoughts are going. I certainly prefer privacy, but I also love information. Are the two irreconcilable?

Anyone out there have an answer? Anyone?

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Voice in the Wilderness

A friend of mine (on Facebook) recently suggested that I should write about the current goings-on regarding Keith Olbermann and MSNBC.

Now, long time readers here will know that freedom of speech is one of those topics I return to at times: here, or here, or even here. So, why does my mind turn immediately to freedom of speech as one of the sub-texts in relation to Keith Olbermann. Partly, because I don’t know exactly what’s going on here. And also, because I found Olbermann’s voice to be one of those critical voices that we need during a time when far too few people on the airwaves look at issues deeply. Without his voice, our vaunted freedom speech loses some of its luster for me.

Keith Olbermann, who has been the host of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” announced suddenly on Friday night that this would be his last broadcast. Some of his phrasing could lead a viewer to think he was departing on his own timing, while other phrasing made it sounds as though he had been pushed out.

Whatever the reason, it also makes me ruminate on the nature of being a prophetic voice. While too many people tend to think of future telling as what it means to be a prophet—you know, predicting who will win the Super Bowl, or whether the stock market will go up or down (yes, it will), or when the world will end—being a prophet really means speaking the uncomfortable truth to those who do not want to hear it. It is this speaking truth to power niche that Olbermann occupies. Not alone, mind you, but there are not many such brave voices.

Mostly, being a prophet is a lonely occupation. You don’t get invited to dinner parties, and if you do, the guests tend to scoot away from you, not wanting to sit too close, lest the doom rub off on them. There are many examples through time—of course, the term prophet is most associated with Biblical times. The Old Testament fairly drips with these guys. The one prime example in the New Testament—John the Baptist—fits the eccentric description to the hilt.

There are other examples through history and in literature. The Greek Cassandra appears multiple times—in Homer’s writings, in drama. She has insight into the future, but her utterings are at best ignored, at worst scorned—and she seems mad, insane to mere mortals.

Maybe it is too much to identify Olbermann’s voice as prophetic. After all, he commented with deep intelligence on current affairs. He didn’t really try to warn about what might come. At times, he was strident—perhaps even too strident. But his gaze never faltered. His incisive analysis of current events was not an empty egotistical effort. He put his politics into action. Deeply critical of the on-going absurdity in this country of the lack of universal health coverage, Keith committed his own funds to help underwrite several free clinics around the country. He raised money for these efforts, and helped sign up health providers to provide care.

As you can tell, I am still processing. Trying to figure out what really happened? Was he fired or did he quit? What comes next? Who will raise the liberal banner and bluntly address the issues from “the other side”? We seem to have our surfeit of voice on the so-called right. I will miss this voice on the left.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Old Neighborhood

For someone who grew up moving back and forth between continents (in my 12 years of basic education, I attended 7 schools in different locations)--I have stayed put in the same area for more than 4 decades.

My husband and I moved to the south central Pennsylvania, when he was finished with college and beginning his first job. Initially, we lived in an apartment, like many newly-weds. But after several years, we decided it was time to buy a house. Our son was just one year old when we began house hunting. We were decidedly not wealthy--my husband was teaching public school, and I was teaching college part time. Then, as now, part time college teaching pays woefully little. And public school teachers had only just won the right to bargain and strike if need be to raise salaries. So, we did not have loads of disposable income. We are also very sensible people, and made sure we looked at houses we could afford. The concept of buying so far over one's income level as to be "underwater" had not even been invented.

We were shown some very sorry houses--one tiny house with grey stone exterior had well water and a septic tank, not unusual. BUT this house was in a suburban neighborhood where all the houses around it were on city water and sewer. Another house, at that time 25 years old, had its original furnace. My husband envisioned a wheezing failing furnace and us with our restricted finances.

Finally, we found the right house--a one-story ranch house in an integrated neighborhood that was about 15 years old. The owners of the house that we were looking at were a former priest and a former nun who had found the strictures imposed on them by the Catholic Church to be untenable--so they left their vows and got married. They had been active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, and had entertained some of the luminaries who came to town when the
Harrisburg Seven were being tried. One of the people whom they housed over-night was Father Philip Berrigan--one of the seven-- and they had entertained his brother Father Daniel Berrigan.

On a side note, a dear friend of ours--who gave her son the middle name of Berrigan--when she visited our old house walked out on our lawn, and said--Daniel Berrigan walked here. Anyway, that's not why we bought the house. But it was an interesting back story to that place.

We lived there for about seven years. We weren't really looking for a new place, but one day--when our son was 8, we were out bike riding, and came upon this tiny new development very near our old house. We saw a house with a for sale sign in front. We got off our bikes, peered in through the windows--and thus was born an idea. Why not move?

Well, we did. When we left the old neighborhood, it was with a touch of sadness--leave takings are always thus. But it was a house we were leaving. Not really a neighborhood. Oh, true, we had neighbors--we knew their names, we said hi and such. But we never really got to know anyone. Almost all the yards were fenced in--a kind of metaphor for the lack of contact between neighbors. The only people we ever had inside our house were one couple (whose husband was also a public school teacher), and one little neighbor boy who wandered into our kitchen one day. I turned around--and there he was. I asked if his parents knew he was out--and he said, no. Strange. I just walked him home--not surprisingly, his parents were as blasé about his being out and about as he was.

The new neighborhood to which we moved--well, we have lived here for more than 30 years. And we know just about everyone in our neighborhood. Given our preference, we'd just as soon not move again!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alexander the great

It is fashionable these days among some political circles to speak disparagingly of the country's debt. One of the most commonly repeated bits of "wisdom" is--we wouldn't run our own finances that way; how can we allow the country to go into debt?

To which I usually respond--poppycock. Of course, we all do (or most of us do)--we borrow money when we have need to buy some item for which we do not have the ready cash. How many of us have ever borrowed money? If you own a house on which you are paying a mortgage, you borrowed money. Or if you own a car that you bought on time. Or if you use a credit card and do not always pay the balance due at the end of the month. All these are ways in which we do, on our own small scale, what the country does.

Of course, we can argue the merits of how MUCH debt the country should have. But, really folks, arguing whether or not the country should have any debt is just plain...silly.

It was Alexander Hamilton who, though he was never president, did as much as anyone in those heady revolutionary days, to make it possible for the young country to succeed.

I would venture that if I were to ask you to rattle off what you know about Alexander Hamilton, you might say--in this order--

  • he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr

  • he was a most important aide to George Washington, both during the American Revolution and also in Washington's cabinet

  • he was the bastard child of an Scottish father

  • he was born in the Caribbean

  • he was the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury

  • he was denied admission to Princeton (because of his bastard birth), and was then admitted to King's College (which became Columbia)

  • he was one of the primary authors of the Federalist Papers

All those things are true of Hamilton.

There are some slightly more obscure things about Hamilton.

He fought actively during the American Revolution, including leading troops in battle--the Battle of Monmouth.

He also had an affair which resulted in the U.S.'s first sexual scandal of a prominent politician--he admitted it publicly and since it was determined NOT to have any connection to his political position, it was eventually forgotten.

He had two sons named Philip. The first one was killed in a duel in 1801; the second son named Philip was born in 1802, not long after his elder brother had died, so he received the name of the deceased son.

He had a contentious political career, including a falling out with Washington, with whom he had worked so closely. In the presidential election of 1800, he worked against the candidate of his own party--John Adams who was the sitting president. When the election results were basically tied, Hamilton ended up throwing his support behind Jefferson (over Aaron Burr), giving Jefferson the win. Needless to say, Burr was not happy, and the enmity between him and Hamilton began to grow. Of course, we know it ended with the infamous duel in 1804.

I don't know what got me to thinking about Hamilton lately. Maybe it's because we recently passed his birthdate--he was born on January 11. Or maybe it's because I read a fascinating biography of him a year or so ago (written by Ron Chernow).

I think it most likely that I think of someone like Alexander Hamilton as I despair, listening to what passes for deep thinking from members of the so-called Tea Party on how to manage the country's economy. Alexander Hamilton, who helped create the U.S. Mint, who founded the first national bank, who recognized the need of the infant country to set tariffs, would roll over in his grave.

The talk of not raising the debt ceiling--so the country defaults on its debt obligations--would have garnered Hamilton's scorn. Hamilton took the mishmash of the financial system that had emerged during the period of the early confederacy of states, and honed it into a national unified system that stabilized the country and gave foreign investors the confidence to invest in the U.S.--in us.

There are many maddening by-products of the degree to which some politicians fail to know the history of our country. A few years ago, someone wanted to change the portraits on the U.S. paper currency, by placing Reagan's picture on the ten dollar bill. Part of the rationale was--we only have presidents' portraits on money--so get rid of Hamilton on the $10. Never mind that Benjamin Franklin's portrait graces the $100. It certainly wouldn't hurt if people today would pay a bit more attention to someone who was never president. Were it not for Hamilton--our Alexander the great--the United States might not be at all.
Source of engraving of the Burr-Hamilton duel:

The graphic of Reagan and Hamilton:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Staying Alive

A syzygy of events has set me to thinking about time and mortality. First, I am approaching a birthday. Since I have been excerpting portions of my parents' biography, I will save birth stories until then (not much to tell, but at least it fits with the day).

Second, in a recent Facebook posting, a high school friend noted that it was her birthday, and she said--it's my party, and I'll cry if I want to. I know she was referring to the Lesley Gore hit of many years ago, but I couldn't help but respond. I wrote back--No need to cry--just laugh and enjoy staying alive.

While I am not approaching a really ancient age, I am of an age where staying alive is something to be celebrated. Which brings me to the third event in this alignment of inspiration.

Here's the
link for a longer version of this sad story. It seems an elderly couple were in our area this past Friday, visiting a daughter. They left at 5:15 p.m. to return to their own home, about 30 miles away. They never arrived. The family contacted police, and a search began. Then four days later, their car was spotted, and then they were found--both dead from exposure. Their car was found in Maryland--some 40 miles beyond their home destination. The conjecture is that they became disoriented and confused, and somehow drove until they ended up in a field. When their car got stuck, they got out and tried to walk to safety. They did not make it.

I have no connection to the people involved in the sad story. But, because of a nearness of circumstance--I too have aging parents about whom I am concerned when they go driving--the story struck a particular chord with me.

It is deeply grieving that the story ended the way it did for them. I am sure they too just wanted to stay alive.

Oh, maybe these thoughts are too disconnected and disparate. I am not at all melancholic about an approaching birthday. In fact, I am grateful to be staying alive.

Perhaps the most fitting conclusion here is to note that my husband and I got back to our local gym (after a hiatus due to holidays and travel). Just all part of staying alive.

(Now, head right over to YouTube and pick whichever version you want of the BeeGees "Staying Alive." Frankly, there were too many for me to choose one to post here.)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

On The Road Again

Disclaimer: I absolutely cannot take any credit for these three stories. They all came from my dad. But they were simply too rich not to share. All three were included in the biographical article.

From time to time, dignitaries from the United States would travel to visit the mission work in Africa. During one such time, there were two men, each going to a different mission. The one man visited my parents' work, and my father wanted to take him to an out-station. My father picked a school, which was south of Sikalongo Mission, down the escarpment towards the Zambezi Valley, where road conditions were very poor and the road quite steep. The vehicle they had was an older one, and the brakes were in bad shape.

Even with my father using the foot brake and the hand brake, it was all he could do hold the car on the steep decline. My father instructed the African helper who was along to find a big rock, and then get on the running board of the car. He then instructed the helper that if the car would start going too fast, my father would call out, the helper should jump off and quickly put the rock under the front of the rear wheel to help stop the car. The visiting dignitary was duly impressed with the conditions under which the missionaries worked.

My mother also had car difficulties. On one trip that she and another woman missionary were on, the car got stuck in mud a few miles from the mission. Unable to extricate themselves, they saw a African riding by on his bicycle. My mother gave him a note to take to “Mufundisi” (meaning my father). Off he rode. Rather than wait, the two missionary women kept trying to get unstuck, and by perseverance succeeded. As they neared the mission, they encountered another African who flagged them down, and handed them a note to take to “Mufundisi.” It was THEIR original note!

A more reliable means of transportation was a bicycle. Most of the missionaries had a personal bike. My father used his bicycle at times to visit out-stations. He would take a folded camp cot and a changing of clothing along. His African helper carried along minimum cooking equipment. On one visit to out-stations, my father along with another missionary man and an African helper, all on their bicycles, encountered a river swollen due to seasonal rains. Faced with this situation, the two missionary men (and presumably the African helper)decided to strip naked, hold their bicycles over their heads, and ford the river. Once safely on the other side, and reclothed, the other missionary man turned to my father and wryly remarked “That was a rich experience."

I hope you enjoyed these road stories.
Next time, maybe I will pull out some of the animal stories.

Please note: the woman pictured in the photo above is NOT my mother, but another missionary woman standing with her bicycle.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

I Wonder Why...

If you were going on a trip, and you booked a plane ticket, would you want a pilot who has never flown before? Or one who has at least handled the controls in the cockpit a time or two?

If you were going to the dentist, would you want a dentist who had only read textbooks but never trained on real patients? Or one who knew how to fill a cavity with a minimum of discomfort?

If you were going to buy a birthday cake at a bakery, would you want a baker who had never read a recipe much less bake a cake? Or one who had turned out a cake or two, and had even decorated a few?

The examples could go on and on. . .

So, I wonder why it is that so many people in the United States are positively enamored with people running for political office who have no idea how government works? In fact, the candidates tout their lack of experience. They show up in Washington, D.C., (as they are doing this week), and make statements like--I don't live here...I don't want to spend my time inside the beltway...I just want to do what the people sent me here to do.

I can guess what that might be. Inexperienced legislators make a mess of governing because they don't know how to govern.

I hold no illusions about this new Congress. Sorry for the cynicism and bitterness. But I see very little good coming out of this governance by ignorance movement now afoot.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Resolved: that...

One of the activities in which I participated when I was a college student was collegiate debate. Our small college had a relatively decent debate team, and--unlike sports--we competed against far bigger colleges. We had lots of exposure to other campuses as well as we traveled for intercollegiate competition.

There was a movie a couple of years ago that did a fairly accurate job portraying collegiate debate:
The Great Debaters. The movie had other points that it was making, and debating was only a vehicle for those themes. But, still, it helped show how debating can work.

Every year, all the colleges would focus on a single resolved. The first year I debated the resolved was:

RESOLVED: That the non-communist nations of the world should establish an economic community.

The next year it was:

RESOLVED: That the federal government should guarantee an opportunity for higher education to all qualified high school graduates.

It is interesting to me to note that, in part, the first topic has been realized with the European Union.

I debated on the affirmative side of the issue. That meant that I and my partner had to do the research to PROVE the resolution. The negative team also had to do research, but could also focus on pulling the affirmative team off topic. I don't think my partner and I won many debates, but the experience was memorable and enjoyable.

So, why this reverie on debating. Because the word RESOLVED leads me to think of resolutions. Resolutions are sort of personal RESOLVEDS that you take the affirmative on and try to prove.

Every year, many people engage in their own little debate--whether or not to make New Year's resolutions. I say--do it! RESOLVED: that making resolutions at New Year's is a good thing to do.

A quick word about resolveds. They should always be worded in the positive. So, you would not say RESOLVED: making resolutions at New Year's is not worthwhile.

But, I digress.

Here's why I like resolutions.

1. They give you a goal to focus on for the new year.
2. They help you affirm the possibility of possibilities.
3. They give you the opportunity to leave behind what was less than perfect in the year gone by.

I make modest resolutions.

I resolve to
--take part in a book club
--clean out my closets before they overflow
--have lunch with friends more frequently
--take longer walks.

I never make too many resolutions. Too hard to keep track of! And, one thing I never do. At the close of the year, I do not beat myself up for any resolutions unmet. I stay on the affirmative, and eliminate the negative.

So, are you on the affirmative on this question? Or the negative?