Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book review: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I could not put it down.

I thought it would probably take me weeks of bringing this book along with me for my solo meals out, which is how I do much of my reading. I'd get through a bit here, chew on it, bite off a bit more, etc.

Instead, I read it from beginning to end in one sitting, staying up long past my bedtime because I prefered reading it to sleeping. I began the book as my accompaniment for a solo meal out, that meal ran into more than two hours, then I brought it home and continued to read it until I was surprised and saddened by the last page.

This is at once a beautiful, touching, moving and profoundly insightful book. It answered, in one swiftly deft sweep of elegant prose, questions about racial identity in America that have puzzled me since I realized that I was "white" and there were other people, mostly distinguished by skin color and economic class, who were "colored." I would guess I was around four or five years old when I first wondered why white and colored people were so angry with each other. It was 1964.

This book is written, earnestly and sincerely, as a letter to his son. There is no artifice in this. It is a letter from a black father frightened for his black son, who wants him to understand his situation and be able to discern lies from truth as he deals with it. He almost too-dryly lays out the dangerous situations over which his son will have no control other than over his own actions and mental repose, explaining each with simple equations of self-interest, power and brutality.

He then details his own struggle and evolution with all this, honestly unearthing his own now-abandoned limited views of the world, some left on the streets of Paris and some left on the boulevards of a now-gentrifying Harlem, now strolled by white women with strollers, the very neighborhood in which I live today and read this remarkable book.

He describes white people as "people who believe themselves to be 'white.'" This distinction is the central revelation of this book for me as a man of caucasian and European descent.  I was primed and readied for this view because I've never felt my "white" identity was something real.  I'm a little Northern European on my mother's side, a little Southern European on my father's.

I've had my DNA sequenced, so I know that my father's ancestors emigrated from Northern Africa to Southern Europe fifty-thousand years ago, about twenty-thousand years before my mother's ancestors came out of the Caucus mountains and moved to Northern Europe.  I have more in common genetically with people in the Basque region of Spain than any other currently identifiable region, but my father's family regards it's European roots as being in Alsace, we have record of a DeWald as a tax collector in the region in the eleventh century.

However, the name DeWald has it's richest history in South Africa, at least for the last couple of centuries, and in German, it means "of the woods."

So, WTF am I?  A German/English/Basque/Alsatian/Afrikaner?  I'm all those things, but according to the US culture, I'm "white" along with my friends whose ancestors followed an entirely different path.  We share a skin color and assumedly "not one drop" of the adulterating "colored" blood.   That's what makes us white, and it is the only thing that makes us white.  We believe we are and so does everyone around us.

This is the point that Mr Coates makes so eloquently.  "White" isn't a race, as such, it's an identity, and the degree to which one possesses the identity (in their view and in the view of others) determines which side of the racial dividing (white vs. non-white)  line one lives in the United States.  The United States has, in Mr. Coates view, a heritage of enslavement, a history of violent oppression, and a continuing practice of violating non-white personhood.  He points out, coldly and rationally, that non-white people, today, still lack boundaries and protections against institutional and state-sanctioned forms of systemic violence.

White people, or as Mr. Coates reminds us, "people who believe themselves to be white" take inviolable boundaries and protections against these kinds of institutional and state-sanctioned manifestations of systemic violence for granted.  This is what really makes them white.

I live in Harlem.  It would shock me to the very core of my being if a NYPD officer stopped and frisked me for drugs, weapons or contraband.   It would be a turning point in my life, a story I would tell for years, something I would pursue remediation for to the full extent possible, with no fear of further persecution because I chose to do so.

I walk by black men being stopped and frisked by NYPD on these same Harlem streets so routinely that I hardly take notice of it.

There's nothing rhetorical about that.  It's a fact of my own life.

If I had a black son, I would require him to read this book.  Today.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Coping with the loss of oppression.

A few days ago the morning paper was full of stories about the Supreme Court's decision concerning marriage equality. A number of those stories concerned wistful gay rights advocates who found themselves grieving the loss of their oppressed status and fearing the ramifications that the end of their legal repression will have for Art and gay culture. There was surprise expressed about this seeming disconnect between the joy of a legal victory and this discouraged outlook for the future of their community both in the stories themselves and by those they interviewed.

There is no disconnect. Even when one hates an identity it is hard to see it go. I've been through this myself.

When I shed one-hundred twenty pounds of excess weight in early 2010 I lost my identity as the fattest guy in the room. For the previous twenty years I had always been easily identifiable by that very tag. It was very, very very rarely not the case.

One of the most shocking moments of my life was when a work colleague I met in mid-2010 told me that "obese" was not a word he would use to describe me to someone else. I will never forget. I was stopped dead in my tracks for a moment. I remember the ochre color of the wall and the brown trim around the door I was looking at when he said this. He had never known the fattest guy in the room, but he knew me.

Over the years of living as a very large man in a world that largely shunned and ridiculed me I become adept at explaining to myself and others what my limitations were and why I had them. Comfort is a scarce commodity in a four-hundred pound man's world, but I could comfort myself with the notion that my isolation, celibacy and stunted professional success were the product of being in a world that unfairly and impersonally shamed fat people.

Similarly, I think, thought leaders in gay culture have used their status as an oppressed minority to explain their limitations. They now find themselves, as I did a few years ago, in a new situation now that the oppression, at least in this singular but important official sense, is being lifted. All of the advantages of operating as a legal repressed minority with regard to marriage and family have vanished.

Take it from me, this is profoundly disorienting in a way that is so subtle it is almost hidden. It is a time of reckoning, and it is not simple. I wish them well.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

How to lose a Happy Customer

Yesterday, I need to log-in to my web host.  I lease space on my web-host's servers to provide web-sites for myself and a number of other people.  My web-host is a very progressive, highly-skilled and innovative company.  They provide multi-factor authentication, a method for protecting my account from unauthorized persons.  In short, I need my password and my phone to log-in.

I changed phones recently, losing one of the two-factors I needed to log-in.  To account for this inevitability, the service provides never-expiring back-up codes to use.  I had already logged-in previously using these codes (since changing my phone), so I only had three left.

I decided to use the link they provided on the log-in page to reset my multi-factor authentication.

I clicked it, I was asked to reset my password via a link sent to the e-mail associated with the account.  That's a perfectly reasonable request, so I did so.  It asked me for a multi-factor authentication code to complete that request, so I used one of the three I had left.

I knew my password, I didn't really want to change it, but that's on me.  I changed it, submitted one of the three codes I had, was told the change was successful, and then was directed to log-in to my account.

When I went back to log-in to the account, they required a multi-factor authentication code to complete the log-in.  I used one of the two I had left, that failed.

The only option I had left was to try the whole process again, and that used up my last code.

I was now locked-out of my account because I followed their instructions.

I started looking on the web-site and wiki for a phone number. There isn't one.

I went to submit a lost password ticket off of their website.  In order to authenticate the ticket, I had to provide the first and last four for my credit card.

I have six credit/debit cards, and a paypal account.  I have been paying by paypal, but I knew I had used one of my cards with them, but I didn't know which.  I had to submit six tickets in order to make sure at least one of them would match up.

Four hours later I got an e-mail from them admonishing me for submitting multiple tickets on the same issue.

That was the line they crossed.  I was doing what they asked me to do to the best of my ability.

I previously loved and admired this company to the extent that one can "love and admire" a company.  I have sent them many customers, tested their new systems, and have been an unpaid technical evangelist for them for a long, long time.

Today, I begin the lengthy and sad process of moving to another, probably less-capable, web-host.

Why?  I need a web-host with a phone number.  It's that simple.  I need that connection.  It's 2015, not 2050.  Web-services are not reliable break-glass procedures for unique and unanticipated customer problems.

Their re-set procedures churned through my back-up codes and did not work.  I needed to call them and tell them that.

They don't want to let me.

I know the underlying strategy here is to maximize efficiency.  I provide technical support in my job.  Most requests are best handled over e-mail.  But, everyone has my phone number.  For the hundreds of dollars a year I was paying them, they can give me one too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Waiting for you, waiting for me.

Some things in life repeatedly surprise me. This also surprises me. One would think that the surprise that I get surprised would wear off, but it hasn’t.

I think about my friends a lot. I plan to go see them. I save conversational nuggets. I bring gifts from time to time. I go to them, like thirst seeks water.

Very few friends come to see me. I realize retrospectively that I have become accustomed to this over time. I used to pay more to live in a place I could entertain in. I had extra chairs, place-settings, and cocktail glasses. Like a fine arts degree from a small college, they sat as un-used reminders of an unrealized dream until I gradually discarded them over time for the extra room.

Now I have one chair, one plate, a few glasses, and a few pieces of mis-matched flatware. I have about a dozen coffee mugs because I once collected them, but mostly I have enough eating/sitting/sleeping things for myself, alone.

I comforted myself with the idea that this imbalance between visiting and being visited was a matter of expeditious convenience, that is, because I am single and unmarried I am much more mobile. It’s much easier for me to get to my friends than for them to get to me.

Right. As if “easy wins.” When did “easy” become the most important thing in friendships? Why is “easy” even a particularly coveted value in this situation? No one wants things to be hard, but traveling to see my friends wasn’t something I did because it was easy. I did it because I thought it was my contribution to something we mutually valued.

Being the one to go to my friends may be something I quit because it is too hard. The difficulty of travel is not the biggest problem, the difficulty of being on the wrong side of this imbalance on a consistent basis bothers me much more. It is hard to adjust my schedule to fit with others. I wait, I defer, I put things off, I exercise patience. Too often I’m the only one.

Honestly, my patience muscle is strong enough; it doesn’t need a lot of exercise. I can be very patient, but it is not always right for me to be patient. Sometimes I forgive too much, am “patient” too often, too frequently accepting the priorities of others over mine. This is a defense against the uncomfortable feeling of not being wanted on my terms. This isn’t really forgiveness, it’s a kind of mental cocktail, something to take the edge off.

Inevitably things hit the fan and the people around me understandably conclude that I am volatile and dramatic with complicated and covert standards for other’s behavior. The time and energy I spent managing my un-met wants and hoping for a better outcome that precedes an eruption is something I keep well-hidden.

This strategy and collection of habits doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to go to extremes, but things are going to change.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

This Christmas, be kind, not nice.

I am currently in that uncertain, awkward phase of getting to know A. After over a year of exchanging smiles, greetings and small talk when I ate lunch at her sushi place, after more than two months of negotiating schedules and postponing our first meeting three separate times, we finally got together for a coffee at Starbucks last Friday.

It's Christmastime, and I asked her to Starbucks to satisfy my curiosity about her life and background, so I brought a small gift for her to the meeting as a token of my appreciation for making time for me. It was a pen, special because it will write on almost anything in any position. I thought this would be useful to a waitress. Hers had a special finish. It came in a gift box. I gift-wrapped it and gave it to her at the close of our rendezvous at Starbucks.

We had a wonderful talk, three hours of mutual disclosure and sharing. She is from a foreign land, the only child of a single mother. English is a second language, she didn't study it seriously until she decided to immigrate to the United States. Hers is a fascinating story of courage, pluck, hard work and good fortune. I was happy to hear it.

I didn't ask her age, but I found out in our conversation that her mother is forty-five, nine years younger than I. Putting together various other chronologies from discussions of her education back home and time in the US, I would guess she is about twenty-five. We parted planning to see each other again. More discussion of our encounter belongs in another essay, this one is about the gift.

I had all but forgotten it last Tuesday when I texted her to wish her well on her winter holiday trip to California.

Me: Bon voyage! Have a good trip. Travel safe.

Oops, I should use better grammar. English is hard enough to learn without my bad examples.

A: Thank you Richard!)) I very like your present. Take care

I'm guessing the two parentheses were a mis-typed emoji.

Me: :-) Stay in touch.

Oh yeah, the present, cool that she likes it I thought to myself. I had almost forgotten about it. I got everything I wanted from it by just having a chance to give it to her. It was a bonus that she liked it. As with most of my immediate reactions in these situations, that was right on. It's a beautiful clear sunny day in my mind's train station, I have a nice seat on a comfortable bench.

Then the Doubt Express rolls in, bringing it's usual overcast skies and gloomy outlook.

So, I think to myself, she says "take care." Does that mean she's saying goodbye? She says she "very likes" the present, is that a way of pushing me away with feigned praise?

Wow, I then think to myself, that's a fucked-up notion. Why am I in this hand-basket and why is it getting warm? Why the doubt?

Because I do this. I push people away with fake praise and gratitude. I have no reason to think that A does this as well, I'm just reaching for messages from her because I'm in this early phase of getting to know her. I inadvertently reached into my own bag of dysfunction for a clue, temporarily mistaking my character flaws for insight into her possibly hidden motives.

I have no idea where our friendship is going. I don't even know that it's going anywhere. We had a nice talk. We both left wanting more. That's all I know. I've never been my age with friends her age. I don't have a script for this. I just liked her as a waitress and asked her to coffee. I hadn't thought about the next step because I wasn't sure we would get to this one.

Now that I am thinking about next steps, wondering what's going to happen now that we both seemed to have surprised ourselves with how much we enjoyed talking, I want some answers. Since I don't have a way to get any right now, I start making them up.

Being honest with myself about all this caused me to discover something new about what's wrong with white lies like "I LOVED your gift. It means so much to me" when the truth is otherwise. I've said things like this to people in the past just before I tossed their present in the re-gifting box while looking for something to give them in return, internally resolving to avoid them next Christmas.

I regard the white lie as the right thing to do since the sentiment I expressed spares the other person the possible embarrassment of knowing they failed to impress me with their gift, or worse, that I didn't want a gift from them in the first place. Besides, it was nice. It's always good to be nice, right?

It is the season for gift-giving, often to people we don't know well, often overlain with and obscured by the social norms of rank, privilege and authority. We give gifts to people whom we otherwise wouldn't spontaneously give a gift: bosses, employees, co-workers, distant relatives, in-laws, etc,.

We also buy bigger gifts for those people to whom we are accustomed to giving, perhaps after having saved money for it, or shopped extensively, or done some special research. With A, I also used Christmastime as an excuse to put a toe over a boundary between waitress and customer. This also happens.

All this makes gift-giving/receiving a high-risk, high-reward endeavor this time of year. Messages are sent with gifts. Some are received clearly, some not, some are missed. Some people lie.

It's bad enough that I have this people-pleasing habit because it makes me a phony. I am pushing people away with niceness, I am deliberately misleading them about who I am. That's clear and easy to see.

It is not so easy to see that this habit of being nice causes me to miss genuine messages from others. I wonder if they are just being nice to me instead of being genuine. Are they re-gifting my bauble? Are they rolling their eyes at the prospect of now having to give something to me when they had no plans to do so?

Assume the simplest explanation about A's reaction is true--she really likes the pen. She liked it so much that telling me that was the first thing she said to me after opening it. How cool is that? I get the bonus gift of finding out I guessed right about someone I'm getting to know. She is happy to have it, she wants me to know that. Awesome.

Instead, because of my habit of phony niceness to others in the past, I hop aboard the doubt train going to Loser-ville. What if she's a liar like I am?

That's the real cost of being nice, and it's why I'm trying to stamp niceness out of my life permanently. I want to be kind. I don't want to be a people-pleaser. I want to be known as someone who is direct and transparent. I want to see the directness and transparency in people around me clearly.

So, in these last few days of shopping before Christmas think about kindness versus niceness. Kindness belongs in Christmas. Find your Tiny Tim, bring him a Christmas goose. Otherwise, take the risk of respecting your genuine gift list. Don't give gifts to be nice.

When you give to be nice you're actually taking Christmas away, keeping Bob Cratchit late on Christmas Eve to line your own pockets. Please don't.

This Christmas be kind, forget niceness.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

On being in a high conference room next to Ground Zero.

Granite whispers low: "Money, wealth, fame, power here." What nine-eleven?

Monday, October 27, 2014

I heart the X40

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I have an IBM Thinkpad X40 that I first acquired in 2005 (but I believe it was actually sold to my employer in 2004). I used it at the bedside as a visiting hospice nurse, then when these machines were retired, I bought a few for myself from my employer because I like the physical design of the machine so much.

It has no internal removable disk drives, no floppy, no CD. These are housed in a removable docking base. It is the design grandfather of the current ultrabook (think MacBook Air) concept.

My MacBook Air (fall 2011 model) is lighter and thinner, but it is so because of hardware and technology that did not exist in 2004. The design concept is the same--clamshell, computer guts topped with keyboard on the bottom, a maxed-out edge-to-edge LCD for a lid. I also still like the X40's red nipple joystick (between G, H and above B on the keyboard) for mouse emulation, no trackpad.

I think the X40 (and X41) was the finest expression of the design concept by IBM. The X60 was too thick, heavy and hot, trackpads got in the way and added too much weight and space, and it just got worse from there. By the time I had another ThinkPad (Lenovo had taken over the business from IBM and) it was an X200 tablet, and that thing was a behemoth by comparison.

The X40 was made obsolete by a combination of the motherboard maxing-out at 1.5 GB of RAM and Windows XP bloating to the point where 1.5 GB just wasn't enough RAM to yield an acceptable user experience. I began installing Debian Linux on these machines in 2006 and they've since remained plenty fast to provide a mobile desktop even while staying current on the latest stable release of Debian (currently Wheezy, version 7.6).

Lately, the problem had been the disk drives in these machines. They were old and slow. Also, the batteries only last about 3 years, so I am on my third generation now. Luckily, there's enough of these machines in use that they still make new batteries.

I replaced the old hard disk in my X40 with an solid state disk and the difference in performance is remarkable. With the SSD, running Debian Linux 7.6 with the lightweight XCFE GUI environment, this machine rocks. It is fast, light, cool, and I get almost six hours of use from one battery recharge. The SSD draws much less power.

I feel like the x40 is kind of like the VW bus of laptops, something that future collectors will covet for actual use. Overlooked in it's day, people who understand the vision in it's design will appreciate it's timeless simplicity and practicality.

It is likely that if you put a slimmed-down, low resource intensive, installation of XP on this machine with an SSD it would do okay, except that XP would trash the drive because it isn't SSD aware.

I think both Apple and Microsoft are floundering a bit with where to go "next" with laptops. Microsoft is pushing this laptop-tablet hybrid, and Apple is pushing the Air lighter, thinner and more powerful, but not much else. I wonder if they fear that a detachable keyboard on the Air would adversely influence iPad sales?

Consider the notion that there's no where to go. The X40 concept is as good as we can get while we are primarily relying upon a keyboard and mouse to interact with the machine.

Much in the same way, no one every really improved on the family mini-van concept after the VW Bus, they may be better expressions of the concept than that top-heavy tin-can on wheels that was the VW model in the 1960's, but the idea is the same. One might argue that SUV's are an improvement, but this is much more like the detachable keyboard being an improvement. It is still just an extension of the basic original idea.

Some designs are complete expressions. A fork is a fork. A bow and arrow is a bow and arrow, there's not a "better" way to do that, just more technologically advanced.

So, I'm happy with my souped-up X40, and I like the fact that the computer I most use for writing is an old relic, like an old IBM selectric typewriter. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. There's something reassuring about the fact that personal computers have matured to this stage. We know what works. That's a good thing.