Picking up where he left off

I’d only met Aaron Swartz once on the couches of the EFF office during the 2nd week of my new job. I had no idea who he was during that very brief exchange, but I went to my browser afterward and looked up his name. When I read about his work and the roles that he had played in freeing information and knowledge, I felt like an idiot for not having heard of him before. I was in awe of his dedication and inspired by the courageousness of his acts. I really looked forward to when I could get another chance talk to him again.

There are so many things wonderful about the hacking community…the celebration of curiosity, the open-mindedness to acknowledge the interconnectedness of things, but most of all, the ethic of seeing a problem and doing what you can to fix it. Learning about his life and reading about the kind of person that he was, it seems Aaron embodied so fully what I find so beautiful about the hacker spirit. His craft was coding, but his intellect was the fuel for his art: creating tools, building campaigns, and demonstrating acts of civil disobedience that were meant to expose deep societal, political flaws. To me, he represented the quintessential 21st century activist.

The more I delve into the world of intellectual property, the more I learn about its intricate failures and abuses. The amount of distrust, insecurity, and greed that is continually involved in the creative-industrial complex, and worse, the fact that they claim to do it in the name of furthering progress, is horribly nauseating.

Despite all of this, I know that the movement to free culture and information will win, not just because the old edifices of creative production and academic publishing are already crumbling. But more importantly, the movement is full of brilliant, committed people who are fighting for justice and the liberty of culture.

On Friday, we lost one of our very best. The amount of public outpouring of grief is a testament to the amount of love everyone had for him and everything that he stood for. And maybe he hadn’t been feeling it, or didn’t know to ask for it, but it’s obvious that it was there all along.

When we’re fighting a system that seems so rigged, so ethically rotten to its core, it’s really hard not to fall into a cycle of despair. With Aaron’s tragic passing and the sudden public revelation of the gross maltreatment of him by the justice system, these horrific events serve as a rallying call for this movement to pick up where he left off. That begins by finding the courage to face up to the powerful, institutionalized system of insecurity and greed, and do so in whatever form that may take. We also need to remember to be fair to ourselves, and knowing our limits so that we don’t burn ourselves out. We need to be able to trust and support each other enough to ask for and give help whenever we can.

Let’s keep working until we recognize a world we, and he, would want to live in.

RIP Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

Social Static / Disconnecting Facebook

Him: “For real? Gonna go for it huh?”
Me: “Yup. I’d been thinking about it for a while and I finally committed myself to following through. It was time.”
Him: *pause* “Nah…you won’t be able to, you’ll miss it too much. I bet you’ll come back.”
Me: “Uhhh…No. I won’t. I really, REALLY won’t.”

And I haven’t. Soon after I did away with my Foursquare account, I went ahead and closed my Facebook one and haven’t looked back.

For starters, it was the privacy concerns. It never ceased to irk me that their entire business model rests on collecting and selling users’ information. They’ve got tons of algorithms to predict what ads would be the most effective to show you. They look at your age, gender, Likes, friends, where you check-in, and the worst, what tabs or windows you may have open in the same browser where you have Facebook running. Just by the very fact of knowing that their business runs this way made me feel slimy for being one of their users.

Then there are the news stories, which in themselves show the pathetic negligence and lack of regard the company shows for the data they collect from people’s profiles.

I read this short Op-Ed piece in USA Today a while ago, aptly describing the relationship between Facebook and its users through the analogy of a party, where a focus group has been secretly watching everyone for hours and hours, scribbling away their findings about who you all are to figure out how to better sell you things. That bumped up my creep-out level a few notches.

Then there was their plan to get their next billion users: make deals with local mobile networks in emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and make it seem as if Facebook and the Internet are one and the same. Or how they take down pages for “copyright infringement” in the least classy way possible. Or their latest partnership with marketing company Datalogix, which, according to the EFF blog, will mean that they will “assess whether users go to stores in the physical world and buy the products they saw in Facebook advertisements.” I can’t even name all the creepy Facebook has gotten away with this year (although ProPublica has done a fine job).

Last but not least, the fact that Facebook wants people to believe that their service is as functional and inane as chairs…or doorbells, airplanes, bridges, and “things people use to get together, so they can open up and connect about ideas, and music, and other things people share.” Yeh yeh I know it’s old news by now but it’s just off-putting as a few weeks ago. I feel like it says so much about how they view themselves. It’s disgusting that their PR campaign is meant to mislead people into thinking that they’re not giving any of their personal data away, for the company to harvest into their massive database and sell to whomever, however, they please. Further, that people need them, rely on them, as much as chairs.

Ugh. Fuck all of that.

All of those stories, plus how shoddy and un-user-friendly the platform is (way…too…many…to mention), gave my decision all the logical weight it needed to sway me.

But, more than anything, I hated how lonely it made me feel despite being exactly as social in the real world as I’d like to be. There’s something about the structure of it, the function of it, that dissolves the meaningfulness of moments and makes even my most important relationships feel shallow. Sure when I’d post something and it got Liked or Commented, it always made me feel every-so-slightly tingly…just enough for me to keep wanting more.

But seriously, why? What does a Like even mean?
Isn’t it just social approval, meant to be disguised as some other kind of higher social value, all the while helping Facebook feed their voracious appetite for data?

When I’d get a Like from a close friend who I don’t see enough, it felt sad, as if it were a reminder that we’re apart and unable to talk about that link or photo together, in person. Or even when I saw life updates no matter how mundane, it made me feel like I had my face pressed up against the glass of a window, peering into their life. It was disappointing that I didn’t have a conversation with them to learn about whatever thing that happened to them.

I also resented how much time I’d waste on it. There were hours…HOURS where I’d spent clicking through an Ex’s profile, reading Wall posts of someone I had a crush on, or even worse, look through photo albums of a random high school classmate. And by the end of these sessions, which were usually abruptly ended by a sudden realization over how much time had passed, I reliably felt shittier. Beside the few times in college when I found out the person I had had a crush on listed themselves as Single (when people were still ever honest about that), I can’t think of any other moment where I felt happy or satisfied after spending time on that site.

Of course I recognize the disadvantages of closing the account. I’m probably missing out on random get-togethers, some funny inside jokes, or adorable photos of a friend’s new baby or puppy. I won’t deny that it sucks that almost everyone I know uses it and I’ll miss out on things for quitting. But all the other factors had finally outweighed these reasons for staying. I refuse to feel trapped into continuing to use their service despite all of my criticisms. Aren’t I better than that, simply as a consumer?

Sherman Alexie wrote a poem a while back titled The Facebook Sonnet, published in the New Yorker. The line that got me was: “Let’s undervalue and unmend / The present. Why can’t we pretend / Every stage of life is the same?”

I feel that way about Facebook and Foursquare, and well less so, but even Twitter. There’s a suspended reality to our digital social environments that requires us to remove our attention from the current physical reality that presently surrounds us. As long as it gives me enough value, as Twitter does, I don’t mind stepping out as long as I can maintain a good balance with it. I stopped using Foursquare because it made me feel like I was always missing out on something. It sucked seeing someone check-in somewhere, and not be able to be there with them since I was busy, or more pathetically, since I wasn’t explicitly invited. In the case of Foursquare, those lame moments were fleeting, but they always sucked me away from my physical Present.

The Internet and it’s many, many overlapping asynchronous worlds are a huge part of my life. But for me, some of them come with too much static noise to handle. And is it worth those minor questionable social benefits, to spend my time in those lonely digital limbos? Do I want to let those minutes and hours add up…?

Nah.

The Cyclists' Uprising

The last thing I remember was turning down the Wiggle with my friend Rich as we headed to the Mission to get some late-night tacos.

I have a vague memory of being lifted into the ambulance with a plastic neck brace. I woke up for a few minutes in the MRI machine in a teary, but weirdly comforted daze, and really regained my consciousness in the hallway of SF General Hospital’s emergency room. When I asked Rich about it later, he told me that I was making a turn over some Muni rails when my bike wheel got caught in the track, and I landed face first onto the pavement and was immediately knocked unconscious.

The thing is, I’m a proud cyclist. I love that I leave my house every morning to soar down the Glen Park hill and into the Mission to the EFF office, already refreshed and awake from my commute. I love that I don’t pay for car insurance or maintenance, and that I can remain blissfully ignorant about the current price of gas. I love that biking was really the thing that first got me to care about exercise after a stupidly lazy Freshman year of college and its unlimited access to university dining halls (which I’d unfortunately taken full advantage of at all hours of the day).

And finally, I love the cycling community. Of course there’re assholes in every mass interest group, but I’ve met so many awesome people and have had tons of pleasant conversations and interactions with cyclists from SF Bike Party to my daily commute. Unlike car drivers, who are isolated into a big metal pod of pricey convenience, bikers are exposed to their total surroundings. That includes the weather and traffic, but it’s also the physical presence of fellow cyclists, who experience the same ol’ scary conditions of the roads as one other. There’s a simple sense of camaraderie that comes of out that, which I’d never experience as a driver growing up in Los Angeles (other than the endless commiserating over freeway traffic, which got old about 15 years ago).

Friday, the night before my accident, was the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass. Just as expected, it was a huge bike lovefest. By some estimates, there were 10,000 cyclists riding the streets of San Francisco. All kinds of people, riding all sorts of bikes were there to celebrate a movement to take over city streets, and to make them safer for us to be on.

Critical Mass - Broadway Tunnel
SF Critical Mass 20th Anniversary: Bombing down the Broadway tunnel, bass drops from the music exploding out of the glowing bike tree.

I read my friend Parker’s post this past week, questioning whether Critical Mass undermines its purpose of making streets safer and more welcoming for cyclists. His conclusion seemed to be that the point of Critical Mass is to have fun, create a feeling of solidarity among us, and in the course of all of it, piss off drivers and make them hate cyclists by blocking their way and inconveniencing them for an evening. I agree with most of it. What I can’t agree with is that the *point* is to piss off drivers, and that this movement isn’t helping to make progress on our ultimate goal of making cars share the streets.

Every social movement is inherently inconvenient to the status quo. A group with a common interest has to band together to change the way things are, and so for the people who comfortably rely on the existing social structure, it’s gonna be upsetting for some to have to alter their way of living. Everything from the civil rights movement to the reproductive rights movement, there are people who are going to be angry and resentful of change no matter what. So the point of protest is to throw the issue into peoples’ faces. In any given movement, it’s normal for those who feel injustice to continue to silently suffer, to blame themselves, or to accept the current system as is. The problem is the majority is too busy to see or care about what those people are enduring, and won’t give a crap about it until they’re forced to.

I’ve been riding around San Francisco for the last year or so, and I’ve easily had about 4 incidents a month where I was scared I’d get seriously hurt by the conditions around me. It’s the clueless pedestrians, the huge cracks and bumps in the streets, Muni rail tracks, etc… but mostly, it’s the cars. I can honestly say that on several occasions, I could’ve have been killed by drivers if I didn’t ride everyday with my ninja-defenses on. Cars own the the streets, and given the unfortunate reality of Physics, us cyclists are no match for them.

Until my city accommodates cyclists as much as they do cars, there’s work to be done. It’s true that the way to make this happen isn’t to piss off other people-voters whether or not they’re drivers. I don’t even think I need to say how pissed off I am when other cyclists on my group rides slam the front of cars or knock on their windows just because they’re ig’nants who think drivers are the “enemies”. No one’s sympathetic to assholery. But the fact remains that cyclists are a political minority. Our urban infrastructure is built around the use of cars, so roads are inherently hostile to bikes. By the year, the awesome compound benefits of bikes—environmental, health, economic, and geopolitical (less reliance on oil)—are becoming clearer, and that there needs to be more efforts to make cycling appealing to people. Something’s gotta give.

SF Critical Mass 20th Anniversary: Massive crowd gathered at Justin Hermie Plaza

The point of Critical Mass is to be a huge inconvenience for people who take advantage of this structural bias…but just for one night a month. When it rolls through a neighborhood, someone might get stuck in their garage, be late for a date or a dinner, or much worse, not make it somewhere in an emergency. But the long-term consequences for allowing cars to remain the dominant form of independent transportation, especially in a clusterfuck city like San Francisco, is so much more daunting and unsustainable.

On a gut level, I feel bad that I’m making it difficult for people to get around for a night. But on an pragmatic-advocacy level, we have to band together. We have to show up, ride together (hopefully with music), see each others’ faces, and understand that we’re not alone out there, dodging clueless pedestrians, going over those scary Muni rails, and riding near speeding cars with defensive confidence. The most crucial element in a social movement is to have a solid community, so the point of Critical Mass is for cyclists to hang out together and to keep building a stronger one.

I’m slowly recovering from my face dive into the pavement. I got a bad concussion that night, so my concentration is shot and it’s taken me this whole freaking week to finish this blog post. But it hasn’t discouraged me from biking again. Biking has become part of who I am, and when I’m better, I’m hopping right back on. If anything, the accident’s only made me more resolute to ensure that the roads don’t accommodate cyclists as an afterthought, but that our safety becomes an elemental consideration in how we structure and utilize our roads.

The Science of Government (a poem)

The study of politics is the study of power
between people or nations, it doesn’t need to be dour.

Yet when the topic is broached, over dinner or tea
most tend to desire, to let that topic be.

But as someone who loves it, there’s something I’d like to mention,
so please for a moment, could I have your attention?

As an American a recent episode comes to mind…
but really I’d say, such examples aren’t hard to find.

The one that stands out for me the most clearly
is a moment last month when a Rep. said so sincerely

that a woman who is raped in a “legitimate” way
has a mechanism in her body to keep pregnancy at bay.

From what he understood from a doctor (perhaps it was a clown?)
he claimed that it will find ways to “shut that whole thing down”.

I don’t want to debate over conception or abortion,
or even to comment on the fellow’s mental distortion.

The bigger issue at hand, that I see at least,
is that distrust of science has only increased.

It’s easier to see this at the level of one man,
but let’s take it a bit further, to a further view span…

When you think of a policy, whether by law or decree
we have an assumption, of a simple guarantee

that the rules in question is designed for a purpose
that the policies aren’t there, just to be worthless.

Beside all the rules that warrant thoughtful debate
there’s still so many more that we tend to tolerate.

They were put there for various nonsensical reasons,
or actions by leaders we’d all deem to be malfeasance.

So my underlying point, one I’ve been thinking through
is there’s an odd disconnection in the way that we view

the necessity for analyzing the legitimacy of facts,
between science and laws that a nation enacts.

It must surely be feasible to create a certain system,
that builds upon decades of all kinds of new wisdom

to analyze the impact of a policy in place
and determine if it’s a rule we should truly embrace.

Whether it’s laws governing our trade, traffic, or taxes,
the logic behind them shouldn’t be an abstraction.

Instead what we’re left with is the current arrangement,
that relies on a certain level of flawed disengagement

on the part of those persons who legislate our rules
(even if they are not otherwise a dolt or a fool).

Public officials, petitions, or (in the US) the judges
whole policies can be built on some personal grudges.

Since laws are now bought through payments and lobbies
isn’t it time we acknowledge and embody,

the values of science into the political edifice
their purpose and objective as the highest requisite?

I myself don’t have the answer as to how that would look
but I think the first step that must be undertook,

is to undo many people’s embellished attachment
to a system of government where corruption is rampant.

Based upon people’s disgusted reactions,
to Rep. Akin’s odd comments which gained such attraction,

it’s clear that many value the factual truth,
yet they may also find it purely uncouth

to question the foundation of our political structure
because challenging that would just make them shudder.

So we must become comfortable to be loud and outspoken
and say to our peers that “Yes, our democracy is broken.

It’s okay to question, criticize, and proffer
that it should be upgraded since the Founding Fathers

built it up as such, so many years ago.”
and make this idea grow more apropos.

Political discussion can be less about a candidate
or a new legislation, which only does aggravate.

It can be a creative endeavor, for us to imagine
new ways to design government in a functional fashion.

I stress it won’t be easy to find the solutions
to how we should fix our public institutions.

Just remember to discuss, challenge, and surmise
new doors will be opened, once we let ourselves hypothesize.

 

 

 

 

~

Note:

When I heard the news about his death last month, I finally got around to reading his work. David Rakoff was a regular contributor to This American Life, and when I first listened to one of his segments I, as many others, became an immediate fan.

He’s one of those writers that knew so well how to use language to dance with your emotions. His writing is intimate, lyrical, and always extremely clever. You can tell that he deeply respected composition and obsessed over his words.

I wrote this piece as a sort of homage to him. I think he single-handedly resuscitated couplet poetry from being a childish, dismissible writing form usually associated with Dr. Seuss, to an elegant, expressive one, capable of delivering complex feeling in a sweet melodic way.

This is the piece that I first heard from him: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace by David Rakoff

Shortly before his death, he performed for the This American Life stage show this summer. It’s a beautiful, sad piece about living with cancer. It’s really worth watching until the end: “Stiff as a Board, Light as a Feather” by David Rakoff

 

I dare you

I dare you…

to keep doing what you’re doing.

to keep thinking that things will change on their own.

to keep being okay with the lack of options, the lack of direction, and the lack of purpose in your life.

to keep thinking that you’re alone in this.

to keep thinking that you’ll find happiness by making yourself perfect.

to keep believing: if only. If only I had that job, that education, that house, that idea, that body…everything would be fine.

to keep blaming others for what’s wrong.

to keep being complacent.

foodie 4 lyfe.

Cooking is a big hobby of mine. Part of it is that I love eating what I cook (actually maybe a large part). But I also love it because I always approach it like a puzzle and an experiment. I rarely use a recipe unless I’m dealing with an ingredient I’m unfamiliar with (turns out people eat nettles??) or the dish is just plain challenging to prepare (principles of baking never ceases to get lost on me). There’s also something that feels innately human to me…taking various raw materials and organizing them into an other enjoyable creation.

My mom told me that after her first choice of “lawyer”, her second choice for my future profession was  a chef. She’d say it was because “I’d go to your restaurant and eat good food whenever I wanted”. Perhaps out of this ulterior motive (not really), she always had me help her cook in the kitchen and taught me all the basics of food preparation. More recently, I’ve been partaking in cooking projects with my uncle Terry who is by far the most gourmet, non-professional chef I know. He has a giant industrial grade gas “Wolf” stove in his kitchen, the sharpest knives of every imaginable size, and an extensive collection of animal fats in his fridge. He’s friends with all the vendors at the farmers market and knows exactly which vegetable from which stall is to die for this season.

Today, I spent 2 hours making pasta from scratch.

1 egg per 3/4 cups of flour.

Starting from making an egg reservoir out of flour, I slowly mixed the flour into the egg with a fork. Being careful not to break the wall of flour around the pool, it slowly turns from soupy to gooey. After a while, it became this stretchy, heavy yellow mass. From there I used a rolling pin and did my best to flatten it while it kept bouncing back into a hunk.  Once its flat enough, I cut it into fourths, then using the Pasta Queen, a pasta maker, I flattened and cut the pieces until getting long lasagna-like sheets of pasta, all the while dusting each piece with flour to prevent it from sticking to the hand-cranked machine. The last stage was to cut them into spaghetti and hang them from this rack before boiling them for no more than 30 seconds.

 

 

Voilá!

they give me security.

(a creative writing piece: from the perspective of one of the riot cops I saw on May Day night at Oscar Grant Plaza.)

waiting.

we’re in formation, ready to go…and goddammit I need to take a piss.
how long is this gonna take?
I wonder if I’ll make it home in time to tuck Sam into bed.

we wait.

an older lady yells at us, “This is what a police state looks like.”
People walk out of the square from the back.
“Fuck the PO-lice! Fuck all of you! You fucking pigs!”

we wait.

then, we get the order to go ahead: “March forward, swing your baton, and instruct them to move.”
starting toward the plaza, most people jog away from us out of the square. About a dozen of them stay and stare at us with a mixture of confusion, sadness, and hatred.

swing march “move”

they’re talking to each other, a couple of them run off, the rest of them keep staring.

swing march “move”

we’re about 20 feet from them. they’re on the steps up to the field now, and all but 2 leave. a young man and woman. The boy yells “Who are you protecting? From whom? FOR WHOM?!”

swing march “move”

the young woman starts to tear up. the boy runs off.

swing march “move”

my helmet begin to fog up. this always fucking happens.

we’re about 10 feet now and the woman walks backward, facing us, at the same pace we move across the plaza.

swing march “move”

through sobs, barely audible she says, “why…”

swing march “move”

girl cries, “why are you doing this? why are you kicking us out? the public from a public space?”

swing march “move”

she’s screaming, spitting, “please just tell me WHY. TELL ME. WHY…WHY…WHY.”

~

Please shut up…JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP.

Why? Why am I doing this?

Because it’s my fucking job, that’s why, and you and your bratty friends aren’t doing anyone a favor by being here and wasting our time.

You all act like you’re going to solve the world’s problems by camping out here, talking about the Revolution stoned out of your minds, and festering out on this lawn like the space is yours.

Tell me, what solutions do you have to my problems? How the fuck are you gonna fix my wife’s health, or help me pay to get my car taken in, or give me the money I need to get my kid the present she wants for her birthday next week?

Maybe if you stopped whining about how all of us are screwed by the system, you could make the time to start thinking long and hard about what exactly you’re proposing as the alternative. Maybe you enjoy complaining about how things are way more than you actually like facing the difficult task of changing how it works…and please, could you think of a way of doing it that didn’t involve the defacement of other people’s property?

Stop acting like this is the only thing you can do. Stop acting like you’re the only ones who realize how bad things are. We all know. We know it already so quit acting like your own fucking heroes.

So you know why I’m here? Because this is my job, and it gives me security. It’s enough to take care of my family. I know things are fucked, but you sure as hell don’t know what you’re doing.

Just go home, kid. Go home.

Writing Mission: the food and drink

Dear Mom,

I apologize for not writing since arriving here on the Southern Pacific, but I’ve finally gotten to writing to you now that things are Stable. I live Uptown where it’s pretty Urbun. The Range of people and things to do here is something you’d never see at home in South End. I work at a Foreign Cinema now, and I’ve come to meet fellow gender Benders named Luna and Schmidt, for whom I have much Gratitude for showing me around the Beauty of the city. Most weekends, we go to my other friend Rhea’s Dark Room to develop photos or find a place for Asiento to talk about how to bring about the Revolution.

I’ve also come to befriend a man known around here as Mr. Pickles, who passed me my other gig as a DJ at the Radio Habana Social Club. I host a show called Cha Cha Cha, where I’m supposed to be doing a bunch of latin-style Soul Groove jams but they give me enough Elbo Room to do my own thing. I played the entirety of La Traviata once and told the audience that if they had a problem with it, they should Bite Me. My boss’s Reaction? He loved it and said, “Ahh you really are one Crazy Southpaw!”

I know you’re wondering if I’m eating well. Since I don’t have much of an income I’ve found various ways of combining flour + water. I can’t say I’ve stayed an Herbivore since living here. I get Weird Fish, Beast and the Hare, Etcetera, for almost nothing at nearby shops where I’ve come to know the owners. My vegetable intake has mostly consisted of Radish and other hearty greens that I grow in the Evergreen Garden out behind the house.

Anyway, I hope you visit soon. I think you’ll Quickly find that the city reflects the intellectual and cultural Zeitgeist of my generation in many ways. We could go to Mission Beach and release El Farolito into the water and watch them reflect like Little Stars in the waves, just as we did when we went to Cancún. Do you remember? Maybe you’ve lost it to Amnesia…if so, let’s think of it as a deliberate Deja Vú.

Te Yamo.

Delfina

 

P.S. I received the world Atlas you sent and I’ve pinned it up in front the toilet like we used to have at home…Gracias Madre.

 

~

Note: I did this as a challenge from my sister who suggested the idea of using restaurant/bar titles for a poem. I thought it was a great idea, and decided to limit myself to the Mission. When I started writing, I hated it but kept doing it anyway. Then I started to dig it again, until I realized that it came out looking like a Yelp e-newsletter. Wah-waahh…  Whatever. I like it nonetheless.  😐