Wednesday, November 25, 2009

California Dreamin' Thanksgiving

I had lunch with a friend today at a diner in San Francisco's Union Square. It was a welcoming and warm California fall day. One could feel the expectation of the name brand merchants for the rush that will come on Black Friday. Windows were dressed, and displays meticulously arranged. In the middle of the square stood a holiday tree, stories high, still surrounded by cherry pickers used to decorate it with lights and colorful bulbs.

And as it is written in which Gospel I can't remember, the poor are always with us. Many now have feline companions. I imagine it must be quite comforting to hold something soft and warm.

I tend to be the type that doesn't lower my gaze or look away when asked for a contribution. If I can give, I do. If I can't, I at least offer a sincere smile to acknowledge the request. And sometimes, I get the rare opportunity to jump in and give the right thing at the right time.

On my way back from lunch, I was waiting at an intersection when I heard an auditable "No!" It was a yell of unexpected loss. When I looked up I saw a man mourning the loss of a sandwich he had just scored, but dropped in the intersection. It had fallen apart, its individual components of bread, turkey cheese and lettuce scattered in the crosswalk across the street from me. I quickly grabbed for my wallet, wanting to replace his loss with a dollar or two, but as I reached him, I suddenly realized, in my hand was a nicely boxed untouched half of a Ruben sandwich with Fries. And just as he looked up from his loss for empathy I was able to offer it to him.

"Really?" he asked?

"Yeah," I said.

"When one door closes another one opens," he said. "Thank you so much."

I just smiled and continued on my way thankful for the opportunity to be able to give the right thing at the right time. Heading back to work, I passed by the temporary ice rink set up in the square, and contemplated the California dream I live in.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's Happening

On November 19th Twitter changed it's inherent question from "What are you doing," to "What's happening?" This was in response to how users engage with each other and the larger tweeting community. As stated in their recent blog entry

"...people are witnessing accidents, organizing events, sharing links, breaking news, reporting stuff their dad says, and so much more."

This is a major turning point for social networking and how it is used. And the fact that we use these tools as more than a way to track down old friends, broadcast our activities or engage in make believe wars is acknowledged in this change.

Think about it for a moment. It went from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" In that one change, this social media outlet suddenly acknowledged that the internet doesn't have to be an altar of narcissistic self indulgence. It's a way we share our experiences, our surroundings and our perspectives.

What's happening? Twitter has just validated the power of Community 2.0.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Disposing Disposable bags

Years ago, as an undergrad, I wrote a rather lengthy paper about the merits of disposing of disposable bags. The research for this paper yielded all kinds of fun facts that I routinely reiterated to friends, family, colleagues and cohorts alike. Things like, plastic shopping bags are called the national flower of South Africa because they are so abundant, and are "harvested" and woven into more durable shopping bags that are then sold at markets. Or how in one South American Country, I think it was Argentina, so many plastic bags accumulated in the sewer system that the underground drainage became clogged thus causing an unnatural natural disaster.

Several years later some progress has been made. Many stores now sell reusable shopping bags and even give a store credit to those who use them. But plastic continues to be a problem. Today it flew right in front of me, or at least tried to.

I came across this bird on my way to work. At first I thought maybe the bag was just attached to its foot, but then I saw that the bag was tangled inside its wing. For a moment I contemplated trying to capture it to untangle the wing, but decided I didn't want to risk injuring the bird further, or allowing the bird to injure me. So I did what I could. I took this picture as a reminder to us all that the plastic we use has to end up somewhere. And sometimes, this is where it ends up.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Affording Quality of Life

We can’t afford health care. At least that’s what the right side of the isle will argue in the U.S. Senate. It’s too costly, it will run up a deficit, it will kill our economy.

Wait a minute. It costs too much to provide health care? What is too much? Is it more than we as a nation spend on fast food? (over $110 billion) Or how about what we spend on going to the movies or buying DVD's ($10.8 Billion) What about video games? Does health care cost more than the amount spent on gaming systems and the elaborate escapist games that are no doubt played by kids and adults alike when they stay home sick? ($11.8 Billion)

I pose these questions because it occurred to me that if we truly can't afford health care, maybe we aren't as rich a country as we think we are. If providing health care will wreck our economy, and thus our ability to buy the things that make us feel rich, isn't that some sort of ruse? Is the ability to have the latest smart-phone-video-recording-mp3-playing-gadget that also makes julienne fries really more important than say preventing chronic conditions that will decrease the "genuine quality of life," and ultimately cost more money to treat?

Now, I want to make a distinction here about the difference between quality of life and standard of living. I think of these closely related concepts in terms of internal and external. Quality of life comes from our internal perspective that others cannot experience. These are our senses, what we see, what we hear, how we feel. Nobody else can experience these things for us. If we are in pain, it is our own pain. The same can be said of fatigue, muscle and body aches, and emotional stress or anguish.

Standard of living on the other hand, I believe is determined by the external. These are the things that outwardly comfort us such as clothes, housing, amenities and diversions. And as it happens, our standard of living has the ability to effect our quality of life. If our standard of living is depreciated, so is our quality of life.

Health care, I believe is a component of our standard of living. Access to adequate preventative care curbs illnesses before they become chronic conditions, which can increase quality of life.

So, when the argument is made that we cannot afford health care for everyone, what we really mean is that we can't afford the standard of living of every other industrialized nation, which will directly impact our quality of life. And if we are living at a lower standard than all the other industrialized nations, how rich are we really?

Are we fooling ourselves with diversions and materialism? Do gadgets and things really give us anything other than a false sense of security?

Or is that just a false sense of superiority?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Doing math for a civilized commute

It’s one day after the Bay Bridge has reopened and life for most commuters is seemingly back to normal. Fortune was on my side during this latest commuting calamity. I was able to work from home through most of it, and took a mid morning ferry on the one day I had to be in the City. Getting into the City that day was uneventful, save having just a little difficulty finding parking. Getting back, was crowded, but, despite a capacity crowd on the boat, I still managed to get my regular seat near a power outlet so I could work.

I may be one of the few who will openly admit that those of us who ride the ferry are snobs about it. There’s a reason for it, that I’ll get into later, but it might not be the reason you think.

Those of us who take the ferry kind of know each other. We know who always works, who likes to talk, and who sleeps, and we seat ourselves accordingly. There are also certain etiquettes and protocols on the ferry. For instance, if you are at a working table, one where laptops are out, it’s not considered to be a place for conversation. Eating is fine, but don’t be gross, and clean up after yourself. Loud talking in the morning is frowned upon, as is cackling laughter at just about any time. Although we do imbibe here, it’s not a bar. And to that note, if you imbibe too much, the fact that you are on a boat isn’t going to mask that you are swaying as you walk. You just think it does.

On day two of the bridge closure, on the 4:30 boat home, it was easy to tell who was a regular and who wasn’t. The two women who sat at my table for instance, didn’t realize that they didn’t have to sneak quick bites out of their food until I laid out a loaf of Acme olive bread and offered them some. There was also confusion for some about where the line begins for the snack bar. And a few still hadn’t figured out where the head was.

But some of the strangers seemed to enjoy the novelty of a boat ride home, and maybe even considered making a change in their regular mode of transportation to and from San Francisco. And this gets to the reason why we who ride the ferry are so smug about it: its a better way to get there. We simply know this to be true, and nobody can tell us otherwise. Even if you discount the bar, power outlets, wi-fi on the Intintoli, and clean bathrooms, there's still the issue of money. Seriously. Do the math.

A monthly ferry pass is $290. Were I to drive, I would easily use a tank of gas per week, which is about $48. Add in bridge toll for two bridges every day and that’s another $40. Next add parking, which at best in SF is $10 a day, that’s another $50. If you’re honest with your insurance company, your premiums will likely increase about $250 or more per year which comes out to $4.80 a week. Plus maintenance on your vehicle will likely double, consider around $1000+ a year for that which is conservatively another $19.23 a week. Add it all up and your weekly commute for those who drive is $74.03 per week or $310.93 per month.

Ok, so it’s only a savings of about $20 a month, and I probably spend that in one week on drinks while on board, but it still just feels better, calmer, happier to sit back and watch the water go by. And when we come into dock at the Port of San Francisco looking up at the cars crawling across the Bay Bridge, it’s hard not to think that it is the only civilized way to commute.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Evolving Internet

How is the internet like the Wizard of Oz?

Because, "My people come and go here so quickly!"

Well said Dorothy.

I got my first personal computer in 1997. It was a Gateway. I was never more excited to receive a cow printed box. Up to that point all the computers I worked on were owned by an employer, a friend or some other entity. I was well versed enough to own my own computer, but it still felt a little like the first time I drove by myself after I got a license.

Within hours of unpacking it, I was connected to the World Wide Web, and off I went into a new age of technology and communication. It wasn't long before I was looking at porn, conversing with friends via email and participating in chat rooms. I actually "met" a lot of cool people in some of those chat rooms. And before long, I had my own chat room, that was intended for "intelligent talk about politics and philosophy." It was fun while it lasted.

Since then, my activities online have evolved with the environment itself. I use Craigslist to find work, I watch television programs and listen to my favorite radio shows at my own convenience, I blog to share my ideas and perspective and I participate in social networks to broadcast things of interest. It seemed, if only for a moment, that the internet and it's tools had achieved an apex of sorts.

But the internet has a tendency to change, and change it does. Facebook for example, has recently changed it's page so that when you log on you have to update your News Feed in order to get information about what your friends are up to. It use to be that you logged on and at a quick glance could see who was spending way too much time on Mafia Wars. But now you log on, look and think, "nothing has happened since I logged on last?" And then remember you remember that you have to click something to see what your friends are up to.

This very well could be the pitfall of Facebook, then the end of yet another online fad. Ten years from now Facebook could like chat rooms are to us now: a seemingly meaningful way to spend time, but not something one ever admits to in public. When I posted these sentiments on my Facebook a friend replied,

"It's already so boring compared to a few months ago. I was never on my space but people say fb is way more fun and that's why ms died out, wonder what's next?"-(SBM)

Good question. What is next? But I think it also goes to the question of social networking and why we do it. Is it that we have all become busy bodies wanting to be in each others business, or do we genuinely care about what our "friends" have to say online? I use the italics here because I was recently reminded that some people don't really understand the subtle difference between social network friends and friends in real life. Here's a quick clue: friends in real life are the ones I complain to when I have cramps.

Personally I use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to share interesting things I come across, help friends promote projects, and as a place to emit general snarkiness. It's useful, amusing, and a great way to start conversations about things that matter (to me). So I truly hope that this network of networks where my Twitter feed updates on my Facebook, and I share this blog by using both networks so I can share the multiple links I place in my blogs to direct folks to other things online, won't change too much.

But I can't help but think that there's a model of Chaos Theory brewing in all this. Every year it seems the internet has less of a resemblance to a frayed knot and more to the fiber optic cable that brings this ability now via wi-fi to my bedroom as I type these words on a laptop.

What is next? I've gotta wonder.