Surveiled

I took my regular walk in my neighborhood this morning. It was Sunday, already hot at 10:00 am, and super quiet. No one was around except for the odd car driving by.

Suddenly, I heard a cheery, female voice. “Hi!” it said. I looked around, but didn’t see anyone.

“You are being recorded,” said the disembodied voice.

Ugh. Really? I thought. I couldn’t see a camera anywhere, and it wasn’t clear whether the voice came from my right or left. It sort of came from… above?

I continued on my walk, knowing that to someone, I looked as horrible as I do on those self-checkout cameras at Target. I was glad I wouldn’t see the footage, but I was also a little ticked. I wasn’t on anyone’s property, I was in the street, a good six feet from the curb to avoid parked cars — there are no sidewalks in this part of our apparently heavily-monitored neighborhood.

I get it. It’s 2022 and we are on camera almost everywhere we go — malls, grocery stores, gas stations, and drive thru windows. I accept that, because I understand the business owners are trying to protect their property and employees from robbers or vandals. Even though I try hard not to look at myself in the self-checkout monitor screens, I understand why they’re there.

I even understand Ring doorbells. If I’m on someone’s property, I have to accept the owner’s wish to record me. I don’t like it, but I get it. I can’t tell you how many Amazon packages I’ve thought about stealing until I saw the camera. I could be making bank, but those Ring videos thwart me every time. So yeah, I do understand the need to guard your home.

What I experienced this morning is different. It’s a little bit scary, slightly dystopian, and irritating. Where does it end? How much can we surveil our streets until we feel safe? Our boring, middle class, suburban Los Angeles neighborhood is already pretty safe by any standard. Aside from the occasional Fast and Furious wannabe teens doing donuts late at night, it’s rare to see a police car on our streets.

The next logical step in this constant-surveillance future we’re ushering in is recording and monitoring activities going on inside our homes. After all, couldn’t law enforcement protect us better if they could stop crime before it happens? You never know what’s going on in that house across the street. Isn’t it our right to know if there’s evil lurking behind those closed doors? What if it — gasp — gets out?

After all, we already have our homes stuffed with Nest thermometers, Alexa devices, and pet monitors. The structure is in place. We only need a few loud, self-righteous politicians to stir things up, creating new laws to “protect” us from ourselves. And, with every set of ten cameras you install, you get a free set of pearls to clutch.

In ten years, no one will think I was exaggerating.

Charge!

I was just thinking about all the things I charge around my house:

  • Razor
  • Laptop(s)
  • Phone
  • Earbuds
  • Mouse
  • Keyboard
  • Car

These things use very little electricity to stay charged. Living in Southern California, it seems crazy that we don’t have solar panels on our roof. Since we don’t own the house, it doesn’t make sense to pay for them. When we do own our home, that will be a priority.

In the meantime, I’ve been wondering about portable solar chargers. Mostly for emergencies, but also just because it’s an interesting idea.

Helping but not helping

Lonely chair and weeds photo by Adam Tagarro

Our yard is a mess.

Okay, it’s mostly fine but we have a lot of weeds, and the grass — where it exists — is dry and crackly. I’m okay with this for the most part because we live in super dry Southern California and it turns out that the natural landscape is not a golf course. I checked.

Don’t tell the neighbors and don’t get me started on overwatering.

We have a citrus tree, a Japanese Maple, a Loquat tree, a large green bush of some kind, a Rosemary bush that is approximately the size of Rhode Island (it even has its own government), and various other plants like lavender and… other stuff.

The funny thing is, we rarely water any of it. Somehow it’s all getting water anyway, and even if it’s coming from the irradiated groundswells of the old RocketDyne plant, they seem to be doing okay.

But the weeds.

They suck and I hate them. Sometimes I manage to coerce my 14-yr old into helping me pull them. Sometimes I wack them out of spite, and other times I spray them with a natural weed killer made from vinegar — I have a restraining order against RoundUp and it is not allowed within 50 feet of my body.

Either way, it’s for me to handle and I do have a plan, even if the plan is slightly slapdash and sometimes not working at all. And while I don’t like the weeds taking over the yard, they’re just weeds. Our landlord disagrees, but he is among the Southern-California-was-originally-a-Mayan-golf-course believers, so unless there are no weeds and a bright green lawn, he is not happy.

Today was one of those days when I put on my landscaper’s uniform (Trader Joe’s long sleeve crew tee, old Calvin Klein pants, hiking boots, floppy hat) and pretend that I’m not just trying to justify the purchase of the gardening tools I’ve collected. As I’m working away, our neighbor’s (real) landscaper shows up. This guy hates seeing me pull and wack weeds. I think it’s actually painful for him. He’s come over a few times and offered to let me borrow his gas-powered weed wacker (ours is electric). It’s like that scene in Three Amigos where Jefe swaps his gun for Ned’s.

Today, he pulled up, saw me using my little Ned gun weed wacker, waited until I went into the backyard, and started cutting down all the weeds I had left behind. Most people — normal, rational people — would have shrugged and said, “Well, at least the neighbors are paying for it,” and gone to take a shower.

Me? I got mad. I went out and told him to stop. I tried to explain that I had a plan (such as it is), and I had intended to spray the smaller, live weeds I hadn’t wacked so they would die and I could get rid of them later. While he understood the words coming out of my mouth, they did not make any sense to him. “I’m just trying to help you,” he explained. I thanked him and told him I appreciate the gesture, but really, I have a plan. He looked at the weeds, then he looked at me like I just said that aliens come down from space and handle my yard work. Then he shrugged and left.

There’s a scene in some movie (Up, maybe?) where a Boy Scout is trying to earn his Helping Old People badge, but he ends up doing things like helping an old lady cross the street when she didn’t even want to be on the other side.

Helping, but not helping.

Another notable example of helping not helping happened many years ago. Our family was eating at an Italian restaurant. We ordered one of the only pasta dishes on the menu that was vegetarian. When it arrived, it had little chunks of something in it. Was it meat? We asked. The owner said, “Yes! I added some pork in there for you. Don’t worry, it’s no extra charge.” He thought we couldn’t afford the meat.

Helping, but not helping.

Most humans want to help whenever they can. It’s a lovely trait. But before jumping in with your rescue pants on, it’s good to consider a couple of things:

  • Is help wanted?
  • Is it the right kind of help?

The only way to find out is to ask. And it’s also good to ask because there are also a lot of people who have a hard time asking for help. I’m one of them.

I want to be grateful for the free pork, but I don’t eat meat. I want to say thank you for chopping my weeds, but I had another plan. I want to be relieved that I got help crossing the street, but I was waiting for the bus on the other side.

About that “It’s just DJ” thing

I once had someone tell me that saying “It’s just DJ” is sort of announcing that I don’t value myself. As if I was old Eeyore mumbling, “Don’t worry, it’s just me, it’s nobody important.”

If you get to know me, you’ll soon realize I would never say “Aww, shucks, it’s just lil’ ol’ me.” For better or worse. Probably worse, but I promise that I possess better, more humble attributes.

“It’s just DJ” came about because I got (get?) tired of people asking what D.J. stands for. Why does it have to stand for anything? Plenty of people don’t stand for anything at all, why should my name?

Someone once remarked in an email exchange, “From your name, I can’t tell if you’re male or female. What does it stand for?” I responded that it wasn’t relevant.

My name is D.J., or DJ. That’s it. Isn’t that simple?

It’s just D.J.

When we just looked at things

As Jenni and I were driving to the store today, I glanced in my rear view mirror. I was slowing down for a red light and I noticed that even before we got there, the driver behind us was already looking down at her phone, while still rolling to a stop.

It seems like everywhere I drive these days, so many of the other drivers are looking down at their phones. The ones that are doing it while driving are scary enough, but to me the ones who can’t quite wait for the red light to check their phone are almost as troubling.

I’m going to sound like I hiked up my old person pants to my chin here, but what is everyone always doing on their phones? There may be some rare instances where someone is desperately trying to reach a loved one to pick them up or some kind of emergency. Other than that, I can’t imagine what’s so important that it can’t wait until they’re at their destination.

[End fist-shaking old person rant]

When I used to fly a lot for work, I savored the hours after they closed the doors. For a few hours, I was unreachable. My only world existed inside a big metal tube 40,000 feet in the air. I read. I listened to music. I ate. I looked out the window, mostly. It was a chance to not be on.

Side note: this is also why I wouldn’t make a good pilot.

Remember driving in the backseat of a car as a kid and just looking? Out the window there were fields, stores, construction, tall buildings, and people of all kinds. Or maybe you just contemplated all the things you could fit into the ash tray, or watched a bee try to hang onto the window at 45 mph.

As an adult, I’m really no better than anyone else with a smartphone. I catch myself waiting in line somewhere, snatching up my phone to bide the time. What’s on twitter? Did I get any new emails since I left home? What was the name of the guy on that show with the chimp and the truck?*

It’s so easy to do.

I’m trying to make an effort to go back to just looking around at stuff. Waiting in line is boring. So what? I complain that I never have time to just think, yet here I am with five or more minutes to do exactly that.

Am I better because I only mindlessly reach for my phone when I’m not in a car? Or is it kind of the same thing?

What if, when we got to a stop light we just… sat? How would the world change if we all just looked at things for a while?

*It was BJ and the Bear.

The eroding of rights in America

While I did have a reaction to the news last week about the overturn of Roe v Wade here in the U.S., I didn’t want to jump into the fray on social media. Yet. There’s already a feed full of reactions and re-reactions, and it’s kind of a mess. But I do have strong feelings about it.

It’s quite clear that this overturn is the beginning of a larger campaign to remove rights from women, black people, and LGBTQ folks. While Justice Alito and his cohorts can stand behind the shield of the law and pretend that this is all about returning power to the states, it seems obvious that there is political and religious motivation at work.

I think there are three kinds of people in this country who are affecting (or not affecting) the reversals of rights that we are seeing:

  1. Those who are actively working to take away rights from women, black people, and LGBTQ folks.
  2. Those who are okay with human rights being removed or just don’t care, because they are not affected.
  3. Those who have no opinion and want to remain neutral because they “need more evidence” or they’re waiting for their favorite celebrity or politician to tell them what they should think.

In Group 1, there is at least overt action or words that can be argued or voted against. It’s still not okay, but it’s easier to fight because we can see it. Even if their only motive is to win an election, and voicing conservative views is merely a marketing strategy, it’s out in the open.

Group 2 is more difficult to handle because it’s not always obvious. People tend to hang out only with those who they know will agree with them. These people won’t make a ruckus at Thanksgiving dinner, but they will whisper behind backs or worse, shrug their shoulders at the actions of Group 1.

With Group 3, you may be able to get them to see your points and even get them to see the injustice caused by Group 1. However, if a comedian or politician with a strong voice comes along with opposing views, they will change their minds just as easily. These are the people whose strongest opinion on any controversial subject is that “there are two sides to everything and they should all be considered.”

For the rest of us who do care, the question is how do we make change — or make sure that change doesn’t happen?

I don’t have an answer for this at the moment. I’m working on it.

Leaving the Mac Behind?

I’m really itching to get away from all things closed source as much as I can. One of the biggest is Apple. I’ve used Apple products for so long, they’re a huge part of my digital life. They’re easy to use, they just work, and they last a long time.

So why do I want to get away from Apple? I’m trying to figure that out. I want to make sure I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For example, my new M1 MacBook Pro is an amazing machine. However, I’m running Ubuntu on it and I keep coming up with compatibility issues related to the ARM64 architecture.

Mostly, I’d like to move everything I do to open source. While Apple’s stuff is very secure, I don’t like their increasing need to tell me how I should be doing things. For example, forcing me into using the Music app and messing up my music library, which prompted me to move to Jellyfin. The ecosystem is convenient and secure, but I feel like it’s making people lazy. I want more control over my digital devices and apps, even if it means it’s not as quick and convenient. How much convenience do we need?

I’m tempted to get a new laptop from System76, but I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot. I want to test everything in Pop! OS and make sure I can do everything I need to do.

So far, my Linux testing has been satisfying. I can do just about anything in Ubuntu 20.04 that I can do in Mac OS. So here’s a list of things that are keeping me on the fence:

  • Adobe apps
    I found alternative apps, but I need to learn them.
  • CleanShot
    I need to find an alternative, because the markup of images with arrows and boxes is just so easy.
  • Slack and Discord
    They only work in the browser in Ubuntu because of ARM64. They do work as a standalone app in Pop! OS (AMD64).

I think that’s it. Otherwise, everything I need to do I can do using Pop! OS.

Goodbye Twitter? Toot! Toot!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that Elon Musk wants to buy Twitter. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t, but it’s safe to say that Elon is extremely good at getting people talking. Most of the talk about Twitter right now is focused on free speech, and who should be allowed to have it — or have more of it. It’s polarizing the platform once again, with most of the discussions set in black and white terms. One recent tweet that has people talking:

“For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.”

While I mostly agree with him on this point, I think it’s the wrong conversation to be having.

Whether you use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or some other form of social media, you are giving up some of yourself. Yes, we’re all connected and isn’t it wonderful to be living in such a technologically advanced era?

But consider that the cost of that connection is seeing some things you don’t like. You’re going to hear from people who either mildly disagree with your values or are actively trying to marginalize you — or worse, legislate against your very existence.

You’re going to see ads. Ads are annoying at best. At worst, they’re downright creepy when you think about how they’re using your posts and your profile to create the ones they think will appeal to you.

Social media platforms are free to use in terms of money. Socially, we are all paying a high price no matter who owns a particular platform at any given time.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And I don’t believe that we need to jettison all our apps and profiles just because things get weird sometimes. Rather than being owned by the platforms we use, we should be making social media our bitch.

There are practical things you can do to use social media on your terms.

  1. Block people and terms that you don’t want to see. If some post causes you pain, you have two options: think about it deeply and consider whether there’s something you can learn or use from it, or; block the poster and stop seeing anything else they share. On Twitter, you can also block terms. I have a friend who blocks the word “elon,” which I think is hilarious and it totally works for her. Twitter also has a “mute” feature that I use quite a bit.
  2. Don’t fill up your profile with every detail about you. Particularly on Facebook, consider not loading up your profile with your elementary and high schools, your political affiliation, hometown, astrological sign, last time you pooped… you get the point. Yes, it’s helpful when finding new friends, but you can also send an introductory message so they know who you are before accepting.
  3. Make lists and join groups. This can be helpful if you’re having one of those days when you want to interact on social media, but you don’t want to see what everyone in the world is squawking about. On Facebook, you can hang out in a group. On Twitter, you can make lists of people or subjects to follow and only see those posts.
  4. Reject ads. Do I have to say, “Don’t click on ads?” I hope not, but there it is. You can’t avoid seeing ads because that’s how platforms make money (with the exception of Mastadon, which I’ll get to in a moment). Either scroll on by or click Not Interested in This Ad.
  5. Stop using emojis. Okay, I’m just kidding. Emojis are the 💣.

You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. However, if you want an alternative to the biggie social media platforms, there’s one you can try that I really love.

Mastadon

It’s open source. It’s free. There are no ads. No one is tracking your data. The user interface is very similar to Twitter or Tumblr. Do you love it already?

Here’s how it works. Mastadon is a decentralized platform, which means that there’s no one place that holds all the information about you or your posts. Rather than one big corporation or group owning or controlling the entire platform, people host Mastadon on their own individual servers, or instances.

Anyone can host an instance using the open source software. People join instances that appeal to them, and there are tons of great communities out there. Some are private and you’ll need to be approved before they let you in and others are free to join at any time. It doesn’t really matter what instance you join, because you can communicate with other users in any instance (unless it’s a private one).

One thing to understand about Mastadon. Unlike Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, there’s no algorithm suggesting content you might like. You’ll have to do the work of finding and curating the content and users you like. The timeline is linear. Personally, I love that.

One thing I’ve found on Mastadon is that it tends to be a little friendlier and less contentious than other platforms. I haven’t figured out why yet, but it’s been my experience so far. Also, there’s no marketing going on all the time. It seems to be just real humans not selling anything, which is refreshing.

I’m not leaving!

I’ll still be on my usual platforms: Twitter and Instagram. I’ll just be using them better than I used to. As always, come on over and say hi. And, if you decide to climb on top of a big woolly Mastadon, you can find me there, too: @itsjustdj@tech.lgbt.

You’re going to die anyway.

You’re going to die anyway.

You’re going to die anyway.

“You know you’re going to die anyway, right?”

It was 1999 and I had just temporarily moved into my Uncle John’s studio apartment in New York City. He very generously let me stay with him while I found an apartment for my family. After several years of trying to break into the animation industry, I had just accepted my dream job at Nickelodeon. Jenni and our two babies were packing up our home in Phoenix and I had to find a place for us, fast.

My uncle and I were getting reacquainted after many years. He had just learned that I was a vegetarian, and was grilling me on the why’s and wherefore’s of abstaining from a carnivorous diet. In contrast, John was a lifelong chain smoker and loved rich meat dishes. We both hailed from Omaha, Nebraska, that gloriously flat land teeming with beef, corn, ham, and Runza huts. For John to learn that I no longer ate meat of any kind was hard to comprehend. In true pragmatic, midwestern fashion he assumed that I might be trying to achieve some sort of immortality.

To put this in better perspective, my grandfather died of a massive coronary at a young age. Heart attacks are common on both sides of my Anglo-Saxon lineage. My Uncle John himself developed advanced heart disease, eventually required a heart transplant and sadly passed away a few years ago in his 60s.

With both sides of my family steeped in heart disease lore, my genetics say that if I follow the same path as my ancestors, I will suffer the same result. It’s guaranteed. So I work hard to go in the opposite direction. I haven’t eaten meat since 1993 and I haven’t touched dairy since 2001.

I don’t smoke, but I drive too fast and I love my bourbon (not at the same time, of course). I’ve been known to consume large quantities of French fries and chocolate. I’m not exactly St. Asparagus and I’m not infallible to the lure of gastronomic decadence.

I am far from immortal — I assume — and I have no desire to live in this form forever, especially sans chocolate. While I eat pretty well and get regular exercise, I have no illusions that I am making Death twiddle its thumbs waiting for me to kick.

Living to infinity is not the point.

See, I didn’t expect to feel this good in my 50s. My observations of older family members growing up is that “Getting old is hell!” – a direct quote from my grandmother in her 80s. I had always assumed that what happens to you after 30 is that you start sliding down a steep slope into decay. At some point I made a conscious decision that shuffling around the mall in support hose would not be my fate.

I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid of dying. What strikes ugly fear into my hammering vegan heart is the prospect of suffering through preventable disease.

I’m going to do everything I can to avoid spending my later years farting in an overstuffed chair watching reruns of Friends — which I acknowledge is a distinct possibly regardless of how well I take care of myself.

Yes, I’m going to die anyway. But I’m not going without a fight.


The frustration and magic of being a slow thinker

I’m a slow thinker. Not slow in that I don’t understand what’s going on, but slow in that my thoughts tend to percolate a little longer than others’ do. I guess you could say I’m more of a pourover thinker than a Nespresso thinker.

I’ve always been a slow thinker. In school, I was never the one with their hand up first. I hated being put on the spot. Back of the room, that’s me. When a teacher would call on me for an answer, I would freeze up. Even if I knew the material well, I just couldn’t give it up right away.

Let’s just say the debate team was not going to miss me. Even debating friends on any subject wasn’t something I had any interest in at all. I could spout off a quick answer, but it was usually some kind of non sequitur-ish funny comment linked to the last movie we saw. Forced to comment on the actual subject at hand, I was typically at a loss.

It’s not that I don’t understand things, or think my own thoughts. Obviously, because here we are in this post together. No empty vessel, me. I just like to linger in my thoughts. When I read, hear or see something new, I go into processing mode. I’m not one for quick reactions to things, unless it’s on the freeway. I like to absorb things, let them soak into all my brain pockets before coming up with thoughts about them.

You might guess that this did not go over well during meetings in the corporate world. After taking in a slide presentation or an info dump about a new project, I was percolating. Unfortunately, bosses and clients don’t want percolating, they want fast answers and verbose dialogue. Whenever I heard the words “Let’s have a brainstorming session,” I started looking for the closest fire alarm to pull.

Brainstorming is not only not my forté, it’s my Kryptonite.

Currently I have a writing gig with a media company. Once a month, we have a writer’s meeting where we share our ideas for articles and talk about our writing processes. I enjoy them because I genuinely like the people I work with there, but the big clouds of dread start to roll in as soon as we start discussing ideas. I love listening to everyone’s ideas. It just takes me a bit longer to jump in with helpful insights or feedback. Because everyone can’t hang out on a video call for two days while I percolate, I’m usually quiet during those portions of the meeting. Two days later, I’m full of thoughts and feedback on what I heard.

The flip side to this personality quirk feature is that I can also be very quickly witty in certain situations. When there’s any room to comment in a way that links the current topic with an absurdly weird observation, I slide right in like my brain was coated in grease. It’s usually funny to someone. And yes, it’s a coping mechanism because it draws attention away from the fact that I have nothing solid to contribute, yet it seems that I’ve somehow contributed something of value. It’s not actually a conscious tactic, I just drew that conclusion retroactively. Insert witticism = Take that, farty old brainstorming session.

I’ve learned to adapt my slow thinking ways to be a mostly functioning member of society. I’m also not as freaked out or bothered by the way my brain processes information as I used to be. When I’m working with clients I’ve become very adept at saying things like, “Tell me more about that,” or “Hmm, yeah. That will require some focused thought and I will get back to you.” It works most of the time. The other times I probably look stupid, but I’m becoming more okay with that, too.

While I sometimes envy people who can jump in and provide ideas or feedback seemingly without effort, I also think my percolating nature is kind of a super power. I think slow, but I think deep.

I’ll leave you with two quotes on this.

“If I look confused it is because I am thinking.” — Samuel Goldwyn

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?” — Winnie the Pooh