December 2008


Public Toilet

Jaywalking across Haight, shaky from the lingering effects of a recent ailment exacerbated by the more immediate fallout from the previous night’s overindulgence. My head was buzzing with an attempt to re-assemble thoughts while my stomach was distributing a good-will antacid to the more blighted corners of my guts which is why, climbing the opposing curb and carrying on along the sidewalk, I didn’t twist my head to gawk. From the corner of my eye there appeared to be a contorted figure sandwiched between two parked cars, squatting or actually sitting, and I could hear a scrabbling and heavy breathing. Continuing without pause my mind groped for a reason, wondering if there was any possibility that in my fractured state I had hallucinated this person.

The antacid held out, aided by some delicate walking and vague prayers to no deities in particular– groceries were successfully procured, then cash from a nearby ATM. Cutting across Church in the middle of the block I had a strong sensation of deja vu, and my suspicions were confirmed moments later after gaining the sidewalk and turning right. Sandwiched between two parked cars, as observed by my peripheral vision, cowered another figure scrabbling and muttering. Being prepared for this second visitation you might think I would actually afford this vision my full attention but instinct was violently ringing four bells– an unmistakably wet sound splattered against the asphalt and I hurried on.

Continuing home I couldn’t shake the feeling that my humanity had just failed me. Assuming that this apparition was not the work of a chemical imbalance ruining my head I had ignored a sick person’s plight. Statistically speaking the gutter-squatter was bound to be a junkie, but compassionate folks don’t pick and choose based on stations of life. Safeway was right across the street– why couldn’t he (she?) have been wildly sick within the sanctity of their bathroom stalls? Of course, the bathrooms there often experience temporary closures not to mention that security tends to chase off obvious deviants before they find safe haven. Most of the stores and restaurants around here don’t even let customers use the bathroom because of problems. No, there’s no blaming the person spraying diarrhea between two parked cars on a busy street at six in the evening– only the hundred or so people who passed without a second thought.

What can you do? My immediate concern was that our helpless victim was soon going to find themselves in a tough situation when the pants were due back on. I wasn’t carrying any toilet paper or kleenex but I suppose I could have walked twenty feet for one of the innumerable free publications which provide that function and returned with a solution for containment. How would that conversation go? Hey, ah, I’m not watching you shit the curb but I couldn’t help but notice you might like to have something clean and dry to wipe before trying to get your pants back on. Anyone could have done that and anyone probably should have, but I’m probably a step ahead of the game when it comes to being prepared for this sort of thing.

Secreted in various pockets and containers on my person at all times are caches of Imodium. Of all people ignoring or secretly loathing the scum of the earth I should have the greatest empathy because I have often found myself impaired by digestive ailments. When your intestines have twisted into knots so severe you can’t stand up straight there’s a diminished capacity for behaving appropriately, rationally or gracefully and sometimes it’s only through the generosity and goodwill of others that you survive. (more…)

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When I was fifteen heading for sixteen I got my first job washing dishes and serving pizza which means, about this time next year, I’ll have been clocking in for half my life. Some of my jobs have been worse than others, many have paid very poorly, some have been dangerous but they all have one thing in common– they’ve been completely unsatisfying and went nowhere. This track record breeds resentment and contempt for myself and everything around me, but also a strange sense of hope.

There are people who escape the drudgery of a 9-5, 3-12, 7-10 whatever life. There are people who are in control of their destiny and live off their wits and abilities, pursuing their passions with no apologies to anyone. These brilliant and strong mentors earn, if not my full respect, at least my undying fascination. My latest observation is Paul Carr:

In Tim Ferris’s book, The Four Hour Work Week, he discusses a concept called “Geographic Arbitrage”, or Geo-arbitrage. In a nutshell, the concept explains how you can achieve a significant real-terms increase in your earnings by being paid in one currency, say US dollars, but spending that money on goods and services from a much cheaper foreign country. The concept has become more and more realistic in recent years as advances in technology mean it’s possible to work from anywhere in the world with a laptop, a mobile and a broadband connection.

Sure, it wouldn’t work for everyone – if you work in a shop or have to manage people in an office then you’ll struggle to do that from a South American beach. But if your work primarily involves computers, telephones or “creativity” – if you’re, say, a writer – then it’s ideal.

But what if you took the idea further? If rather than renting or buying a house somewhere cheap, you didn’t have a house at all? What sort of possibilities would that level of mobility allow? What if you really, really embraced technology – living in hotels and short term rental apartments and making your travel plans at the very, very last minute using hotel and flight comparison sites and online currency data. Using services like Dopplr and Twitter to find out where your friends would be each month to help you decide where to go next; using Skype to stay constantly in touch and Boingo to ensure that you had access to wireless almost – almost – everywhere you went. What, in other words, if you lived as a technomad?

There was only one way to find out. Less than a month later, I had sold almost everything I owned – my furniture, most of my clothes, my DVD collection, the guitar I’d never learned to play – everything, basically, that wouldn’t fit into a small suitcase on wheels. And I’d used the money to buy a plane ticket to New York to begin a ridiculous experiment. To see if it was possible to enjoy a ridiculously high standard of living on the road, at absolutely no extra cost, simply by embracing spontaneity and putting my faith in the power of technology. What I couldn’t possibly have predicted at the time is that it’s not only possible, but massively preferable. The adventures I had since February – more on them soon – are such that I literally do not understand why people who are able to work remotely, and who don’t have a spouse or children to worry about, don’t buy themselves a suitcase and hit the road.

Of course Carr, who writes a technology column for the Manchester Guardian, commits mortal sins. Galavanting across the globe on a whim isn’t responsible behavior in these ecologically fragile times, the concept of Twitter annoys me more than cellphones and people with no pressing obligations have a tendency to be flaky, but the fucking gall is amazing to me. Being able to embrace life as it comes, being open to new people and experiences, willing to try everything and waking up every morning without much of a clue where you’ll fall asleep are all qualities I wish I could count as my own.

It doesn’t hurt that he has a slick but intelligent writing style, rye sense of humour and loves to talk shit about everything and everyone. The new media whore lifestyle he espouses will never be my own but, like watching bad horror movies and listening to shitty hardcore bands, it’s a special kind of enriching entertainment.

It’s been a good Christmas for Mother Earth this year as colorfully illustrated by last Monday’s ecological disaster in Tennessee. In case you missed the story, a retaining wall of a coal ash pond collecting waste from an electrical plant forty miles from Knoxville burst and flooded the Emory River and surrounding areas. Coal ash contains the radioactive elements uranium and thorium which become concentrated during the burning process and now there’s 5.4 million cubic yards depositing heavy metals in river water or waiting to dry out and become dust, borne by the four winds to anywhere and everywhere.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, owners of the plant in question, have run tests and found unsafe levels of lead and thallium in the Emory but express confidence that the contaminants will be eliminated from drinking water by standard filtration processes. This comforting thought from the same people who initially estimated the spill at 1.7 million cubic yards not to mention their space-aged storage methods which allowed the flooding to occur. Neither the TVA or our neutered government watchdog the EPA have felt it important to release any analysis of the ash itself, deigning it sufficient to note that by not eating any of the coal ash people can avoid any health problems. Local residents remain concerned about the effects of re-dehydrated ash getting into their homes, lungs and food and no one seems prepared to make a statement about that either.

A new year is upon us and soon a new president will sit in the White House. While the reality-adjusted economy will be a policy obsession for the next several months energy plans will also be drafted, debated and scuttled. Coal firing plants account for almost half of America’s energy production and the toll is obvious from the mine shaft to the smokestack. Despite just enjoying our coolest year in a decade and the rabid denials from disreputable talking heads the world is attempting to seriously grapple with the seemingly inevitable catastrophe of global warming, albeit by pursuing market based solutions and heel dragging which will doom a large chunk of the world’s population to dislocation, hunger and disease. Coal’s contribution to melting polar caps and climbing sea temperatures cannot be downplayed or ignored, and the future of energy production demands a steady decrease in its use. (more…)

Guns, Germs and Steel (2005)
National Geographic Documentary
Based on the book and hosted by Jared Diamond

Why did certain civilizations thrive while others were subjugated or obliterated? In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and in this televised adaptation, Jared Diamond argues that the foundations for a people’s success can be tied to their geographic roots. This is a simple and even obvious assessment which Diamond defends by studying, then comparing and contrasting various ancient population centers. While his common sense approach might raise eyebrows and demand rigorous debate the historical research and conjecture do appear sound and this three-part documentary presents his case in a very straight-forward and deliberate manner.

Guns Germs and Steel 1

Diamond is a professor of physiology at UCLA which might infer an innate curiosity about people’s development throughout the world, but the genesis of his investigation is presented as the result of his repeated bird-watching expeditions to New Guinea. The island is home to one of the ancient seats of civilization but the indigenous population is perceived to be backward, still relying on traditional sustenance farming and hunting. Asked why white men were so rich while New Guineans were relatively poor, Diamond was troubled by having no concrete answers. Twenty-five years later, he feels he has. (more…)

My formative years were concentrated on the north-east face of Potrero Hill, so naturally there’s a desire to keep up with what’s going on in the old neighborhood, from the continued defilement of an old warehouse district by infusions of development and cash to whatever news makes the local papers. Unfortunately I’m not in the habit of reading the local paper because the San Francisco Chronicle is, without a doubt, the most offensive major city daily I have ever attempted to digest. Microwaving my lunch in the breakroom at work required a couple moments distraction and the Bay Area section, despite poor writing and questionable preoccupations, proves a more valuable resource than attempting to relate to whatever my coworkers are discussing.

I feel a surge of pride when I see my former stomping grounds gain notoriety. On Friday, according to the Chron, two cops saw their police-brutality case dismissed. Charges had been filed by 76-year-old Raymond J. Miller who accused the officers of excessive-force when they burst into his home:

When officers arrived, Mr. Miller, who appeared to have been drinking, was wearing only swim trunks and watching pornography, according to court testimony. He began screaming and cussing when the officers approached him and then moved toward the officers in a threatening manner, prompting the takedown.

Apparently Miller had insisted his ex-wife cozy up on the couch for some quality time and when she refused he began to to cuss and threaten her, throwing around furniture. She called the cops but the call was disconnected– Miller denies her claim that he wrestled the phone from her. The injury was described by Deputy City Attorney Daniel Zaheer as a “minor chip fracture” and there was no supporting evidence that the damage resulted from Miller’s arrest.

While I’m not excited about two cops wrestling a 76-year-old to the ground, even a 270-pound one, I was wildly ecstatic to see Mr. Miller lived on Texas Street. That’s where I’m from. That means I might happen to know him, and I suspected the guy who lives across the street from my parents. I’ve seen him being arrested before, although without any need for force of any kind, and I’ve certainly seen him not wearing pants. (more…)

Now is not the time to talk about a bright tomorrow. For now we are focused on how to present a bleak tomorrow.

Kaoru Yosano, Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister of Japan, quoted in a Guardian article discussing Toyota’s first operating loss since 1938.

Photo via AFP/Getty Images

12 STIs of Christmas

Tis the season of sharing, and Kellybelle shares this yuletide missive from a born-again friend. A quirky little bit of animation intended to scare the living crap out of you and yours in case you were keen on some fireside snuggling. Interestingly this is actually produced in part by Britain’s Nation Health Service and their hip sex-ed site Condom Essential Wear. The closest we’ve come in America to this level of governmental involvement was their series of how drug use was linked to a wide variety of crime which was shot in such modern style and made to look so much like a movie that drug use by teens skyrocketed and they had to pull the ads.

Don’t think I haven’t noticed no one’s bothering to watch the Monbiot videos. I’m going to assume you’re all too stupid to figure out to click the picture to go to the site with the video and not too apathetic to care about anything. Click on through, people, and sing with someone you love.

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