Who Are You? Thoughts On Identity

Identity is a complex thing. People who know me know I’m from Canada, despite living in the USA now. People here, in Boulder, know me as the Canadian if they can’t remember my name.

When I go home, however, people call me the American. Live in any country other than your own long enough and this will happen to you – it’s basically inevitable. My identity – like yours – can’t be boiled down to a nation, a religion, a TV show or anything else.

diever

My Oma’s childhood home in Diever, Drenthe, The Netherlands

Last week I, and my family, visited the Netherlands. As I said: identity is complex, and that was true even before I moved to the USA. All my life my grandparents have spoken of The Netherlands as the proverbial Old Country. I grew up calling them Oma and Opa, and Dutch baked goods were always plentiful. The church we attended was full of other immigrant families much like ours, and as a kid it just all just seemed normal. At one point I actually thought all old people had a Dutch accent, because just about every old person I knew did.

I’m Canadian. I’m also, at this point, kind of American (though not if you check my passport). And while visiting The Netherlands, I also felt strangely at home.

Don’t get me wrong – there were ways in which it was foriegn. The language isn’t one I speak – beyond what three months of Rosetta Stone can do, anyway – and almost all the traffic signs I saw meant nothing to me. We didn’t know what a red X through a blue circle meant until checking Wikipedia at home (it means no stopping).

diever-horses

But in other ways, however, I felt right at home. We visited my grandparent’s home town (Diever, in Drenthe) and almost all the last names we saw there were shared with people from home – an effect, I was told, of immigrants tending to cluster with people from their home towns. The baked goods, of course, were familiar – albeit much less stale than we were used to (seriously, Stroopwaffles are so much better than I thought as a kid…and I freaking loved them). And the general atmosphere was simply comfortable.

Identity is complex. I’m Canadian, I’m American, but my ancestry is entirely Dutch. I’m glad I took this trip, because now I know just a little more about what that means – and find myself wanting to know more.

Mom and Dad: thanks for flying us all out there. It was one of the best weeks Kathy and I have ever had, and I’m sure my siblings feel the same. I’ll do all I can to get more video out there in the weeks to come – I’ve got a lot of footage to sort through now.

Everyone else, I’m wondering: do you know where your family comes from? What does that mean to you? Comments, below: you know what to do.

Resolutions are arbitrary. I hope they work.

This is supposed to be my year. All of December I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to hit the ground running in 2013, how I’m going to finally accomplish all the things I want to do. I’m going to make videos regularly, actually write things for Technophilia in advance and I’m going to do more of the sorts of things I need to if I want a long-term career in journalism.

In 2013 I will finally become the person I want to be.

Bullshit. I drove home from Michigan on Saturday, slept the better part of Sunday and today, one week into my resolutions, I’m freaking out. I have a nasty cold that made it impossible to write Monday Tuesday and most of Thursday, meaning most the things I want to accomplish this week aren’t even started. I spent most of yesterday feeling just tired enough to not write, and now I’ve got a giftbasket full of deadlines that are starting to go bad.

We do this to ourselves every year: pretend that an arbitrary point in the calendar means something, that switching from one year to another is more meaningful than switching from one day to another, from one hour to another or from one second to the next. It’s not, but we’re humans and humans will assign meaning to anything.

Look at the Mayan calendar. Here we have a system for measuring time used by a civilization that disappeared long ago, and enough people interpreted the transition from one era to another as meaning the end of the world that there was panic. Actual Mayan descendants didn’t care in the slightest, because they actually understood the calendar, but that didn’t matter: all across Europe people we’re freaking out about earth ending, because humans assign enough value to time to believe that the end of a man-made calendar can influence reality itself.

The truth is that time is a construct we created to give the world meaning, to track things that otherwise just happen. Days are pretty consistent but years are so bothersome for us to measure that we’ve devised a complex system of leap days, leap years and even the occasionally leap second just to keep everything in balance. It’s a different time for me right now than it is for James, because we’ve set a number of imaginary lines that determine what time it is where. Time varies depending on space.

There are no time zones in China – it’s the same time in Beijing as it is in Tibet. The Chinese citizens I’ve talked to about this think it’s a great idea, but almost all of them lived on the east coast and probably never had to deal with getting up at 3 every morning because that’s when it’s light outside. Reality doesn’t care what time we say it is, just like reality doesn’t care what year it now is.

So when I tell myself I’m going to do something in 2013, I’m fooling myself on some level. I’m pretending that an arbitrary point in a man-made system can somehow shape my destiny, can somehow make me more likely to do the things I already know I need to do.

Will it? Probably not. But I’ve got to try something, right?

Why Louis C.K. doesn’t let fans take pictures of him.

Are you having actual experiences? Or do you do things simply for the sake of recording and sharing them? It may seem like a silly question, but it’s worth thinking about.

This week comedian Louis C.K. did an iama (“I Am A…”), which is essentialy an intrview with the Reddit hivemind. Reddit loves Louis, so the results were wonderful, but I want to talk about one comment in particular. Louis only recently rose to national prominence, and is now regularly recognized on the streets of New York City where he lives. When a Redditor asked Louis how he feels about this, Louis explained why fans wanting pictures with him made him enjoy meeting them less, at least until he stopped doing pictures with them.

“Every person on the planet now has a camera,” said Louis, “so it sometimes happens that up to 20 people in one day or more want me to pose with them for a picture that they can put it on Facebook. That’s a lot. Also I don’t like doing it. It makes me feel weird.”

He didn’t always mind connecting with fans. In fact, he used to love it: “I remembered that when it was earlier in my career, when someone would say something like, once or twice day, I really liked it and felt genuine interest in them and gratitude”.

So Louis adapted a new policy. “I refuse to ever take a picture with anyone,” he said. “I just say no. I don’t do that. But I shake their hand and I talk to them for a bit. Because I like that. I can tell this disappoints people for a second but as we talk they feel okay about it.”

An actual conversation. An actual experience. To me, that’s better than a photo.

Not so long ago, if you wanted to take pictures, you had to conciously decide to carry a camera with you. Not anymore. Everyone carries their cell phones everywhere, and all of them have built-in cameras.

So we take pictures constantly, creating an entire genre of photos we didn’t have a word for just ten years ago: the Facebook photo. It’s a quick snap of yourself and your friends, with a touch of where you are in the background, taken primarily to document the fact that you hung out with a given friend.

These photos can be fun, but they can also take away from actually enjoying a given moment.

In 2006 I wrote about how technology was starting to intrude on real moments, in real life. Some friends and I, during a trip to the St. Louis, stumbled upon a view of the World Series from the top story of a parking garage. It was amazing, but when I turned to my friends to talk to them about it I was interupted by cell phones. Everyone was on the phone, asking if their friends and famailes were watching the game and explaining that they were watching the game from a parking garage. I couldn’t share the moment with them, because they were sharing it with someone else.

People pay more attention to their phones now than I could have imagined way back in 2006. What you pay attention to matters, however, so I”m going to ask again: are you having actual experiences? Or do you do things simply for the sake of recording and sharing them?

Think about it. Sure: you can look at photos and videos whenever you want, but actual experiences only happen once.

Bush’s “Decision Points” is profoundly surreal

In the week leading up to the release of George W. Bush’s memoir, reviewers chimed in with their opinions, hoping to define what the memoir means to the millions who read reviews instead of books.

Some said Bush is as stubborn as ever, insisting that history will show him in a kind light despite evidence to the contrary. Some found factual errors and highlighted them. Some longed to return to Bush’s presidency.

No review I read, however, pointed out my deepest feeling after reading Decision Point: the book is profoundly surreal.

Here is a president who defined his career by his decisiveness. The guy actually called himself “The Decider.”

Yet, reading his memoirs, I got the distinct impression that Bush never really made a decision in his life. Whether it’s following his dad’s example or listening to his close advisers, Bush’s own words gave me the impression that he is a man who floated through life and happened to become the president of the United States of America.

He went to two Ivy League schools, seemingly just because he had connections and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life anyway. He got mediocre grades in both schools. Then he drifted for a decade or so, doing some labour and starting the occasional unsuccessful business. Then he got married and decided owning a baseball team would be fun. Then he ran for governor, and eventually for president.

Perhaps others will read it differently, but to me Decision Points reads like the memoir of a trust fund kid who happened to stumble into the presidency. Bush comes across as sincere, as someone who loves his family and took his responsibilities seriously, but if you’re looking for deep reflections on the use of power in the 21st century look elsewhere.

And if you’re looking to learn from someone who lived intentionally, who took control of his fate and made the most of it, Decision Points is not a book I’d recommend.

***

It’s September 11, 2001. I’m starting grade 11 at a small Christian high school in Ontario. The first class of the day is history, and we’re talking about what history is.

Mr. Korvemaker is one of those teachers who teaches best when he asks questions, and today is no exception. Everything he asks prompts conversation as we try to figure out what, exactly, history is.

What becomes history, what doesn’t become history? Is it the moments of the past that we, as a civilization, assign value to? Or are there some moments that are just intrinsically historic?

We are well into the conversation when we are interrupted by the PA system. Planes crashed into both World Trade Center towers in America, and no one is really sure what’s going on. Our vice principal, a lifelong educator typically sporting a sincerely happy demeanor, is fighting back tears. We later learn he has a friend working in one of the towers.

It seems insane, in retrospect, that our discussion about what history is could take place during a moment destined to go down in it.

***

“Where were you when it happened” stories have become a genre. Telling these stories is a sort of religious ritual, one in which the storyteller places their lives in the context of history.

Bush’s memoir contains this ritual early on.

He describes how he started his day on September 11, 2001. Reading the Bible, jogging, showering, breakfast, CIA briefing. His manner of describing everything is downright ordinary.

Most people know where Bush was when the planes hit: promoting his education reforms, reading to children in the Emma E. Booker Elementary School of Florida. It was a press-oriented visit, meant to boost No Child Left Behind.

His chief of staff whispered in his ear after both plane crashes. Bush kept reading.

“I saw reporters at the back of the room, learning the news on their cell phones and pagers,” he writes. “Instinct kicked in. I knew my reaction would be recorded and beamed throughout the world. The nation would be in shock; the president could not be. If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country.”

And so continuing to read a children’s book is heroic.

Not that I think he reacted poorly. On the contrary, I would do the same thing under the same circumstances. That’s not the point.

He shouldn’t have been doing the press-oriented school visit in the first place.

Modern presidents are pundits as well as politicians, a long tradition but one we should question. More would get done if politicians stopped campaigning once elections concluded. That Bush was promoting his work instead of working when the planes hit is a symbol of how out-of-sync with reality the modern presidency is.

Bush describes the rest of his day, riding Air Force One from location to location. Like most of us, he had no idea what was going on. He kept calling Washington to find out, but the entire government seemed to be in chaos. It was hours before he found out Al-Qaeda was to blame, at least by his telling.

The entire time Bush kept telling his people he wanted to get back to the White House, but for safety reasons this was continually delayed.

He made it eventually.

“Landing at Barksdale felt like dropping onto a movie set,” says the most powerful man on earth about seeing his own air force in action.

What a mediated world we live in.

***

It’s November, 2003. I’m halfway through my first semester at an small Christian university in Michigan. I’m figuring out what identity politics is.

Growing up in Canada ideology wasn’t something I thought of much. Mom and Dad voted against each other during a couple of elections, and it was more a joke than a fight.

Not so in Michigan, I soon learn. Here many accept political affiliations as though they are born into a caste.

“I’m a genetic Republican,” I hear more than once. A friend of mine explains she is a Democrat because of her New England upbringing.

This makes very little sense to me. What do ideas have to do with genetics or upbringing?

I take everything in stride, but a few things confuse me so much that I have to question them. Among them is a picture I see every day.

The picture is on the door of the dorm room across the hall from mine. It features a soldier manning a large gun in a desert, with a caption I never forgot:

“You aren’t the ones taking bullets in the desert. SUPPORT YOUR COUNTRYMEN.”

I was never against supporting troops. God knows I don’t envy them their job.

But that was rarely the purpose of signs like this in the early days of the Iraq war. The argument that one should support the troops was frequently twisted into a means of telling people to support the war in Iraq.

I reject this logic completely. One does not necessarily need to support a war just because there were troops fighting; that would mean accepting any war regardless of its morality.

So I write an article about America invading Canada to make this point. It probably convinces no one of anything, but I have fun with it.

I found a new passion: writing.

By the end of that year I write a regular satirical column in the student paper.

***

The Iraq war, through Bush’s telling, was completely logical. Saddam was a dick. Saddam ignored international law. International organizations were unwilling to do anything about this. America, and her allies, did it without their consent. Now Iraqis are voting, and the world is a better place.

This telling isn’t completely out of touch with reality. Saddam had been ignoring, and gaming, international law for decades much like North Korea and Iran do today.

Opponents of the war never argue these points. They argue that America doesn’t have the right to ignore the institutions, like the UN, which she built to make the world a better place. To hear Bush speak of the UN, however, you’d think it was just a conspiracy to stop America from properly taking care of everyone.

The war ended up being much longer than Bush imagined. Of course it cost the American economy billions. But to Bush, this is justified because the cause was just and the security of America depended on victory.

Ideological arguments like this will probably give way to reality in the coming century, as America’s wealth faces limits. Wars will be opposed on fiscal rather than moral grounds. America will no longer have the means to impose its order on the world, whether it wants to or not.

All of these arguments will look very different by then.

***

It’s April, 2005. My second year at Calvin is winding down, and I’m helping the staff at the student paper put the final touches on its annual parody issue.

The parody issue has a half century of mocking the school’s status-quo behind it, something we’re all aware of as we put all of our spare time into this year’s project. Editors have been fired, donations have been pulled and the school has more than once been forever changed for the better.

Simply put: truth is good. If God is good, falsehoods should be mocked. Parody is our way of mocking falsehoods, a responsibility we take very seriously.

This year we’re doing a mock version of People magazine, and it’s been exhausting. The layout is a pretty good recreation and the articles cover everything from closeted homosexuals to the hubris of certain communications professors.

Finally we think it’s finished and we’ll be able to go to bed at night instead of staying up working on the publication.

It’s not meant to be. The morning we wrap it up there is an announcement: George W. Bush will speak at our college’s commencement this year.

Well shit. Now we need to throw something about Bush into there. The exhaustion, however, eventually turned into school-child giddiness as we worked on our last-second addition to the publication.

The design we eventually settled on felt nothing short of genius. Our collective minds, as though one, choose the famous cowboy image of Bush on his ranch and turned it into a parody Marlboro advertisement.

“Come to where the Savior is,” it read, “Come to Bush country.”

We intend to point out the sacrilegious overlap of religion and politics in contemporary America. Bush was the ultimate symbol of that, only highlighted by his decision to speak at our Christian university.

We also think our ad is hilarious.

***

History’s always been a nebulous concept, leading at least one 20th century automaker to call it “bunk.”

That being said, most people don’t spend our days wondering how history will judge them. For the most part, the average person assumes nothing they ever do will be taught in classes later on in life.

George W. Bush felt he had no such luxury. Late in his presidency Bush more than once mentioned his belief that history would vindicate him; that his current unpopularity is a momentary thing.

It makes sense, then, that the very first thing Bush mentions in his book is how important his book will be for future historians.

Maybe it’s because I’m young.

Maybe it’s become I came to political consciousness in Canada, where the stakes are so much lower, before moving to America.

Maybe it’s because nothing Bush did every really made sense to me at the time.

Whatever the reason, I can’t really describe Decision Points using any word besides surreal.

5 Articles You Should Read Tonight

So much of the web is short little snippits, manufactured with keywords in mind to increase a site’s hitcount, so finding quality articles  is very relaxing for any blogger. I read some great articles last night so I thought I’d share.

One of my favorite pages on the web is Instapaper’s “Browse” page. Instapaper is a web app for reading long articles without distractions, and the “Browse” page provides plenty of great articles for reading. I love picking four or five articles from this page at random, sending them to my eReader and making myself a cup of tea.

Let Us Pay by John Lanchester
London Review Of Books

The last five years have been depressing for the newspaper industry. Classifieds, a former cash cow, are now essentially worthless. Subscriptions are down and advertising revenues with them.

Yet many newspapers have millions more readers than ever before.

John Lanchester explores this contradiction, and says the problem is that newspapers make it too hard to pay for articles online. His solution: a sort of iTunes for reading. Great analysis, and something everyone with an interest in writing professionally should read.

The War On Cameras by Radley Balko
Reason Magazine

Did you know it’s illegal in many states to record video of police officers? Neither do most residents of those states. Balko points out numerous examples of people being arrested for recording police officers, and the not-exactly-relevant wiretapping laws being used to make it happen. Some police officers, essentially, argue they have a right to privacy, and as such cannot be recorded without permission.

It’s a great example of the law failing to keep up with technology. Cell phone cameras being ubiquitous today makes more such cases inevitable. Will the laws be overturned?

Why I’m An Atheist by Ricky Gervais
The Wall Street Journal

Gervais’ recent stint hosting the Global Globes caused no shortage of controversy. So much so, in fact, that many missed his sign-off: “I’d like to thank God for making me an athiest.” Weird, right?

Not really. If you want a better understanding of the comedians views on religion I highly recommend this article. Don’t worry: it’s not a Dawkins-style attack on belief. Rather, Gervais simply outlines how he came to his conclusion, with his signature wit. Worth a read regardless of your faith (or lack thereof.)

The New Rock-Star Paradigm by Damian Kulash Jr.
The Wall Street Journal

How can musicians make money in the digital age? If anyone knows, it’s OK Go. Kulash outlines how his band is making a decent living in the age of downloads employing a centuries-old technique: patronage. OK Go, since leaving their record label behind, has found sponsors for their famously viral videos. This allows them to be as creative as possible, and also lets them make a good living doing what they love: making music.

Again, anyone trying to figure out how the creative process will work in the Internet age should give this article a read.

The Commandments by Jill Lepore
The New Yorker

There’s been a lot of talk of the constitution lately, but what does the document really mean? Lepore examines the history of this document and the various historical movements that tried to define it. As tea party types increasingly study the constitution as though it were a infallible religious text it’s important to realize its imperfection. The founders did not agree on the document itself, and it changed many times through history.

If you’re American, this article provides clarity. If you’re not, this article provides context for the current obsession.

Feel free to share any more great articles in the comments below.

People Talking Without Speaking: The Ignored Disaster

Sitting in front a computer. That’s what I do lately.

It’s what most of us do lately.

Learn the conventions of the web. Tweet it. Like it. Digg it. Write a snappy headline or no one will read it. Stay on top of the trends. It doesn’t matter whether that’s true or not; give people the surface. Don’t confuse, engage.

Give the people what they want.

Meanwhile, in the real world, suffering exists for very complicated reasons. People in Pakistan continue to recover from the flood, but you wouldn’t know it from Digg or Twitter. It’s not as sexy a disaster as hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, I suppose, so we don’t talk about it.

Maybe the problem is that Pakistan is too complicated. Right now a poor man is turning turning to Islamic extremists for help. Is that because his democratically elected government is corrupt, or because years of military rule means civic institutions lack the resources to properly care for people?

Or, considering what a mess much of New Orleans still is, does government really even matter in this context?

All questions worth asking, but regardless that man is going to find a way to feed himself and his family. That’s what people in hard situations do: they find a way. That’s the human spirit.

But from here I can’t understand that spirt. Sitting in front of a screen everything is blurry. To me, that person is an abstraction; another hypothetical chip I can throw at an argument no one is listening to.

People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening. And I’m a part of it.

I sincerely believe the world is becoming a better place for the web’s existence, but I fear we’re becoming too simple in the process. We need to find a way to bring complicated arguments to the web, or we’re going to drown in the sheer volume of our simplistic statements.

This isn’t some abstraction; real people are being overlooked because of our inability to process complex information. Let me know if you have any ideas, but I’ve got to get back to work now.

Donate to UNICEF’s efforts in Pakistan.

How I pay only $20 a month in phone bills

You pay too much for your phone, assuming you pay more than $20 a month. Or, at least, you pay more than me.

That’s all I pay, and I have a cell phone and unlimited long distance. And no, I didn’t hack the phone system.

It’s quite simple, actually. By combing Skype, a pay-as-you-go cell phone (Net10) and Google Voice you can have a single phone number with unlimited long distance that you can use anywhere in the US…for $20 a month. Here’s the annual breakdown:

  • SkypeOut: $30 ($2.99/month w/ 15% discount for 12 months.)
  • SkypeIn: $30 (discount for purchasing the year subscription.)
  • Net10: $180 ($15/month)
  • Google Voice: Free (and awesome.)
  • Total: $240 Annually, or $20 a month.

With this, I get:

  • Unlimited long distance in the US and Canada, via Skype.
  • Better cell reception than most of my friends.
  • Convenient web-based voicemail via Google Voice.
  • SMS transcripts of voicemails sent to my cell phone.

Naturally you might want to modify my strategy a little, but if you want to learn how to copy this method I suggest you keep reading.

Step 1: Get Skype

The first step is to get a Skype account, which you can do easily at Skype.com, and it’s worth it. This program, known best for its free computer-to-computer webcam calls, is actually quite functional as a phone line. Over at bicycle-based IT company iSupportU we use a Skype phone to conduct practically all our business.

Once you have your Skype account set up I suggest you buy a subscription. The price is listed at $2.99, but if you commit to a year you’ll receive a discount bringing the price down to a round $30 per year.

Step 2: Get a Skype Phone

Making phone calls from your computer has its downsides, even if you’ve done all you can to fix low sound quality on Skype. The biggest problem, of course, is that you need to keep your computer on all the time to receive calls.

For this reason I own a Skype phone. I myself own the Belkin Desktop Phone (Buy.com, $69.99) but there are a variety of such phones on the market. Belkin’s got a pretty nice WiFi phone on the market for $179 (Buy.com), for example.

There’s are a few more to choose from, of course; check out Buy.com or Skype’s online store for more selection.

Of course, if you already own an iPhone or an iPod touch you’re good to go already; just download the Skype App and you’ve got a WiFi Skype phone already…even if you stop paying the bill to AT&T.

Step 3: Get a Net10 Cell Phone

Skype’s great, but even with a WiFi phone it only works if you have WiFi access. Cell phones can easily fill in this gap, but unlimited cell phone plans tend to be expensive.

For this reason I prefer cheap pay-as-you-go phones; the kind you see in grocery stores. I particularly like Net10, because it’s cheap and easy to use.

Don’t believe me? Check out how cheap the phones are and how cheap the minutes are. Even with the cost of the phone you won’t be paying much more than $15 a month for this service.

Just keep in mind: when buying time for your phone ignore the minute totals. Minutes don’t matter.

Why? Your minutes are bankable and, assuming you depend mostly on your Skype account for longer conversations, you’ll typically not even get close to using up all of your minutes in a given month. Use the cell phone primarily for quick “I’m coming home” or “Where are you?” conversations and you’ll be surprised how far you can stretch things.

So what does matter? Cost-effectiveness. Keep your cell phone active for the most days possible while spending as little money as possible. Doing this is simple if you know the formula: days of service divided by total price. Use a calculator if you need to, just make sure you understand which amount of minutes you need to buy in order to get the most Days of Service for your buck.

As of right now the best deal Net10 has going is the three-hundred minutes with sixty days of service card for $30; that’s fifty cents a day. Click here to buy a phone and get started.

Word to the wise: do not enable voicemail on your Net10 phone. You’ve got better plans.

Step 4: Combine Everything With Google Voice

Now that you’ve got two phones it’s time to get yourself a Google Voice account, if you haven’t already. Sign up here and you’re good to go. This service is amazing, but Google can explain better than I can:

All you need to do is add your Skype phone number and your cell phone to Google Voice to get started, but you can do a lot more. For example:

  • Set up Skype to display your Google Voice number for outgoing calls. This will make things less confusing for the people you call.
  • Set Google Voice to forward messages to your email and you’ll be less likely to miss them.
  • Set Google Voice to send you an SMS message when someone leaves you a Voicemail. This gives you a discrete way to check your voicemail.
  • Open SMS messages on Google Voice as much as possible. Net10 only charges you for texts if you open them on your phone!

Google Voice is well documented in and around the web, so I won’t get into it much more. Check out Google’s own Voice help page if you get stuck, and have fun!

Feedback?

I hope this guide saves you money; it’s saved me quite a bit. Do you have any more suggestions? Please Leave them in the comments below. Also feel free to leave any links to deals on Skype phones or pay-as-you-go phones. I tried to find low prices but things change quickly.

Also, I live in the USA. As such, this guide assumes people live in the USA. If you know of any similar guides for people abroad, or have tips, please include them as well.