Monthly Archives: February 2009

Free Software: It’s What’s for Dinner

Sorry for the poor showing lately, I’ve been horribly sick and only today committed to getting out of bed to do some work. Anyway, wince I don’t have any great blog posts lined up at the moment, I wanted to give a shout out to two free pieces of software that everyone whould get.

The first is Synergy, which allows you to use one mouse and keyboard across multiple computers, just as though they were multiple screens on one computer. I set up my desk with a Dell PC and a Mac Mini, with two screens connected to the PC. When both computers are turned on, I can flawlessly go from one screen to the next, including from the PC desktop to the Mac, without even blinking an eye. Brilliant. No more trying to figure out how to fit two keyboards and two mice on my keyboard tray.

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The second is the Firefox add-on Leechblock, which blocks selected websites during selected times of the day or days of the week so you’re not tempted to bum around on the internet while you should be working. The first day I installed it was my most productive day ever, and the subsequent days have not failed to disappoint. The program is very thorough, too; if you’re the type of person to mess around with the system clock or go into about:config to get around the restrictions, it gives you suggestings for stopping that kind of behaviour as well.

Kudos to free, open source software developers.

Another layer of defenselessness

We were dicussing imagery associated with the Willy Pickton trial and all of the missing women from the Downtown Eastside today in class, and this image came up:

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I noticed right away the contrast between the victims all being women and the rest of the people, especially the lawyers, being men. Of particular interest to me is the fact that Peter Ritchie is defending Robert Pickton, and Michael Petrie is defending the Crown, but no one is defending the women. Michael Petrie, while he is ostensibly on the “side” of the women, is actually defending the state from lawlessness and disorder. Compare Max Weber’s definition of the state:

[T]he state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory […]. [A]ll other organizations or individuals can assert the right to use physical violence only insofar as the state permits them to do so. (“Politics as a Vocation,” italics in original)

Pickton threatened the autonomy of the state by using physical violence without permission, which is why he is being prosecuted by the state rather than by a lawyer working for the women. Considering the Crown symbolism, in fact, the women have very little to do with this trial whatsoever.

Get off my lawn! Youth culture and social stigma

The cities of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster have undertaken a project to build a bike path from the Vancouver waterfront to somewhere in New West, called the Central Valley Greenway. In true government style, the project is so far behind schedule that some of the earlier parts are decaying from lack of use while they plug away slowly at the newer parts, like the bridge near Sperling/Burnaby Lake. At the same time, the path seems like it was poorly advertised, so the parts that are usable only see a couple of travelers every day. For these reasons, much of the path seems forgotten and abandoned, particularly the section near my house, which passes a number of homeless person bush camps, a partially washed out bridge, lots of industrial warehouses and trailer yards, some derelict old buildings, and some train track embankments that are heavily graffitied and covered with trash. Many of these areas would serve as active deterrents to average people who might otherwise find the pathway very useful and enjoyable.

One of these areas is under the overpass where Kensington Avenue crosses Still Creek. When I first walked by here in the early fall, I was suprised to find that some enterprising kids had built an elaborate dirt BMX park under the bridge, with about 8 or 10 jumps of various sizes, as well as some phenomenal graffiti pieces on the massive bridge pylons. The jumps were clearly well-used, as indicated by the bike tracks in the dirt, the empty cans of coke and other detritus scattered on the ground, and the well-worn path crossing the tracks toward the suburban neighbourhood across Lougheed Highway. Unfortunately, when I walked by there again about two weeks ago, the entire park had been bulldozed flat, presumably by the city.

This got me thinking about the attitudes toward youth that are ingrained in the bylaws of cities across North America. For some reason (and there are probably lots of good ones), things that are associated with unchaperoned youth, like skate parks and graffiti, are often put in the same category as halfway houses and brothels when the prospect of their appearance in a gentrified neighbourhood comes up. (Even “txtspk” seems to signal the apocalypse for some people.) I’m sure there are lots of good reasons why adults are scared of youth culture, and they probably boil down in one way or another to the feeling of losing touch with the youth, or coming to no longer understand their actions and communication, which would be an early manifestation of losing control of them altogether and having them take over the world. Some youth are out of control, and lots of youth are insubordinate, spiteful, hateful and even violent toward adults, but I still don’t think this is a good justification for societally repudiating youth culture in general as foreign and dangerous.

Here’s why: it’s been my experience as a youth, and in my observations of other youths, that kids who are really into something are  going to stay out of trouble, for the most part. I was into climbing, for example, and when I was at the climbing gym or up in Squamish five days out of the week, I didn’t have a lot of time to drink and do drugs or whatever else I might have done. I was preoccupied with climbing. Contrary to what seems to be the popular conception of youth culture, things like skateboarding, BMX, snowboarding and graffiti are the same way. If a kid is really into skateboarding, or really into graffiti, they are probably going to be preoccupied with that activity to the degree that it deters them from activities that we should be afraid of, like gang violence, hard drug use, rape, and so on. Sure, kids who are into skateboarding and graffiti are going to smoke pot, and they’re going to have sex, but they’re not going to devote their lives to pot and sex if they have something more compelling that occupies their time

I realize that I’m making a lot of unqualified statements in this post, and that’s why I’m going to put out a call for research. I would greatly like to see some deep, intellectually and empirically rigorous examination of youths to see if there really is any basis for being afraid of youth culture, and for actively deterring kids from participating in it. Let’s analyse a healthy number of kids from across the continent, and see if pot really is a gateway drug, if graffiti really does lead to gang activity, and if text messaging really does lead to illiteracy. Would kids who participate in these activities be more likely to end up in prison or in gangs than kids who don’t? What exactly is the relationship between activities like these, that we seem to be afraid of, and the things we really should be afraid of? I think the results might surprise us. The city of Burnaby made a decision to pay to have that BMX park under the bridge ploughed down, and the graffiti buffed, and I would be very interested to see if there really is any reasonable basis for doing so. And if not, how do we remove the stigma that’s associated with anything youth culture?

Pinhole

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It seems so long ago that I posted about my Pentax pinhole camera. I finally got the film developed and scanned, and to my surprise the frames that I thought would be overexposed weren’t, thanks I guess to the vast latitude of fast, cheap colour print film. Check out some of the better ones at my Flickr page.

Quit while you’re ahead

Bitch PhD posted this glowing praise of graduate school in the humanities yesterday:

Just Say No

She wrote in it response to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Benton that lists reasons why undergrads considering applying to a graduate program in the humanities should refrain altogether. He outlines many of the most common motives that undergrads have for pursuing more education:

  • They are excited by some subject and believe they have a deep, sustainable interest in it. (But ask follow-up questions and you find that it is only deep in relation to their undergraduate peers — not in relation to the kind of serious dedication you need in graduate programs.)
  • They received high grades and a lot of praise from their professors, and they are not finding similar encouragement outside of an academic environment. They want to return to a context in which they feel validated.
  • They are emerging from 16 years of institutional living: a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies. The world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.
  • With the prospect of an unappealing, entry-level job on the horizon, life in college becomes increasingly idealized. They think graduate school will continue that romantic experience and enable them to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.
  • They can’t find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don’t interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
  • They think that graduate school is a good place to hide from the recession. They’ll spend a few years studying literature, preferably on a fellowship, and then, if academe doesn’t seem appealing or open to them, they will simply look for a job when the market has improved. And, you know, all those baby boomers have to retire someday, and when that happens, there will be jobs available in academe.

And then explains why many of them later become violently disillusioned:

[H]umanities Ph.D.’s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees. If you take that path, you will be starting at the bottom in your 30s, a decade behind your age cohort, with no savings (and probably a lot of debt).

The great thing about this is that I’m right at that point where I can see things from both angles: I share many of the motivations for pursuing this and possibly my next degree, but I’m also fully aware of the dearth of academic positions available for graduates of this most abhorrent and first-to-be-underfunded of university departments. I’ve been very open with telling people that one of the reasons that I have pursued this degree, aside from my interest in it, it that I am afraid of the real world. All the while, I have held in the back of my mind some level of fear and loathing for the day that I will inevitably be faced with the choice of competing with hundreds of others for a meager number of academic positions, or else competing with fresh, young, and much more ambitious undergraduates for whatever positions I might be qualified for outside of academia.

One thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m exactly $0 in debt.

Potent Quotables

[T]he pleasure (for me) of dozing in the sun on the grass of a public park is something I can, quite literally, live without, but only because I have a place where I can sleep whenver I choose. We are not speaking of murder or assault here, in which there are (near) total societal bans. Rather we are speaking, in the most fundamental sense, of geography, of a geography in which a local prohibition (against sleeping in public, say) becomes a total prohibition for some people. That is why Jeremy Waldron (1991) understands the promulgation of anti-homeless laws as fundamentally an issue of freedom: they destroy whatever freedom homeless people have, as people, not just to live under conditions at least partially of their own choosing, but to live at all.

Don Mitchell, “Anti-Homeless Laws in the United States”