Thursday, July 2, 2015

Online Bureaucracy

Facebook ate my friend.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2008.  Like most new things that involve any digital technology at all, I was not an early adopter nor was I all that interested in joining.  Indeed, it took Kim several weeks of concerted effort just to get me to consider it, and another couple of weeks of lurking on her profile to make me think it was something I was willing to do. 

Now, of course, I’m an addict.

For all of the many and valid criticisms people make of Facebook, it has more than proven its worth to me.  I have reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in years.  I’ve become closer to people I was still connected with.  It has been a conduit of communication for friends going through rough patches in their lives, and a way to provide comfort and assurance even if all that meant was checking in to say hello.  It has been a way to share joys as they came up.  It has become the default method of planning events and organizing large groups – both scattered across the country or the world and, surprisingly enough, just locally here in Our Little Town.  And it has replaced email as the place where the jokes get passed around.

It’s not cool, Facebook.  My children tell me that all the time.  We have told them that they need to get accounts just to keep up with a) us old people and b) the groups that need to be organized (such as 4H, which does a surprising amount of business on Facebook), and they have grudgingly accepted this ultimatum even though all the cool kids are on Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter or some other service that would instantly become uncool if I were ever to join and might have already become so merely by my mentioning it here.

I also understand that Facebook is a free service and that, accordingly, I am the product and not the consumer.  It’s been worth it to me.

But sometimes?  Facebook can be a real ass.

They’ve recently begun enforcing a policy requiring people to use their verified real names. 

On the one hand, this is probably not a bad idea – there are a lot of cowards out there hiding behind anonymity as trolls and abusers, and cracking down on them is a good idea. 

On the other hand, there are also a lot of people out there who have legitimate reasons for using alternate names.  Some of them are hiding from the trolls and abusers.  Some have alternate identities for alternate situations – one for work friends and one for non-work friends, for example, or they have a “gaming identity” for online games.  Some just don’t wish to be known to a wider public, but still want to take part in the online community.  In an online world were simply being female makes you orders of magnitude more likely to be harassed than being male, sometimes people just don’t want to spend their time dealing with assholes.  There are a lot of valid reasons for aliases, is what I’m saying.

So there is a need to make some finely honed judgments in these matters.

Unfortunately Facebook has become such a juggernaut, such a massive and impersonal force, that getting it to make those finely honed judgments is nearly impossible.  Hell, I’ve run afoul of Facebook myself.  During the Great Wisconsin Putsch of 2011 I posted so many political links that I was actually forbidden from making any further posts on my own account for days.  There was nobody to complain to.  Nobody even to explain the decision to me.  I sent off questions to the various help line slots and got exactly nothing in response.  Eventually they decided I must have been chastened and relented, except all that happened was that I learned to be sneaky and lost most of my respect for them as an organization.  They’re useful, but no more.  All this from someone who kept his account and still uses it, too.  Not like my friend.

Sad, really.

I don’t really know why my friend chose to have an online alias with Facebook, and frankly I don’t regard it as my business to ask.  I got to know them under that name, and they have been perfectly fine to me under that name – friendly, honest, and fun to have around.  I’ve even gotten to know them a bit better in the present crisis, and everything I’ve learned has made me like them more. 

I do not like it when my friends are not treated well.

No I do not.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Drive in the Country

We did a lot of things up north this past weekend.

We visited some old friends.  We went to a pig roast.  We walked onto a tennis court and proceeded to hit the ball a few times, and no that is not at all the same thing as actually playing tennis.  Playing tennis would require us to keep the ball within the high fenced in area and away from the surrounding countryside, which manifestly did not happen.  We continued to watch the Women's World Cup, and we still have no idea how the French managed to lose to the Germans (and if you think it's easy to skip the WWII jokes here, well, you try it).  We searched for the northern lights but were apparently half a week late.  We even slipped over the border into Minnesota for half an hour – the first time either of the girls had done so.  Add another state to the list!

But the one thing that will likely stay with us most from this trip was the 4x4.

We were staying at Joe’s house, which has a great deal of land attached to it – and why not, since there’s not much else around besides land.  It’s wide open country out there.  Joe was actually not home most of the weekend, as he was gallivanting around the state on other missions (we did get to see him at the very end), so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  The girls made fires in the firepit, learned not to attempt the hammock that was strung over the big pile of rocks (“it was an error in judgment,” was all Joe would say about it when asked), and generally had a marvelous time.  It's good to have friends who will let you take over their home like that.

Joe also has a 4x4 – one of those little ATVs that you can ride around the trails.  It seats two comfortably, one behind the other, and once you get it going it can move at a fairly good clip.  The girls had been on it before, on previous visits, and Lauren had been looking forward to riding it again since the moment she found out we were going north.

Except that nobody was there but us, this time.

This, of course, is one of those parenting moments that you know is coming but are nevertheless not quite prepared for.  How much freedom do you want to give them when it involves internal combustion engines and knobbly tires?  Then again, how restrictive can you be?  It’s a balancing act.

So I took the first ride solo.  I figured out how to get it to start (a simple but non-obvious process) and then scouted out a route around the property that seemed to involve minimal hazards.

When I got back I took Lauren around that route, and eventually Tabitha as well.

Then it was their turn.

They rode together for the first few times, switching off from driver to passenger.  It’s always good to have a buddy to run for help if anything happens, and Tabitha is now legally old enough to drive in Wisconsin anyway, even if she doesn't yet have the paperwork to make it official.  They went down the driveway, made the right turn around the clump of trees and came back up around the lawn, past the big bushes and back to the driveway – a loop of maybe a hundred yards length and twenty yards width. 

Eventually they got bored with that and went past the clump of trees and followed the driveway down the hill to the main road, where they turned around and came back.  You can really open it up when you come up the hill. 

This lasted two days. 

By the third day they were cruising solo.  Lauren especially enjoyed the ride – she would go out and start the thing up on her own and take off down the driveway, Joe’s big dog flying beside her like a furry flag, back and forth, around and around.

Let’s just say that one of our missions this past weekend involved refilling a couple of gas cans.

It all went well right up to about half an hour before we left, when Lauren backed it into Joe’s car.  She put a palm-sized dent just above the rear blinker, which fortunately Joe was not bothered about, and nobody got hurt.  So, win.

If there were offroad trails from there back to Our Little Town, my guess is that Lauren would have just met us at home.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nature Boy

I don’t really get nature.

Not long after Kim and I started dating we went up to northern Wisconsin.  Kim grew up in that part of the state and still had friends there.  Still does, in fact.

It’s beautiful country, really, if that’s your thing, all rolling hills and winding roads.  Kim’s friends lived in a house on a hill.  As far as I could tell they had no neighbors – you could walk all the way around the building and not see another house.  It’s way out there.

This was way before any of us had kids, so it was just the four of us.  We got up there late in the day, and the next morning I found myself the only person in the house.  Everyone else had either gone to their jobs or – in Kim’s case – gone along with them. 

I was still in graduate school at the time and – as graduate students will – I had a pile of reading to do, so I took my monographs and articles out onto the deck that overlooked the road hidden below, set up a beverage and a snack, and dug in.  I spent the whole morning happily reading, taking notes, and snacking.  Other than the note-taking part, this still sounds like a great day to me.

Sometime around lunchtime Kim called to check in on me. 

“What are you doing?”


“Why don’t you go for a walk?”

There was a long pause as I carefully examined my surroundings.

“Where would I go?” I finally asked, not seeing any restaurants, book stores, or other signs of human civilization that would serve as plausible destinations.

“Go out and take a walk in the woods!”

“I can see the trees fine from here.”

And yet she still married me.  Your guess is as good as mine.

We just got back from a few days up that way again, visiting friends and hanging out.  I’ll get some stories and photos posted soon.  We had a very nice time.

But I’m happy to be home.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On Tour

Tabitha started her new job this week.

She’s actually been going to training sessions for a while now.  There were some official training sessions last week, and some unofficial ones before that.  And before that?  Well, let’s just say that she’s familiar with the place.

My first full-fledged History Job out of graduate school was not actually in academia but in the far broader field of public history.  Public history is less focused on scholarship and teaching and more on preservation, access, and keeping history alive for people who are not necessarily students.  It is teaching, in a way, but not in the classroom.  It’s museums, historical societies, archives, displays, and the like.

It was an interesting transition to make for someone trained as an academic historian.

For one thing, “public history” involves a great deal of “public” and – given the fact that there are only so many hours in the day – rather less “history.”  We had a handful of buildings, all of which dated from the mid-19th century and all of which needed to be maintained.  We had a number of employees, some seasonal and some permanent, all of whom needed to be paid.  We had a vast and ever-shifting cadre of volunteers who needed tasks and supervision.  Volunteers have to be managed differently than employees, and if you forget that you very quickly end up with no volunteers.  We had relationships with the city government, the local media, nearby schools, and the neighboring historical societies that all had to be maintained and cultivated.  And since public history institutions are non-profits in every conceivable sense, we had a never-ending rotation of fundraising events.  While I was of course not the only one doing all these things, ultimately all of these activities were my responsibility, which meant I never did get to explore the history of the place as much as I would have liked to have done.

Not that I didn’t seize my opportunities when they came, naturally.

For another thing, my main task when I was there was to manage a rather large construction project.  Our main building was – and remains – a National Historic Landmark, a good portion of which had collapsed in 1948 and the remainder of which needed work.  Our project was designed to fix up the old building and put up a new structure on the footprint of the part that was no longer there.  This meant grants (applications, disbursals, compliance reports, etc.), construction management, and a crash course in Byzantine bureaucracy.  Doing a construction project on a National Historic Landmark using federal, state, and local money involves more agencies with mutually exclusive demands and more self-important bureaucrats all powerful in their tiny little fiefdoms than the average human mind can envision, and at least two of those bureaucrats were bound and determined to sabotage the entire project.  One nearly did.  So that was my day, most days.

On the plus side, the people I worked with were great.  My board of directors at the time was very involved and supportive, and my co-workers and volunteers were generally a lot of fun.  And I got to give a lot of tours.  I loved doing the tours.  It was as close as I got to teaching while I was there, and even after I left to go back into academia I continued to give tours for a few years.

The main building was open for tours and we usually ran about five to eight thousand people a year through it when I was there.  School tours were our bread and butter, but during the summer months we hired high school kids as docents and were open for walk-ins.

Tabitha is now one of the summer docents.  Wheels within wheels.

She grew up in that museum in some ways.  She was not quite three when I started there and not quite eight when I left, and she spent much of that time at various functions and events.  She would close up the museum with me some nights.  It’s kind of like coming home for her that way.

I don’t get much involved in the place these days.  The director who came in after me is still there and I always look forward to hanging out with her, but as I told her when she got there, “I’m not in charge anymore.  If I wanted to be the one telling people how to run this place, I’d still be employed here.”  And as my teaching load has gotten heavier over the last couple of years I find I don’t have time to do the tours either.

I’m happy that Tabitha is giving tours now.  She had her first solo tour on Monday, and by all accounts it went well.  There’s a lot to talk about in that place, and every docent gives a slightly different tour.  We talk about it on our drive home, two docents comparing notes.

Sunrise, sunset.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Heffalumps and Woozels

My new glasses arrived this week.

I did not pick them out.  Lauren insists that I have no style whatsoever, which is an outright falsehood.  I have a style.  It is just not one that anyone would choose voluntarily or that looks good on actual human beings.  When I explain this to her she just rolls her eyes.  “That's the same thing, Dad,” she says.

Honestly, where does this attitude come from?

So we went over to the eye care place and spent an evening picking out frames.  There are a lot of frames in that place.  They line the walls, spill out into the aisles, and constitute a fire hazard.  Someone should look into this.  Except that the people who walk into places like that cannot – pretty much by definition – look very closely or accurately at the problem.  And so the problem continues unabated. 

Won’t someone think of the myopic?

Eventually we settled on two frames, because they had a “buy one get one free” offer.  Then they explained how much the lenses cost – they sell them by the lens, not the pair, in case you’re thinking of the “pre-WWI German aristocrat” monocle look – and we agreed that perhaps one pair was sufficient for now thank you very much. 

And then we waited.

The glasses actually came in on Wednesday, which was of course the day that my back decided it no longer wanted to function.  It does that every couple of years, often for no reason at all.  I did quite a number on it back in the 90s, and once that happens it never quite heals and all you have to do to get it to do it again is exist incorrectly, which is something I am apparently quite good at.  I cannot tell you how often people insist on correcting me on that point.  So going over to get the new specs on Wednesday was not much of a priority.

I got them Thursday, but despite testing them in the shop they turned out to be too loose when I got them home, so I had to go back and get them tightened on Friday.  And now here they are.

It’s always a bit of an adjustment, new glasses.  Everything looks all warped and woozely, like I’m staring out of the bottom of a wine glass, as if I need further incentive to do that.  I expect to find heffalumps soon.  Actually, this might explain a lot about Winnie the Pooh.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Maybe It's Maybelline

This past Saturday was Rabbit Fun Day here in Our Little Town.

Rabbit Fun Day is the pre-County-Fair show, the one that doesn’t take place in the middle of thousands of people.  It’s just the Rabbit Project members and the judges.  It’s kind of low key that way.

Lauren and I showed up Friday night to help set the thing up, and a good thing we did since other than the Project Leader and one other 4H member, we were the entire crew.  Fortunately rabbits are a lot less intensive than cats – the cat show requires setting up dozens of the special tables that 4H uses, the ones constructed of depleted uranium and grief, as well as 50-75 wire cages and a pile of chairs.  Rabbits only need about a dozen of those tables, the same pile of chairs, and no cages. 

We showed up at 7:30 the next morning with Maybelline, Lauren’s Dwarf Hotot rabbit.  This is Maybelline’s first show, and she took it like a professional, all calm and cool and collected.  Presidential candidates could take lessons from Maybelline.

The other nice thing about Rabbit Fun Day is that it is brief.

There is a period of judging, where Maybelline’s relative merits can be weighed by someone more qualified than I am.  Granted, this is not saying much.  But I know this particular judge, and she is fully rabbit-qualified.  You can also go over to the corner and do your Showmanship routine, which tests the rabbit knowledge of each exhibitor.

Maybelline got Best in Breed, which is impressive even if there weren’t any other Dwarf Hotots there.  They don’t have to give that ribbon at all.  So we were happy about that.

Then comes the Best in Show judging, where all of the Best of Breed bunnies come together for a final round of judging by both of the judges.

We weren’t expecting much this round, since Maybelline is a junior doe and Best in Show generally goes to senior rabbits, but for a while there the judges were paying rather close attention to her.  Eventually they gave her an Honorable Mention, which means she was ranked 3rd or 4th out of the forty or so rabbits there.  Not too bad.

Add to that the blue ribbon Lauren got for Showmanship, and it was a successful day.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Random Thoughts on Watching the Women's World Cup (so far)

1. What drooling moron decided to put all of these games on artificial turf?  The on-pitch temperatures are hotter, the ball moves in strange and unnatural ways, and every time a player slides on that surface they come up covered in little balls of rubber.  There is no reason to have artificial turf in any professional sport for any event, let alone at the world’s premier event for a sport, and whoever made that decision really needs to be dunked in maple syrup and abandoned in a forest with nothing but a compass and a pair of hiking boots.

2. The pace of the games is slower than it is for the men’s games, which means that the players have to rely on things like skill and strategy rather than just blowing past people on sheer brute force.  It makes it an interesting game to watch.

3.  Someone should really alert the broadcasting teams that there are games going on so they can interrupt their human interest stories and vague recollections of past glory now and then to let us know what is happening.

4. Whoever clues in the broadcasting teams can also drop a note down to the producers so they can choose to broadcast the feeds from cameras that are actually showing the game rather than those that are showing slo-mo closeups of individual players or, worse, of coaches or random groups of fans.  It gets rather irritating after a while, this constant returning to the game only to find that the run of play has proceeded rather far from where we left off.

5. Watching Thailand play Ivory Coast was a lot of fun, since neither of those teams has any chance at all of advancing very far and they were just there playing their hearts out for the sake of playing.  I thought one Ivory Coast player was going to have an absolute meltdown after missing a fairly easy goal toward the end.  Passion – it matters.

6. I like having the tournament in Canada, since all the time zones work out and the games aren’t being played at 4am here the way they will be during the next two Men’s World Cups.  Go Canada!

7. I have now watched enough soccer over the last two years that I can get legitimately upset at the poor level of officiating that I’ve seen so far.  Honestly, between the refs, the commentators, and the producers, it’s like they just sent the B-team out for this.  The players and fans deserve better than that.

8. I missed the US-Australia game due to a prior commitment and may well miss most of the US-Sweden game tonight depending on how the rest of my life shakes out, but I entertain high hopes of seeing them play at some point.

9. The next time an announcer describes one of the players as “the Female [Insert Name of Male Star Here]” I’m going to go spare. 

10. The more I watch soccer, the less I care about American football.  Eventually I will become That Guy and lose touch with my culture completely.  Unless I already have.