The Hunting Ground and College Rape

I had a chance to see The Hunting Ground at the Little— a documentary about rape and sexual assault on American college campuses—and how its occurrence is systematically hidden from the public. This isn't new to me, and I expected an affirmation of what I already knew. But I was quite horrified at the breadth of the problem, and at these women (and some men) who were raped and then ignored by the schools they adore—or worse, blamed for the forceful, uninvited actions of someone else. The cover-up is so pervasive that there is even backlash against victims, accusing them of fabricating sexual assault stories for attention (although the broad consensus is false-rape accusations happen about as much as for other crimes; and that it's simply impossible to acquire accurate statistics.)

The supposed silver lining in the film is about a group of women who have successfully used Title IX—a law designed to offer equal access to education—to force universities to handle all accusations of sexual assault in a fair way, since doing otherwise fosters an environment that encourages sexual assault therefore denying an equal education. It has grown into a movement involving hundreds of universities across the U.S.

After the film, the panel consisted of two RIT representatives: Stacy DeRooy, and Dr. Dawn Meza Soufleris. In the discussion, it was revealed that SUNY Brockport and Hobart & Williams Smith were two local colleges cited in Title IX cases. Since the panel was from RIT, there was a lot of discussion of RIT's actions, but I was unimpressed.

I attended RIT starting in 1988. Although they made efforts to teach responsible sexuality, I wasn't sexually active and didn't seek out guidance. In fact, I tended to avoid it as much as I could. At that age, though, I was definitely a horny animal. And I did make lots of mistakes when approaching the opposite sex. I think the general problem was that I wished to avoid conflict, so I would engage in behaviors that brought me close to the woman I desired but didn't require that I ask permission. This was a very dangerous position to be in, and it was only dumb luck that my circle of friends did not encourage aggressive behavior. If I were encouraged to, say, corner a woman I desired, I think I might have. And while my 19-year-old self wouldn't have raped anyone, I guarantee it would not have been a mentally and sexually healthy experience for the woman.

So I look at it from that perspective: what is RIT doing now to address horny teenaged boys being given advice by their peers that may or may not be true, respectful and healthy? Unfortunately I was only able to ask what RIT is doing today—without the backstory.

Apparently they are complying with the The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (or Clery Act) and reporting crimes. I thought I'd play "prospective student" and see if I could find the report from the RIT website. There was no easy path—in fact, safety and crime were not mentioned on any of the main pages, and only after burrowing through Emergencies to Campus Safety that I found a link to the federal and state compliance documents. Indeed they noted reports of about a dozen sexual assaults each year, making the rate around 0.07% compared to 0.05% for rapes in Rochester (112/210,000 in 2012). Unfortunately, crimes are still filtered through Campus Safety which reinforces a conflict-of-interest. They really should abandon Campus Safety when it comes to handling criminal cases (assault, rape, theft, etc.) and work directly with the police.

They also have a program to encourage "yes means yes" and that that is not a blanket-"yes" but an immediate one. That's all well and good, but it would completely miss "past-me". I would have been aware of the policies and it would have somewhat affected my decisions, but it would not have done anything about my avoidance of asking. If my 19-year-old self could have articulated it: "sure, yes means yes and no means no, but if I don't ask, I don't have to deal with it."

I mean, these are some really deep-seated problems and I don't think it's unique to me. I grew up in a sexually conservative household, so there was no talk of sex—nobody was comfortable being open about it. What I derived from that is that sex is something shameful and not to be spoken of—remnants of that continue to haunt me. So what do you do with someone who has never talked openly about sex? How do you explain "yes means yes" and what an "enthusiastic consent" looks like? Where do you start with someone who is still thinking "how do I attract women?" as if it were a state of being rather than a play-filled negotiation between two individuals?

In the end, it is not a victim's problem or fault if jee is sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. It is entirely in the hands of the potential assailant, and it is from that foundation that all education programs should be built.

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Response from the Postcards to the Legislators

It's been almost exactly a year since I posted about sending postcards to the legislators. To briefly recap, I sent a postcard to every member of the House of Representatives, the Senate, to the President, Vice President, Governor of New York, and to my New York Assemblymember and Senator that said simply, "Killing people is always wrong."

Well in that time I got exactly one response: from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He responded to my letter "regarding intervention by the United States in conflicts across the globe." He goes on to write about what I interpret as a largely isolationist policy. You can read the whole thing here. I'm mixed on my agreement with his policies: I agree with him in his strong belief in personal freedom and liberty, but I disagree with his fierce belief in the dog-eat-dog Capitalism.

My opposition to killing led me to attend a War Tax Resistance Workshop at the Flying Squirrel on February 7. There is a National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) which advises four methods of war tax resistance: file and refuse to pay your taxes, don't file your taxes, earn less than taxable income, or resist the local telephone excise tax. All the methods advised are forms of civil disobedience in that they are all illegal. While I support those methods entirely, at this time, I didn't feel willing to put everything at risk.

So as a workaround, I decided to donate the percentage of my income for active war—27%—to organizations that accept tax-deductible donations (The War Resisters League cites that 27% of taxes collected go to active wars and another 20% goes to pay for past wars). I mentioned this to my accountant who found it legal (some deductible donations are limited to 30% of income, and most are limited to 50%).

One of the ways war tax resisters use their civil disobedience is by keeping all their actions public. To reflect that, I'll try to make updates throughout the year, and certainly do at least one summary each year.

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The 2013 Burning Man Report

I left this post for quite some time, but after a New Year's Blog-Off Challenge on Facebook, I thought I'd wrap it up and post it. It's about how back in August 2013, Jenn and I headed to Burning Man.

We left on August 23 and got to Chicago on the 24th. We met with a friend of Jenn's and did a bit of a tour of Chicago before getting back on and—in a roomette sleeper—finished the journey to Reno. We met some nice people along the way, particularly at meals when we were seated with two strangers.

The train ran pretty much on-time and we arrived in Reno around 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday the 26th. There were quite a few other people heading to Burning Man on the train and most of them headed off quickly. We chatted with a couple stragglers and one of the guys had a friend in Reno who was going to pick him up. We asked if we could hitch a ride with him if he had space. He arrived with a gigantic van and transported Forrest, Jenn, and myself to the Save-Mart where we hung out for some time.

We bought provisions and met other people going to Burning Man—many from the U.S., but a small group from Italy. We dawdled around a bit and had pretty okay pizza from Pizza Baron before getting a cab ride to the airport—somewhat ironically to the airport "exit" and baggage claim area where the Burner Express bus was to pick us up. The process was relatively smooth and quick: we checked in, got tags for our wrists and for our bags, waited a bit, put our bags on a trailer, and boarded a bus.

The air conditioning wasn't working so well and I felt a bit frustrated at the slow rate we made it to Gerlach. A couple times the traffic stopped completely and we got out of the bus. When we arrived at Gerlach, things were a bit less organized. The gist was that everyone on the bus was to exit, then Burning Man staff would check that we had proof of tickets (and they could confirm will-call and provide a hard ticket right there) before boarding the bus to Black Rock City. One person said we'd have time to buy a bit of water, but as we walked over, someone called out to get on the bus. We got on then had to get off again because it was not our bus. Eventually things got straightened out and we got on the same bus we arrived by (our bus was one of a few that had the ability to close the air-conditioning intake vents on the bottom of the bus; otherwise we'd be on a school bus.)

The great feature of the Burner Express bus was revealed when we turned away from the gate line into a special lane, passing several miles of cars 10 lanes wide. Random (the greeter) checked our tickets and we were on our way into the city. We arrived just before sunset and, oddly enough, the very same bus was our shuttle. We got our stuff loaded back onto it and headed down GDP street toward the 10:00 crossroad. The driver was willing to stop at each 0:15 street, so we got off at 7:45, walked 30 yards and arrived at our camp: Mama Kabuke's Big Tent at It Still Stings Camp at 7:45 and Holy.

It was great to see my friends from last year—Mama Kabuke, Jordi, Devon, Uncle Brett, and T who primarily set up the camp along with a bunch of fellow campers from last year. Jenn (now Vadra) and I (now Zhust) got the tent set up quick before it got too dark and started unpacking. We didn't stay up too late—we hadn't acclimated much from Eastern time, so by 10 p.m. we were experiencing 1 a.m. tiredness and went to bed.

We got up and had some breakfast and got settled in with the camp. This year two of our fellow campers were getting married on Thursday, and they brought a fair number of people for that but only one of them really liked being at Burning Man. We also had an inordinate number of freeloaders making for a stressful time trying to keep up with their consumption and messiness. We also had a genuine "sparkle pony"—a girl who brought only her physical beauty, nary lifting a finger to perform any tasks and frequently leaving half-eaten food and drink.

Vadra and I got out over the week to see the art and visit some random camps. For the most part, I felt like it was a year of "duties and obligations": I was tasked with setting up the lights on Connie the Baby Blue Whale (the camp's art car) we had as well as to install and test the blowhole device I made for her. I felt pretty spent by Thursday and really wanted to take a day off by then but couldn't and had a rough day.

Vadra was selected to participate in Spencer Tunick's photograph at dawn, so we got up around 4:15 a.m. and biked out into the cold early morning. We arrived at the staging area by the temple but all the slots had been filled. She was quite disappointed, having missed a previous opportunity in Buffalo a few years back.

But we made the best of it and got a chance to visit The Man. They were only letting 50 or so people into the UFO base at a time so there was a line, but it moved quickly. There were zoetrope inside that were beautifully designed but the animations were rather bland black-and-white line-art. Dawn was upon us, so we left and watched the sunrise through the hazy smoke from the forest fires in California.

Vadra surprised me for my birthday: she secretly made Instax pictures of a bunch of people in camp holding a whiteboard to spell out "Happy Birthday". It was very sweet of her and I was quite moved by it, especially after spending days feeling under-appreciated.

After the wedding, many members of the wedding party left, relieving some of the burden (although there were still a lot of freeloaders.)

It was an interesting experiment, really. We brought a camp that provided abundant resources. But in trying to embrace the principles of Burning Man, "radical inclusion" led us to attract consumers of our abundance. It gets to be an interesting puzzle, really: if you offer abundance, you'll attract people who will consume, but if you hoard, you'll expend much more energy doing so than if you simply shared.

I have been wrestling with capitalism versus communism for quite some time. Communism fails by people offering less than "their ability" and claiming more than "their needs". The way we are seeing capitalism fail is in failing to find a balance in moderation: either you are earning too little and constantly toiling, or you are earning too much and have no means to share your wealth. On the train, we met a woman named Amber who said she saw something about bacteria being freeloaders: in some colonies, they need to produce a particular protein to float, but some bacteria figure out they don't need to expend the energy; eventually the whole colony collapses.

But I recently read a blog post by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey that talks about commerce and community. I think it helps define when commerce (née capitalism) is most effective and when community (née communism) is most effective. In the article, Harvey quotes an article written by Zay Thompson, the Burning Man regional contact in Kansas. Thompson brilliantly lays out an analogy in the form of his large extended family getting together to compete in a soccer game:

If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over.

In the case of our camp, it seems the balance between commerce and community was skewed. It felt like the desire to achieve enrichment by helping out was somehow suppressed. When a task needed doing, I felt an urge to not help because I felt that was the spirit of our community. It wasn't until these months later that I can even begin to articulate that, but I do recall that experience: when something needed doing, it was defiant to stand up and act rather than it being common and beneficial.

On Sunday we had a most unusual bit of excitement. Chris returned with a report of a DPW official stating that a huge thunderstorm cell was headed for Black Rock City and would arrive shortly before noon on Monday and the city would be shut down to all traffic. The report also recommended that anyone able to leave should do so before Monday. (By the way, the DPW is the "Department of Public Works", a not-governmentally-affiliated group who maintain the Burning Man infrastructure.)

I suspected it was an incorrect report—ordinarily this happens from "telephone game" failures, but this was unique in that it was reported nearly intact to the radio station. And again, Burning Man is susceptible to urban legends, but I thought immune to mass-media misinformation until now.

Many of our campmates were concerned. A couple new friends from Canada had an early flight on Tuesday and opted to leave on Sunday afternoon. Vadra was very concerned but I had instinctive confidence in the inaccuracy of the report. To calm her fears, we walked to the Emergency Services tent that were a mere 30 yards down the road. They had heard nothing of such a storm but cautiously refused to deny the report outright. Rivka pulled out her iPad and checked the weather on their private wireless Internet: partly cloudy with a chance of 0.01 inches of precipitation for Monday. Vadra was not entirely reassured but I persevered, gambling I was correct.

I know that humans are susceptible to visceral dangers more than statistically likely dangers. Even I was not brimming with confidence save for my tenacious rational side.

We stayed—and continued embellishing the tales. By Monday morning, we were expecting the caldera that formed nearby to erupt by noon, and that a raging storm would pin people down and lightning-rape everyone. I advised others that it was likely an attempt by DPW to hurry exodus, and I encouraged other camps to hurry along the freeloaders in their own camps.

Monday came and a front was indeed approaching, cooling the air and changing the wind direction slightly. I held fast, though, and we left by the Burner Express bus at 11:45 with no issues. During the morning, two drops of rain hit me, and none even left evidence on the parched lakebed. It took us 90 minutes or so to get to Gerlach and no rain arrived. I saw nothing on the weather radar once we got Internet back at the hotel room. (The Burner Express bus, by the way, dropped us off at the airport around 3 p.m. and we got to the hotel before dinner.)

Later, I contacted Jordi and Mama about the storm but none materialized. I started a thread on ePlaya that sparked some interesting theories: indeed, nearby areas received some downpours that, had such a downpour arrived at Burning Man, it would have shut down the event for 24 hours or so—and with no proper sanitation either. I suspect the nearby mountains cause vast changes in weather over just a few miles, and I believe that is what "protects" the Black Rock Desert. (For another example of localized weather, see "lake-effect snow".) But I could have been mistaken and we may have been stuck for 24 hours or longer. Who knows.

We stayed overnight in Reno then got on the Amtrak and headed back to Chicago to visit Jenn's friend there for a couple days. It was nice to visit the city more in-depth. We returned to the Amtrak for our overnight trip back to Rochester, arriving pretty much on-time on September 8.

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Let the Fire Burn

I got to see Let the Fire Burn at the Little on November 12. It's been a while, but I did want to give it a bit of a review.

It's an impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. In a way, it's a microcosm of war: both are avoidable, expensive, and deadly acts.

The most unique feature of the documentary is the exclusive use of found-footage which was limited to video (with a little 16mm film from an older documentary about MOVE.) Because of this limited perspective, there is very little information available about either MOVE and its purpose and actions, or about the police department and administration. Each side taken in isolation—MOVE changing from a radical urban alternative group to an antagonistic aggressor, and the government of the city of Philadelphia playing by-the-book as a racist regime—provides inadequate information to predict why things happened, but taken as interacting entities, it is more clear. Another way of saying that mouthful of marbles is that neither side was at fault as much as pitting them against one another was.

Director Jason Osder was available through SKYPE to discuss the film and revealed that the decision to go with found footage was partly pragmatic: our eye becomes accustomed to the poor quality of NTSC video unless we get a chance to compare it to modern high definition video. As a result, there are no talking heads to guide our reaction or provide possible answers. Ordinarily, we turn to some kind of expert to offer a possible explanation, but Let the Fire Burn gives no answers. It is the raw autopsy of a terrible moment in history left for us to examine.

And I think because of the lack of opinions, we gravitate toward our own biases. I was kind of surprised that one questioner presupposed it was centrally about racism. I thought it had more to do with the nature of a radical ideology that its ideas could not be articulated in a consumerist vocabulary. Neither interpretation is wrong, but it's interesting how our biases creep in.

Let me go back, now, and ruin the beauty of the movie by giving my own talking-head "expert" explanation.

I found the MOVE organization to be strictly following what we'd call urban gardening, veganism, anarchism, and acquiring goods locally. Rather than struggle in the capitalist/consumerist system that is rigged against both poor people and non-white people, MOVE opted instead to define their own rules. But the capitalist system—well, any social or economic (or socio-economic) system—is poorly suited to accommodating a sub-community whose internal rules are in defiance of the system's fundamental tenets.

This happens all the time with anarchist groups within the industrialized capitalism: anarchism defies the very nature of hierarchical, authoritative rule. The trouble is, most people do not like to admit that hierarchical, authoritative rules is a fundamental requirement of industrialized capitalism, so it's not codified in any laws: no law says you must pay for your own life. But for industrialized capitalism to work, it needs workers who are replaceable so they are valued low enough so the end product's price has a built-in profit—it needs for people to have to pay to exist.

If you think that's unfair, and maybe you could make a better go of it just living off the land and taking your changes, well, you're out of luck. The system goes a little nuts. The police will arrest you for no reason, but because no crime is committed, nobody gets charged with anything. But if you continue with that out-of-bounds behavior, you'll eventually be framed for a real crime. And then if you continue, you'll eventually be killed.

And that's what happened with MOVE. When they were harassed for non-crimes, they persisted. Then they were framed for a crime (specifically: nine people are still in prison, for the murder of one police officer—an impossibility since only one person can murder one other person.) And they persisted, and then were eventually killed. What they were "supposed to do" was to give up on the radical philosophies and get jobs like normal people.

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On Corporate Personhood (Finally)

On September 12 I headed over to Goergen Hall on the University of Rochester Campus for a panel discussion titled "Block that Metaphor? Corporate Personhood Before and After Citizens United". The panel consisted of Lynn Stout from Cornell Law School, Greg Urban of the University of Pennsylvania, and Elana Shever from Colgate University. It was moderated by Robert Foster at the University of Rochester.

Lynn Stout studies corporations from a legal perspective. She started off by emphasizing that corporations are real, not a metaphor. The term "personhood" refers to a set of legal rights that allow a corporation to, for instance, have the right to own property in its own name. She's enamored of the idea of corporations which give people the ability to perform long term projects that human beings would never do.

The key to this is the ability to lock up capital assets — the ability to hold money indefinitely, and prevent any stakeholder from reclaiming any part of jeir investment. As such, they need some first amendment rights to protect their property from expropriation. But, she added, corporations should never have the right to vote, for instance, and should not have a right to privacy.

As such, it is not simply an association of people: it is a separate kind of entity. And being a unique kind of entity, it does not have the same rights as an association of people.

Greg Urban brought an anthropologist's view of corporations. To him, they are cultural constructions that look like tribes or social groups and act as powerful agents or actors. They are part of a broader human tendency to form groups such a guilds, universities, and towns. He agrees, therefore, that a corporation has a right to exist as an entity unto itself.

Historically, corporations were once chartered which required political clout. And like other kinds of human groupings, they have rituals — business meetings, for instance.

Viewed from the outside, social groups appear as agents: things which exist in perpetuity. This is similar to things like family groups (i.e. family names) or clans which are comprised of — but separate from — their constituent human beings. Precedent exists for treating a group in place of the actions of an individual, for when a group acts, we do not look to the individuals in that group. They are agents with practical efficacy. And for any of these groups to move, it must be done so by discourse and agreement.

Economics had a hard time dealing with corporations what with being a new and separate agent, and in finance they are commodities with assignable values. In neither model are corporations considered persons. The concept of personhood is only in the popular culture and in the legal culture. And the corporate metaphor is dangerous when it is comprised of a single person rather than an aggregate for how would such a corporation exist separate from its sole constituent?

Elana Shever began by noting Michael Polan's work on examining himself as a group of organisms rather than a single entity, coining the term "first person plural". For what is an individual? Theoretically it is that part that remains constant in an ever-changing group. Thus, we can think of both humans and corporations as "ecologies" that contain organisms as well as goods and byproducts. As such, it's a false belief that shareholders define corporate action. Stout responded favorably to the "super-organism" model, adding that it is damaging to think of corporations as the property of shareholders.

Urban spoke of the Shell corporation in Argentina. Internal to Shell's management, there is a belief they are doing good, but many layers away, the people who operate the plants see the external populace as a nuisance. There are actually a series of separations — divisions between managers and workers — that cause this. It is an efficiency in the system that makes good business sense but it is not allowing Shell to work towards a unified goal.

Activists opposing Shell were often strongly reinforcing the idea of it as an individual citizen, and this popular idea is influential in increasing corporate power. So to take a different tack, could it be politically beneficial to rethink "personhood" as it relates to humans?

He said that there must be some kind of communication and common goals within the "divided corporation" model, adding that corporations should benefit society.

People from the audience had a chance to ask questions. Would more regulations be helpful? It seems that corporations are like a "monster that will devour the planet": do we have a super organism that can combat it?

Stout responded, noting that it's common to blame problems on the misbehavior of human beings, but we behave differently inside a group, and institutional environments create bad decisions. Government is probably more broken because lobbying can buy a corporation new rights yet the government needs to be a check on power.

The event organizers began taking questions three at a time (which I thought to be a mistake). I asked, given the way people's behavior changes inside a group, is there a way to make better members of corporations? Another person asked about ontology: if a person is an actor, then what about thinking of functional assemblages, since the parts may change but the unit endures. It seems transparency is key, but giving free speech rights to groups inexorably creates obfuscation. And finally, another person noted that it's less about rights than about responsibilities: how far does responsibility go?

Stout noted that sometimes an individual commits a crime as part of a group, but often it is the organizational design that causes an undesirable behavior. We need to view them as assemblages. How do we keep the useful ones? Should we have a corporate death penalty? Currently, if you want to sell stock, you need to disclose certain financial information, but we should add a requirement to have political disclosure as well.

Urban responded that he is not so excited about laws. For instance, rating agencies (forged organically) work well, but once the quality of the ratings become law, the goals change and the ratings companies just sell good scores.

Shever added that thinking of corporations as "assemblages" means it can easily become disassembled which is dangerous.

The final question that because of discussion of corporate personhood, are people are starting to think of themselves as little corporations? Urban noted that medieval Italy saw families this way. Stout noted that any thing before the law is some kind of person, and a corporation's property and the human agents that represent it are not invisible.

This discussion certainly offered some new information, but I found it lacking.

Stout expressed a belief that corporations let us make great things like railroads and bridges — things that would be impossible if it were attempted by human beings. I was skeptical that the corporate landscape is dominated by such beneficial behavior. And even when something is a benefit overall, it still has numerous negative repercussions.

In an ideal world, when a corporation is founded, it would have a specific benefit to society that serves as its operating goal — and "to make a profit" is not a concept that should be part of that goal. Making a profit should simply be a side-effect of providing a benefit, or a means to an end where providing the beneficial behavior necessitates continued existence.

Also, it seems to me that the only way to circumvent poor behavior of groups is to have a very shallow hierarchy. It seems necessary to have a small group of people whose sole function is to disseminate and clarify the goals of the corporation. The minimal case beyond that would be an anarchistic group that would organically form around tasks to achieve those goals. As layers of management are added, the communication of the goals is necessarily muddied.

Afterward, Stout encouraged us to look into the American Anti-Corruption Act. Echoing Stouts explanation, I'll quote the website:

The Act was crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum.

The Act would transform how elections are financed, how lobbyists influence politics, and how political money is disclosed. It’s a sweeping proposal that would reshape the rules of American politics, and restore ordinary Americans as the most important stakeholders instead of major donors. The Act enjoys support from progressives and conservatives alike.

It is an impressive list of ideas that appears to have been vetted by legal experts to ensure it can be passed. If all the line items are passed, it would indeed mean a tremendous positive shift in the way elections are held and how the country is run.

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Postcards for the Legislators

After the previous fiasco with trying to slow the juggernaut of war, I decided to go with a simpler message. A much simpler message.

I decided I'd simply say, "killing people is always wrong."

And then I decided I'd put the message on postcards to every member of the House of Representatives, the Senate, to the President, Vice President, Governor of New York, and to my New York Assemblymember and Senator.

So I went to the Post Office website and found four-up sheets of postcards preprinted with "Forever" postage — pretty much the cheapest option for a physical letter with each postcard costing barely more than postage. I figured fourteen 10-packs would be enough to have a few spare after printing up all 540 I'd need. I set up a mail-merge in OpenOffice (which is annoyingly difficult but I did get it to work.) (I made the template 4x normal size then printed it four-up to fit the postcard pages.) I collected the names and addresses from various government websites and made a spreadsheet (here's a tab-separated file that includes the vacancies in the House notated pretty well). Then I made a PDF and went back several times to fix errors before performing the final four-up output.

Then the fun began. It took a couple hours to split the sheets into individual postcards, and then another hour to sign each one in a 5-inch-tall stack. I did find two errors that I had to correct.

I could have simply sent a mass e-mail, but in the end I found it rather rewarding to read every person's name. Just people … like a graduation roster or a phone book … and me sending a thought to each one of them.

I don't know if my message will be read as I intend it, but I know for sure that by doing nothing and saying nothing, that nothing will change.

(If you want to follow progress of this, I set up a tag that's an acronym for the central message: KPiAW which I'll tag on any posts detailing any response I get.)

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"Fair Trade" Chocolate or "Child Slavery Free" Chocolate?

In researching fluoride, I stumbled into a blog and had to read the article titled As A Mother, I Refuse To Buy Child Slave Chocolate This Holiday Season. And she's right.

I am reasonably certain that chocolate that is certified "fair trade" does not touch the hands of child slave labor. But the rest of it: maybe, and maybe not. I don't know what the ratio is, but given the propensity to select the cheapest source to maximize profits, I am suspicious of the cheap stuff, and, well, basically everything that does not carry the "fair trade" label.

And looking in to that "fair trade" label, the Fair Trade USA website has no mention that they actually do any kind of certification. You can download the print-ready logos right from the site. It's really a service to help manufacturers decide to select fair-traded sources. But there's no evidence that any company can't just download the logos and slap them on the side of their products. But, I guess, it's mostly better, maybe? It's all I have to go on, so I'll take it.

So I've decided to stop buying non-fair-trade chocolate. It's like my decision to not buy meat unless I can get reasonable assurance it was from animals raised on a farm in decent conditions (e.g. able to roam a close-to-natural-sized habitat).

But damn it's hard! I want to have my Raisinets with a movie, or buy a brownie from the bakery. I'm really a junkie for this stuff. I did even cave and buy a cookie that had M&M eyes, savoring every slave-picked bite.

In all honesty, this is harder to quit than alcohol. It's really quite unnerving, especially since I can get fair-trade chocolate quite readily. It's just the innumerable habits I have of buying it spontaneously.

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A Picture from Gaza

Children killed by bombing in Gaza.

I have been haunted by this image of dead children. It appeared on Facebook on November 19. This site identifies them all as members of the Dalou family, killed in Gaza by Israeli bombs. Maybe the man to the left is their father. But whether these specific facts are absolutely true is not as important as believing that bombs kill people, and sometimes children.

What can an attacker say to that? "Oops"? This is not a natural disaster. It is not an accident. It is a direct action of human beings. People make guns and bombs to kill other people. People organize wars. People pull triggers. People kill people.

This is direct, purposeful action, and that makes me sick.

People working for peace are often accused of being foolishly idealistic. But isn't it more foolish to think that killing people is a step toward a greater good? Whether a child is killed or an adult man is killed doesn't matter: killing is wrong. Whether it's people flying a plane into a building or shooting a man and dumping him in the sea: killing is wrong.

Period.

The image also gave me perspective. I got to see what it looks like for a country to attack another country and kill people. This is what it looks like to others when America does that. And we do it often. Far too often.

But what to do about it? I pay taxes which predominantly fund military spending which cause the killing. It overwhelmingly pains my heart to be party to it, and someday I'll have the courage to not pay taxes because of that.

Until that day, I was going to try and get the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and all laws like it repealed, but after a discussion with a friend, I realize that's not the problem for it formalizes limits on Presidential power to run the military. United States military action has been a disaster worldwide with the virtually unchecked use of American killing power.

War is morally bankrupt, violently socially divisive, ecological disastrous, and economically destructive. We need to stop our country from engaging in this any longer.

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Compliance at the Dryden

The Eastman House calendar had this to say:

The disturbing true story of a prank call delivered to a fast food restaurant comes to life in Craig Zobel’s (The Great World of Sound) controversial new film. Night manager Sandra — convinced that the police have fingered one of her employees — falls victim to the persuasive and commanding voice on the phone. Grimly depicting human readiness to obey higher authority, Zobel’s provocative film is a sure conversation-starter.

As I've mentioned to people, it was kind of preaching to the converted. In the post-screening discussion, there were skeptics: "people aren't that impressionable," or "I wouldn't do that", or "the filmmaker took liberties as things didn't get that bad". But I was pretty sure things did get that bad (although according to the moderator of the post-film discussion, it was in the worst of the 70 some-odd occurrences, and actually less-severely portrayed on film), people do fall for that, and even I could be manipulated that way. (Although my disdain for claimed "authority" makes me a tad more resistant.)

So let me back up a little.

The perpetrator – in this case, a man calling himself Officer Daniels – was using the known techniques of social engineering to manipulate his victims. It's a technique most frequently used in crimes of technology, and it rarely involves more than a brief conversation. One might call a bank (presumably with what looks like an internal number) for instance, and ask innocently, "oh, is this computer support?", "no, dang. Do you have the number handy?" Then they call that number, jot down the name of the person who answers, and ask, "Jim, hey — is it possible to get my Kindle on the network?", "no, I figured I'd ask anyway." Then jee calls someone else, "hi, this is Jim from computer support. I just,want to take a minute to check your IP address." I think you can see how with a large organization, it's easy to get small pieces of information out of a number of people which, when aggregated, is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the organization as a whole.

The exotic thing about this perpetrator is that he would stay on the phone for a long time — not only in the total duration, but with each individual person. One thing he was exploiting was to use an actor as a vetted source. At the start of the most disturbing segment, Sandra hands the phone to her boyfriend with the terse instruction, "this is Officer Daniels. He's a police officer. Do what he says." In that, he used Sandra to artificially create authority in the boyfriend's mind. Imagine if, with no explanation, your significant other handed you a phone and said that? Would your first thought really be, "I'm going to assume this is a stranger and figure it out for myself"? Of course not. Just like when you're introduced with a line, "this is my father", you automatically bestow respect — you don't say, "prove it."

Being part of the labor series, the moderator (whose name I can't remember and can't find off hand) tried to steer the discussion to one that damns the authoritarian hierarchy of low-level jobs, particularly fast-food employers. While I have disdain for that structure, I thought the reason for the behaviors portrayed had much more to do with human nature: it is in our nature as social creatures to want to help one another and that we take shortcuts to validate trust. Without those mechanisms, our society would be in a constant state of deadlock. Authoritarian hierarchy exploits those traits to business advantage, and in that way is a contributing factor to the efficiency by which "Officer Daniels" could dispatch his psychopathic plan.

What is there to thwart this behavior, though? In general, I think it is to respect anonymity of technology. A voice on the phone — just like the letters of a text message or e-mail — are not equivalent to a face-to-face conversation. If we treat indirect communication as an unreliable source, we can help avoid such situations.

It is also important to remember that we grant authority and that it is not bestowed, for the other key piece of the story is "Officer" Daniels' impersonation of a police officer. When authority is granted, there is always an option for independent thought and personal responsibility, but if it's believed to be bestowed, then an officer can bestow authority, and assume responsibility, both of which are but dangerous illusions.

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The Big Burning Man Trip

So the tale starts on August 22. Like last year, I left on a Wednesday although this time I was determined: I kept telling people I was going to "win Burning Man" as if it was some kind of contest. The Amtrak left pretty much on-time late at night. I talked with a nice woman on her way to Chicago.

With the train arriving on-time, I had plenty of time for my Chicago ritual: a visit to Lou Mitchell's Restaurant and Bakery for an excellent breakfast, then a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I only had an hour, but it's not much longer than that I get a little burned-out. I liked the contemporary fabric arts exhibit, "Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund". I got back to the station and we left without incident.

On the leg from Chicago to Reno (and the return) I used up my Amtrak mileage points on a roomette which is definitely the way to go. I can handle a day or two sleeping in coach (if I come from being well-rested) but having a place to lay down horizontal is fantastic. Add in the complimentary coffee, meals in the dining car, and a shower in each rail car, and it's awesome.

I met my first fellow Burners and spent a lot of time in the sightseeing car chatting with them and others. I felt like I had one vacation in Chicago, and was on to my second on the train. By the time we got past Denver, more Burners got on. I almost got interviewed by a guy named Duccio but time got the best of us and we were in Reno before I had the chance. I was probably the only person hoping for a delay: I also wanted to get in closer to check-in time at the hotel, but the train ran promptly.

I had to dawdle for a few hours before starting my third vacation in Reno. I saw lots of people heading to Burning Man but only chatted with a few. I spent more time than I thought it would take cutting out the "Blue Highway" font stencil I made for my Lonely Lamppost project. I also decided to try and mitigate uncertainty (see last year) so I signed up to take the "ToFlame" bus. I had to pay extra since my stuff amounted to three huge 50-pound bags (which is included as checked bags on Amtrak) along with two more smaller bags I packed full of water jugs. I was able to tote all my stuff on a luggage cart I made; I figure it totaled about 300 pounds.

The ToFlame bus was scheduled to pick up people at the Reno airport then stop by the SaveMart which was only a few blocks from the hotel. It's a block off I-80 and a major last-stop for the deluge of Burners from California. So I hauled my 300 pound pack over there and hung out with some people making their final purchases, and a bunch of people hitching rides. After I was there I probably could have managed a ride, but I felt better with the bus — especially when the bus finally arrived (actually two of them) about 3:30 p.m.

From there it was a matter of getting 60 people from both buses to buy their provisions and all get back on. It was like herding cats and we didn't leave SaveMart until probably 4:45 or so. Mind you, the "scheduled arrival" was something like 5 p.m. at Burning Man. Ha ha. Traffic on the narrow Rt. 447 north of Fernley, Nevada was heavy and we even stopped completely for 20 minutes or so.

We got a chance to watch about half of The Beast Pageant on the bus, much to the amusement of the rowdy passengers. There was even another Rochesterian: and, of course, I knew her (albeit through her parents). Once we got to Burning Man we had to head to the Will-Call ticket area as half of each bus needed to pick up tickets. We finally made it through the gate and were all dropped off at Esplanade and 6:30 (the address, not the time). The bus ride was like a third vacation; Burning Man itself the fourth.

I dragged my stuff out to 7:00 and found some nice people on Foxglove to camp next to. I set up camp and helped them with their shade before heading out to explore. I looked for a girl from the bus on the other side of the city with no luck, but I found some fire spinners and met a guy who had a neon-orange boat decked out as an art car. We chatted for a bit and he took me for a ride. After that I realized I was hungry, having not eaten for hours, but I couldn't resist checking out the Pier which included a crashed pirate ship with a crooked deck and galley. It was an incredible piece and they had projectors that created the illusion of ocean waves on the Playa, visible from the deck. Walking back to my camp, I noticed the sky was brighter than I expected: it was in fact 4 a.m. when I got in. I guess I had bucked my circadian rhythm which would have me in bed by 7 p.m. Pacific time.

On Monday I met the people across the street and helped them wire the lights on their Blue Whale art car (which we later named "Connie"). The whale was new although the base vehicle had been through several incarnations in the past.

I stopped by the ARTery and got my Lonely Lamppost placed at 1:00 at 2600' — about halfway from the Temple to the 2:00 corner of the Esplanade. (Funny enough, it was almost exactly the opposite side from where I was camped.) Matt drove Lauren (another artist) and I to our respective sites. I assessed the nearby artworks (both from the map at the ARTery and by sight-lines) and tweaked my location closer to 12:45, putting me at the intersection of "Burn Wall St.-Dream Tree Rd." and "The Man-Black Rock Bijou Rd." I headed back to camp and painted the signs for the lamppost (with only one heat-induced typo of "Biiou" on one side), carted it out, and got it set up before dark.

The Lonely Lamppost at Burning Man, 2012

Lonely Lamppost by Zhust at Burning Man 2012

Upon returning to camp, we all headed out and got in line behind Charlie the Unicorn Goes to Burning Man to get registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). That night, after a great meal with my new friends across the street (Mama Kabuke's Big Tent, formerly It Still Stings Camp) I called it an early night and crashed around midnight or so.

One of my nightmares about Burning Man is having to deal with someone who puts their noisy generator right next to my tent and having to deal with the uphill battle of teaching them what "considerate" means. So this night I was awakened around 3 by a noisy generator placed right next to my tent. My solution was to just get up and move it twice the distance from me. The next day I asked and was welcomed to camp with Mama Kabuke's crew. Problem solved.

Tuesday I explored a bit in the day. While yelling compliments from the "Compliments" booth around 4:00 and Dandelion, I met Little Wave from Winnipeg and chatted with her a while. I couldn't manage to convince her to join me for dinner, but I did get a woman from our camp to go. It was at Sacred Cow at the 7:30 plaza — I found out about it from a couple Burners I had met in Reno. On the way home from that, we stopped at a "bar" which was actually mostly non-alcoholic: "When Life Gives You Lemons" served lemonade and other lemony treats. She and I got talking about languages and she suggested immersion rather than translation: read a book in Italian and try and pick up what you can from context alone, or watch a familiar movie in Spanish. I thought it good advice.

After we got back I was on my own again and wondered what to do. I had brought a game I called my "Parrot Cards" (because they have parrots on them, but pronounced like "Tarot", not "parrot"). I had noted the Burning Man addresses ran from 2:00 to 10:00 which coincided with the numeric playing cards, so I added letter tiles and had a way to pick a random address. The playing card suits have traditional Tarot meanings which I simplified with diamonds meaning the body, physical, or external world, clubs meaning the mind, emotions, or internal world, hearts being the suit of religion, love, and heart, and spades being the suit of the military or challenge. I gave "readings" to a few people but mostly used it myself.

So I drew the 10 of diamonds and G, sending me to the dance clubs at the edge of the city. I tend to find it an okay pastime to dance to club music, but I'm easily drawn away to other things. I hung out at Robot Heart at 10:00 and Germanium for a bit before walking back home — again noting the warming eastern sky of dawn. I was awestruck by the sheer number of attendees, with tents, RV's, art cars, installations, and public spaces. The official tally, I gather, was about 52,000 people.

Wednesday I slated as my day to do as little as possible. I sent out a few postcards, and I got to drive Connie to the Temple. I met a guy who was building a whale to be a performance space, I think at the northern end of Rt. 1 in California. As far as the Temple of Juno was concerned, it kind of left me cold — I didn't feel very connected with it.

That night I was hanging out with T. from camp and some people came by and asked if they could drop off their drunk friend who they were unable to drag back home. I would have told them to keep trying, but I let T. answer. I was surprised when she gave an emphatic "absolutely." She insisted on asking who was going to stop by in the morning, and she hung out with the guy for a while until he passed out. Her philosophy was to try and embrace the 10 Principles of Burning Man as much as possible, even when it might be inconvenient.

It's a lesson I'm going to have to let sink in: do good when it's easy, when it's inconvenient, when it's difficult, and eventually, when you don't think you can.

On Thursday, I was invited to be one of the four official drivers of Connie. The DPW says it's only the driver and the driver's spouse, so Jordi ordained himself three spouses.

I happened upon Hair of the Dog (HOTD) camp during the day and said hi to Troy, my birth-twin (same month, day, and year.) I blundered around some more and came upon this camp that offered to do a polygraph and shaman cleansing ritual. I had to give it a go. The idea was to use the polygraph to divine a painful event, then to use shamanism to transform the event into a point of growth and healing. It was unnerving but effective, especially for a sciency-guy like me.

Friday I took Connie out on a tour by myself. I drew the 3-of-diamonds (referring to physical or material things) and L so I headed there. Some people on Iris St. came out and stopped me to give me lemonade. This was a theme all week: this was my first sober (well, sober-ish) Burning Man, and I had no trouble finding non-alcoholic treats. Curiously, it was all lemonade (even Mama Kabuke's kept the booze in back and offered water, "gay-torade", and lemonade to passers-by.)

My logical side was irritated by the accuracy of the Parrot reading to find the Otic Oasis out there: indeed a physical thing, and one I forgot that I wanted to see. I parked Connie and walked to it. It was very cool. I hung out at the camp adjacent and tried to solve their puzzle/interlocking pieces. Their kitchen yurt was amazing: all cut from laminated pieces.

On the way back toward the center of the city, two girls stopped me and I gave them a ride: Playa Kitty and Elise. They were headed to Discofish at 7:15 and Edelweiss which was just around the corner from Mama Kabuke's. We stopped at my Lonely Lamppost for a minute on the way, and got about 100 feet away when a dust storm hit. I didn't realize it would last so long and didn't set the brake. When another woman had leaned her bike against Connie, that was the only way I realized we started being blown backward as her bike fell over. In all it lasted an hour before we managed to gradually make small steps back in tiny clearings.

Saturday I took a crew out for an art tour: Elise (my secret Playa-crush, not the one from yesterday), Emily, Amy, and Momma all piled into Connie and we headed out. Funny enough, it seemed I was either alone in Connie or I was delighted to shuttle women. We headed out to see Burn Wall Street which was being prepared to burn, although the graffiti was most excellent.

When we got back, a couple of the guys had set up a comically obvious snare trap with gin, tonic, and one of Beckster's giant juggling dildoes. Then Zen took another and tucked it into his shorts and did weightlifting, pretending his penis was hanging out unbeknownst to him, smiling broadly at people who responded uncomfortably and awkwardly to his antics (universally, even). I was laughing so hard I was crying.

After dinner we went out to the Man burn. We had a spot just a few people back. Despite a bit of agoraphobia (considering thousands of people behind me) I enjoyed watching the burn up close. I couldn't resist taking a lap and oggling the art cars surrounding the man. It was great.

I walked to the Burn Wall Street site and checked out more art cars. I sat down and was thinking I could go for a nip of whiskey. A guy sat down next to me and stuffed a bottle of bourbon into my field of view. He said his name was Yuri. It took a few minutes to ask, but it turned out he was the bartender at Lux for a while. He was just walking through looking for someone to sit near. Once again, the "Playadipity" and finding Rochestarians everywhere found confluence.

The burn, while not spectacular, was participatory. Everyone was chanting to burn the fuckers down and cheering more loudly than average whenever one fell. It was all quite cathartic.

On Sunday we fetched my lamppost with Connie. It survived just fine. The site was pretty clean and I only found a few little fibers. I took it apart back at camp. I also packed up my stuff and got ready to leave on Monday, figuring on sleeping in the Big Tent somewhere for the night.

I had a few drinks that night and went to the Temple Burn. Just as when I visited earlier in the week, I wasn't particularly moved. I'm not sure why exactly.

Monday I helped clean up camp and take apart Connie. Jordi and Devon drove me out to the bus stop. It arrived before they left and the whole process was much smoother than entry. We even left via the 12-mile entrance, bypassing the entire exodus line (which I gather wasn't particularly bad this year anyway). The only hassle was with the Eldorado Hotel shuttle driver who was reluctant to let anyone on board who had any dust on their luggage. Nonetheless, I got in fine.

On Tuesday evening, the Amtrak left pretty much on-time. This time the fellow Burners were numerous, leaving one-at-a-time as we progressed across the country. It was a bit disconcerting to become more judgmental each passing mile: it didn't matter on the Playa, but now these people were turning into alcoholics, egomaniacs, and slackers before my eyes. Disconcerting but fascinating.

Nonetheless, I still had a good time talking with them. I told my tale and mentioned that I was "going to win Burning Man". Well, after arriving to camp solo and getting to drive an art car, having a great time, and getting excellent meals, I think I won. Kate jumped up and ran to her seat. She said someone had given her a sticker which she reluctantly took, passing it to me:

I Won Burning Man

I Won Burning Man

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