March 20, 2010 at 11:36 pm | In health, just_so | 2 Comments

After a week of keeping at bay a bug running through the family, I’m now either succumbing to its viral power …or else experiencing an especially bad case of hay fever.

Pollen grains magnified: they look like toys for insects.


It’s all in the mind

July 24, 2009 at 10:16 am | In health, housekeeping | 3 Comments

Either I’m becoming what I’ve always dreaded – namely, a candidate for one of those [flaky?] “self-realization” weekend retreats where you uncover, explore, and finally vanquish whatever subconscious “blocks” have you stuck in old patterns (…hey, didn’t someone make a sci-fi “religion” out of that?) – or I’m in the beginning grip of a sinusitis, accompanied by Lugu (the old Black Dog).

The absence of regular blog posts is not an indication of being happily employed elsewhere. It’s merely me stopping myself from writing posts like this one.

I’m stuck in every which way, and every time I think of a way forward, the hole gets deeper. Now my body is tuning in to my mindset, hence the weird days-long headache and slow bricking-up of skull cavities originally designed to, …um, lighten the load of this, my re-presentations.

Melencolia by Albrecht Duerer

Remember the milk (on working at home)

June 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm | In education, health, housekeeping, ideas, just_so, writing | 2 Comments

The other day Philip Greenspun wrote a provocative (that is, a typically iconoclastic) article, Universities and Economic Growth. It’s well-worth reading, so click through and take a look. (h/t @KathySierra)

I just want to use a small passage in that piece as a jumping off point for another observation that’s completely unrelated to Phil’s agenda. (In other words, this is a hijack.)

Apropos of universities, and of how today’s students use them, he wrote:

Focusing on homework has become much tougher. A modern dorm room has a television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games. The students who get the most out of their four years in college are not those who are most able, but rather those with the best study habits.

No company would rely on this system for getting work done, despite the potential savings in having each employee work from home. Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.

It’s that last sentence (“Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day.”) that really struck a nerve.

Readers of this blog know that I homeschooled my children. Today, I’m done with that – but until last summer, we were in the thick of it. For eight years, from 2000 until 2008, we – my son, my daughter, and I – worked at home (with field trips thrown in). Toward the end of that period, we did use BC Ministry of Education curricula, so it’s not the case that I had to invent unit studies for high school science or anything. But the homeschool culture (which basically means self-motivated work habits) continued.

That status quo changed last September when my then-17-year-old started his path on the B.Com program at UVic and my then-14-year-old started grade 12 at a neighborhood school (for the exotic experience). This coming September the now 18-year-old will enter his second year at UVic while the now 15-year-old will start her university studies at UBC. (Yes, you read that right, and no, I don’t want to hear any tut-tut-negative comments about radical acceleration. Tell it to someone else.)

About half a dozen years ago the spouse began working from home, too. So here we all were, 24/7/365, working at home – until last September, that is, when the kids went off to school. …Which left us grown-ups to continue the home-work slog.

Now that I’ve had ~10 months to decompress, at least from the intensity of being responsible for the day-to-day education of my children, the statement “Companies spend a fortune in commercial office space rent to create an environment with limited distractions and keep workers there for most of each day” really resonates with me.

People who commute and go to an office think that working at home in fuzzy slippers will be somehow liberating. Well, there’s a flip side to everything. Working at home all the time – not by yourself or just for yourself, but rather as part of a larger entity (say, a homeschooling family or a couple starting a business) – especially if it’s not very remunerative or lucrative (homeschooling is a financial drain, not a generator of income) can be really hard. I suppose it’s different if you make oodles of money and can get away from time to time. But if you don’t and you instead end up with more of the same (working at home), watch out: you can get to feeling stuck, and there’s nothing quite like that kind of stuckness.

Working at home isn’t like working in an office that you can leave behind. You don’t have tidy divisions between work and non-work, and sometimes the blurring lines get really blurry.

My dog won’t appreciate being left at home, but maybe I’ll try working in some third places this fall. On the other hand, if I use third places to do more work, it just means that I’m taking my work out of the home and into those other places, too.

My home (and homework) isn’t like a modern dorm room with “television, Internet, youtube, instant messaging, email, phone, and video games” as distractions. Over the last few years, my many home jobs have splintered into many more pieces, to the point that they themselves have become the distractions. In shepherding this machine that is the home and this project that was homeschooling and this partnership with my partner through years of home-work, it seems I have forgotten how to get my own work done.

In fact, I think I’ve forgotten what it was.


Sometimes someone will helpfully ask what I plan to do, now that the kids are heading out. It occurs to me that I have to remember something I forgot, not plan something I don’t know yet.

Spawn of sci-fi at the gym

April 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm | In health, just_so | 3 Comments

I joined the downtown Y a few months ago and now work out regularly on all those contraptions I used to make fun of. (…It’s all part of denial – I am not getting older, I am getting better, etc etc etc.)

I’m sure it’s doing me a lot of good, although it certainly is hard work. It’s a lot easier to slouch through the neighborhoods at a leisurely pace with my terrier, or to sit around with a glass of wine dreaming of days when I could pack away thousands of calories without gaining weight. But at some point you realize that, yes, gravity doesn’t exempt anyone, and every inch of extra flesh moves inexorably toward the ground.

We denialists don’t want that. We are tits forward and head high type people, and we’ll go into the grave vertically, goddammit. So off I go, to the Y. I walk there, I change, I get on the damn machine for an aerobic workout. Usually it’s the elliptical trainer (except when I do the torture workout, i.e., weights, which involves all those nasty machines that target specific muscle groups).

Quite a few of the machines for aerobic exercise (including all the elliptical trainers) are lined up in rows facing three very big TV screens. In the first two rows are the bikes (upright and recumbent), followed by two rows of elliptical trainers, with a final row of stairmasters behind. Rowing machines and treadmills are on either side of the room.

The rows are considerably longer than the wall space for the TVs, so there are optimal spots on the machines if you’re a TV watcher. If you’re not, then you’ll move toward the other ends of the rows, from where you can still see the TV screens, albeit at an angle. The spots that provide the best views of the TVs are usually taken up faster than the spots that don’t offer clear TV screen sightlines.

I’m nearsighted, which means I need glasses to see distance clearly. But I don’t wear them at the gym: they’d slide off my face, since I really work up a sweat. When I’m at the Y, I walk around in this nearsighted fuzzy world, unable to recognize faces until they’re ~20 feet away from me. The TVs, with their closed captioning (the sound is turned off), are of no interest to me, in other words, because I really can’t see the images very clearly, and I can’t read the closed captioning at all.

But I can see the facial expressions of the other people on the machines near me. What stories they tell, what worlds they exude… What they reveal about TV

Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t get TV at home. We have a TV (although not a flat screen, alas), and we watch DVDs and such, but we don’t have cable (and antennas don’t work here). I’m a total virgin when it comes to reality television, I’ve become completely and utterly oblivious to network news (haven’t watched for well over six years), and I never watched sports to begin with.

But it’s “reality” TV, news, and sports (including weird shows of people playing poker for sport) that are on the Y’s three screens at all times.

The “reality” shows soften up your limbic system, and you can see this so very clearly in people’s facial expressions as they watch the programs. One popular show has to do with home renovation – some “unfortunate” family is chosen (how?, why?) to receive some kind of surprise make-over, perhaps a reprieve from foreclosure, or some special help for a child with a particularly horrible disease. There are invariably segments involving lots of emotion, tears, and close-up shots of faces as the participants speak. I’m guessing they’re explaining their situation and feelings, their plight, what they’ve learned – all of this is closed captioned, but I can’t decipher it, so I never catch the rationalizing. All I see (somewhat out of focus) is the emotion on their faces – including the coaching (what else to call it?) provided by the show’s host, at times egregious when he’s talking to children. But it’s the faces of the people watching the shows that fascinate me: they absolutely mirror the emotional spectacle they’re viewing. It’s uncanny.

All this is in the middle screen. To its left are the news. If something particularly disastrous or scandalous or plain worrisome has happened, the same images and snippets appear at length, looping over and over. The news mimic in many ways the limbic stimulus dished out by the middle screen. Meanwhile, on the right screen, there’s sports, which maybe appeal a bit more to our reptilian sensibilities: cunning, strategy, skill, win!, …or defeat. And then the emotional release in the group hug, or the group despair. (I’m referring to the presentation of the sports spectacle, not to what sport is for the participants, or what it represents as an ideal.)

We’re like those monkeys deprived of their mothers, who are given surrogates (tic-toc clocks wrapped in blankets). And boy, do we respond.

On all three screens, the limbic stimulus calls the shots, except it’s the money shots. Because when push comes to shove – i.e., when it’s time for a commercial break – the ads expertly appeal to all those emotional synapses already firing away in your brain. Quite good, really. Clever. I can see it working on people’s faces. I’m sure that if I could read the texts (or hear the audio), I’d “see” the limbic/ emotional stuff far less prominently, because the words provide a rationale for the emotions, corralling them into a “place” where they can’t overflow and inundate the brain (and our perception of the world). Yet that’s where the words, our love of rationalizing, fools us – it’s clear that the emotional stuff rules completely.

You have to wonder if that’s such a good thing when it comes to news – or to making decisions about what to buy.

You also have to wonder whether the creators of The Matrix got their ideas at the gym. There we all are, pumping away like maniacs on stationary machines, producing loads of energy (where does it go?, why is it not harnessed and used?), our eyes glued to a screen “reality” that’s utterly orchestrated and manipulative of our limbic system (maybe that also produces energy?). If that’s not fertile ground for the sci-fi imagination, what is?

We are such aliens.

Front-line/Downtown – Community Solutions

April 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm | In addiction, community_associations, crime, health, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, victoria | 1 Comment

On Monday March 30, the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) hosted a public meeting, On The Front Lines: Community Solutions for Homelessness and Social Issues, at City Hall. Moderated by DRA chair Rob Randall, we heard from Victoria City Councilor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, the Coalition to End Homelessness‘s Jill Clements, the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s Ken Kelley, and Victoria Police Department Chief Jamie Graham.

Rob wrote a follow-up report on his blog – go check it out (especially the comments). Davin Greenwell also posted a great summary, and included photo documentation, so do take a look at it here.

I haven’t commented on Rob’s post, but just left a long comment on Davin’s entry. Click through to read my (partial) response to the session.

One of the categories I’m filing my post under is “leadership,” a quality that Jill Clements of the Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness seems to have, and it’s something we expect from Jamie Graham. We also see it in Charlayne Thornton-Joe.

As I was checking off categories, I also checked “justice,” as I was reminded of Graham’s discussion of implementing Restorative Justice (see Saanich’s program), which we hope to see used more frequently in Victoria. Incidentally, Restorative Justice is modeled on First Nations approaches to crime and social disorder, and reminded me that the American Congress (and Senate?) is modeled on a New World/ First Nations approach (vs. the British Parliamentarianism we still practice in Canada, where everyone shouts at the same time and heckles the opposition). Sorry, can’t provide a link right now, but just think of the concept of the talking stick. Works for me – bring it on.

Parents in MySpace: disaster follows (potentially for the internet? See update below)

November 14, 2007 at 11:13 pm | In health, justice, media, MySpace, scandal | 5 Comments

My daughter told me about this story, and when I said that it must be some sort of fake “news,” she sent me the following link: St. Charles Journal – News – POKIN AROUND: A real person, a real death. Alas, it looks real enough (the “Pokin Around” part is a play on the columnist’s name, Steve Pokin).

I find this story so disturbing on so many levels that I don’t really want to go over it with commentary — I’m struck by the level of surveillance (and perhaps judgementalism) exercised by Megan’s parents, but admittedly I’m not a parent dealing with a teen who has issues like Megan’s. As for the rest, any sane person can draw their own conclusions. …Maybe, if your brain can handle it.

I’ll copy & paste relevant bits below, but I’d encourage interested readers to go to the story itself and follow the comments, which are also disturbing.

First, a quick synopsis: a 13-year old girl named Megan Meier, who was just days shy of her 14th birthday, commits suicide by hanging herself in her bedroom closet. The reason? She was being bullied by a “hot” 16-year old male, who had initially captured her heart on MySpace by making her feel valued, but who then turned on her. He cyberbullied her with taunts and finally told her that she was a horrible person who deserved to have a horrible life. After Megan’s death, her grieving parents learn that the “hot” 16-year old male was in fact a fictitious character created by the parents of one of Megan’s girl friends — a girl she had become estranged from. This girl — and her parents — can’t be named, apparently, not least because nothing can be decisively proven against them.

That’s the official story in skeletal form. There are other details that add to “understanding” the situation (perhaps), the setting, the timeline, and so on.

You read it and decide for yourself (read the comments, too — they’re part and parcel of the trauma). If it’s true, then… Well, then the barbarians aren’t at the gates, they’re well inside. Everything about this tale is weird.

A real person, a real death

His name was Josh Evans. He was 16 years old. And he was hot.

“Mom! Mom! Mom! Look at him!” Tina Meier recalls her daughter saying.

Josh had contacted Megan Meier through her MySpace page and wanted to be added as a friend.Yes, he’s cute, Tina Meier told her daughter. “Do you know who he is?”

“No, but look at him! He’s hot! Please, please, can I add him?”

Mom said yes. And for six weeks Megan and Josh – under Tina’s watchful eye – became acquainted in the virtual world of MySpace.


[Megan] loved swimming, boating, fishing, dogs, rap music and boys. But her life had not always been easy, her mother says.

She was heavy and for years had tried to lose weight. She had attention deficit disorder and battled depression. Back in third grade she had talked about suicide, Tina says, and ever since had seen a therapist.

But things were going exceptionally well. She had shed 20 pounds, getting down to 175. She was 5 foot 5½ inches tall.


Amid all these positives, Tina says, her daughter decided to end a friendship with a girlfriend who lived down the street from them. The girls had spent much of seventh grade alternating between being friends and, the next day, not being friends, Tina says.


And then on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006, Megan received a puzzling and disturbing message from Josh. Tina recalls that it said: “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.”


Why did he suddenly think she was mean? Who had he been talking to?

Tina signed on. But she was in a hurry. She had to take her younger daughter, Allison, to the orthodontist.

Before Tina could get out the door it was clear Megan was upset. Josh still was sending troubling messages. And he apparently had shared some of Megan’s messages with others.

Tina recalled telling Megan to sign off.

“I will Mom,” Megan said. “Let me finish up.”

Tina was pressed for time. She had to go. But once at the orthodontist’s office she called Megan: Did you sign off?

“No, Mom. They are all being so mean to me.”

“You are not listening to me, Megan! Sign off, now!”

Fifteen minutes later, Megan called her mother. By now Megan was in tears.

“They are posting bulletins about me.” A bulletin is like a survey. “Megan Meier is a slut. Megan Meier is fat.”

Megan was sobbing hysterically. Tina was furious that she had not signed off.

Once Tina returned home she rushed into the basement where the computer was. Tina was shocked at the vulgar language her daughter was firing back at people.

“I am so aggravated at you for doing this!” she told Megan.

Megan ran from the computer and left, but not without first telling Tina, “You’re supposed to be my mom! You’re supposed to be on my side!”


[After running to her room, while her parents stayed in the kitchen to chat, Megan hung herself.]


Later that day, Ron opened his daughter’s MySpace account and viewed what he believes to be the final message Megan saw – one the FBI would be unable to retrieve from the hard drive.

It was from Josh and, according to Ron’s best recollection, it said, “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”


[Now it moves from tragic to downright sordid:]

The day after Megan’s death, they went down the street to comfort the family of the girl who had once been Megan’s friend. They let the girl and her family know that although she and Megan had their ups and down, Megan valued her friendship.

They also attended the girl’s birthday party, although Ron had to leave when it came time to sing “Happy Birthday.” The Meiers went to the father’s 50th birthday celebration. In addition, the Meiers stored a foosball table, a Christmas gift, for that family.

Six weeks after Megan died, on a Saturday morning, a neighbor down the street, a different neighbor, one they didn’t know well, called and insisted that they meet that morning at a counselor’s office in northern O’Fallon.

The woman would not provide details. Ron and Tina went. Their grief counselor was there. As well as a counselor from Fort Zumwalt West Middle School.

The neighbor from down the street, a single mom with a daughter the same age as Megan, informed the Meiers that Josh Evans never existed.

She told the Meiers that Josh Evans was created by adults, a family on their block. These adults, she told the Meiers, were the parents of Megan’s former girlfriend, the one with whom she had a falling out. These were the people who’d asked the Meiers to store their foosball table.


According to Tina, Megan had gone on vacations with this family. They knew how she struggled with depression, that she took medication.

“I know that they did not physically come up to our house and tie a belt around her neck,” Tina says. “But when adults are involved and continue to screw with a 13-year-old – with or without mental problems – it is absolutely vile.

“She wanted to get Megan to feel like she was liked by a boy and let everyone know this was a false MySpace and have everyone laugh at her.

“I don’t feel their intentions were for her to kill herself. But that’s how it ended.”


The Suburban Journals have decided not to name the family out of consideration for their teenage daughter.

The mother declined comment.


Follow-up: I’m very sorry for the Meiers, but this sentence, from MySpace Prank Leads Teenager Girl to Suicide, makes me afraid, very afraid: “…Megan’s family wants that family to be held responsible for what they did, so they’re working with lawmakers to pass new legislation regulating the Internet.” I really don’t want the Tina Meiers of this world breathing down my or my children’s neck when we’re using what I hope will continue to be a free internet.

Playgrounds for seniors — Urban interventions

November 10, 2007 at 11:27 pm | In cities, health, victoria | 1 Comment

I previously heard of playgrounds for the elderly through various newspaper articles, but Tokyo-based Ping Magazine has a beautiful blog entry that includes many pictures, to give us an idea of what the gear actually looks like. Surf over to Playgrounds For The Elderly:Fit In An Aging Society.

Ping Magazine‘s entry includes not just pictures, but also a terrific interview with Mr. Karakawa of the Takao Corporation, which makes these playgrounds. Here are some excerpts of Karakawa’s answers, beginning with some background information:

In 2004, the Chiyoda Ward commissioned us to build an experimental model community centre to promote exercise for the elderly and decrease dependence on nursing care. The Chiyoda Ward had already started some programs conducted indoors, in which the elderly do light tactile exercise to prevent senility. However, they didn’t have any means for them to exercise outdoors, so they asked us to construct something to be used in a park.


We have been making what we call healthy playgrounds with an emphasis on exercise for decades. However, our new concept with this equipment is nursing care prevention playgrounds. We took our previous designs for equipment to help sit-ups and push-ups and modified them for light exercise especially for the elderly.


A year after our first project in Nishi-Kanda Park, we installed nursing care prevention gear at another park in the ward. At that time, professors from the nearby Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music and residence of Chiyoda Ward helped us with what colours for the equipment would suite best the park. They also advised on how to better name the equipment. As in our first project, we gave the gear English names, such as “stretch-step.” But this time we used simple Japanese names that the elderly can understand more easily .

Sounds like a win-win for the users and for the community as a whole.

Here in Victoria, the city is renovating a sinkhole at a near-downtown intersection. View Street, the East-West axis, would lend itself beautifully to a linear park. In fact, it could have been a perfect site for this sort of “senior playground” equipment, since the area already has numerous condos and is set to densify even more in the next few years. I also wrote about how the area could have been reconstructed in accordance with biophilic design principles in the August 2007 issue of FOCUS Magazine (see Biophilic Design — Taking Love to the Streets, PDF).

Unfortunately, the city will re-create a conventional, paved intersection, and the planned beautification of the streets (View and Vancouver Streets) probably won’t include fitness equipment for the not-so-limber. We’ll get nicely paved sidewalks and prettier lamp-posts, perhaps, but wouldn’t an obstacle course or maybe a climbing structure for seniors have been a fascinating urban intervention?

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Social class on social networks: and style?

June 27, 2007 at 10:33 pm | In danah_boyd, facebook, health, ideas, MySpace, social_critique, social_networking, web | 7 Comments

danah boyd has a new article out called Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace, which everybody seems to be reading (and, looking at her blog, commenting on — two hundred comments and counting…) Basic thesis: facebook attracts more upwardly mobile college-bound types, while MySpace attracts non-college-bound, possibly declasse or lower-class or outcast-type kids.

I’m curious to know whether the design was the egg or the chicken here: I confess that MySpace pages look cluttered and messy to me, and I get weirded out by the fact that all sorts of applications (sound, video, music, whatever) start up when I click through to some pages. In other words, I have to let MySpace roll all over me, and that pisses me off (well, not really, but I’m like, Hey, can you let me decide when I want to hear your stupid music or see your movie?). I want my eyes to control everything first, and then I push the buttons (mouse & click the links), not lie there and think of England while some MySpaceling has its way with me.

So, does the style attract people who violate “nice” rules about tidy spaces and imaginary “protocol,” or is the style a result of people using MySpace in a really trashy way? Can the technology even have that sort of malleability? That sort of ability to respond? I don’t think so, which means that from where I’m sitting, MySpace design or style is “trashy” and non-eye-centered (non-controlling) first, and that therefore it attracts the more anarchic among us.

(I am exaggerating slightly when I describe myself as such a control freak in the above paragraph. Slightly. A bit.)

Tolerance for overflowing sensation, an ability to “live” with many people, in a tribe, vs in a more distilled fashion: I think that factors into things, too. Is it a class issue? Possibly, but there’re always exceptions to the rule. From boyd’s essay:

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.

Right here there’s a snag: this passage describes me pretty much to a “t” (except for the Latina/Hispanic part, although I was an immigrant). My parents didn’t go to college, thought it would be a waste of time for me to go, were surprised I bothered finishing high school — which I barely did, a year and a bit “early,” too often too stoned to know what was going on, but desperate to get out so I could get a job — waitressing, incidentally — and make enough money to move away from home. I purposely skipped my high school graduation, because you wouldn’t have caught me dead trying to be pretty and stupid in a prom dress or sucking up to some old fart handing out diplomas. (I even skipped my B.A. graduation at UBC, and the M.A., and when I finally did go to one of my graduations — the Ph.D. ceremony at Harvard — I grinned at the Dean handing me my sheepskin, but I had the worst migraine in the world: I was smiling through pain, lots of it… Analyze that!)

Would I have gravitated to MySpace then, had it been around?

I don’t think so. I think one of my problems was stimuli overload (which explains the self-medication with drugs), and it was important for me to get enough control over my environment so that I could shut things out because it was difficult for me to handle the intensity of sensation I experienced. Experience. To this day, I find it crushing to be with people all day long: it’s too much. I vant to be alone is the rallying cry not just of Swedish actresses. Too much to observe, to pay attention to, to modulate, choreograph, perform, and respond to: after a day with lots of people, I’m exhausted. MySpace is an onslaught of entire rooms-full of people talking all at once, like a bad high school day times 10. In comparison, I guess Facebook is like meeting over coffee. Mocha vanilla latte, frapped. Maybe that’s our class structure today.

Wow… (Body by Dance — Nike)

June 8, 2007 at 12:18 am | In fashionable_life, health, media, social_critique, women | Comments Off on Wow… (Body by Dance — Nike)

An amazing ad for Nike on YouTube, must see. (Click through — I can’t seem to be able to embed YouTube videos here.)

(found via if! from PSFK, who got it via Buenos Aires Spotting. Thanks, guys!)

(PS/edit: in particular, if you want more background information on the ad, click through to Buenos Aires Spotting — very useful.)

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