Tags: politics

Silly - Dirty Face

The Insane Politics of Social Media

(***This is an article I plan to cross post to LinkedIn. I'd greatly appreciate any feedback, additions and/or critiques.***)

Everyone seems to have an opinion about social media ranging from vital through the greatest evil ever. Social media is both ubiquitous and poorly understood, being a rapidly evolving and fickle beast. Two very similar nonprofits with similar approaches to social media can have very different results on almost every measurable level. The why is never simple to figure out because it's the wild wild west out there. How wild? Well there's another regular circus that can help demonstrate how weird the social media world is and that's the US presidential race.

Every four years my Social Media community seems to divide into two groups, those who want to talk endlessly about US presidential politics and those who don't want to hear any of it. Anecdotally those not talking much seem just as likely to vote. This duality of engagement is just the unpredictable kickoff I need to show how nuts social media is. Election season is useful to those interested is social media because it provides an intense focus on how the web and social media are used to literally help change the future, For those claiming to be experts the opportunity is largely unparalleled and very interesting, demonstrating both the power, reach and limitations of social media. Eight years ago the Obama campaign changed social media history and changed the way social media was used, both inside and outside the political arena and we've been watching the odd interactions between social media and politics ever since. But do we understand it? Not really.

For example, if Facebook likes were votes this election would turn out very differently. The statistical website FiveThirtyEight took a fascinating look at who is winning the Facebook like race. Counting Facebook likes sees Bernie crushing Hillary by a 3:1 margin and Trump getting almost twice as many votes as Cruz. Then Bernie would beat Trump by a very small margin. Don't be fooled though. In case you think this is remotely meaningful then you need to know who has the most likes... and it's Ben Carson, long out of the race.

Carson's Facebook success and campaign failure seem at odds with each other, and of course they are. He got people riled up enough to like his posts, but not enough to vote for him. Social media "experts" have loads of advice for how to do it well and how to drive outcomes, but here's a prime example of that simply not working at all. Explanations abound on how most engagement is by a small percentage of people, how youthful certain venues are, how likely they are to vote, etc. They don't quite explain it and it still feels unpredictable.

Twitter is even more insane. Trump has the most followers (7.67M) with Hillary second (5.9M) with Bernie way behind (1.8M) and Cruz further back (1M). Hillary only got on Twitter April 2013 whereas the other three all joined in early 2009 and had a big head start. That said the middle of last year Hillary had a lot more followers than Trump and Bernie a lot less than Cruz. Recent accomplishments is part of the success of their campaigns but so are changes in their media coverage. As an aside for context, the father of political Twitter, President Obama has a staggering 72M followers, which is almost 6 times the followers of all of the current batch of candidates combined.

And what kind of Twitter activity drives these outcomes? Here are the candidate's daily average of new followers and number of tweets they make:

The number of tweets is often a factor. Too many or too few can both be bad for engagement. The last time I looked at these numbers primaries were left right and center and since then all of the candidates have slowed down considerably on rates of new followers per day, so seemingly real life activity has an impact. Notoriety clearly has a lot more impact. There really does seem to be no such thing as bad publicity.

In case you think Twitter still seems more sane than Facebook let me muddy the waters further. The number of fake followers on Twitter is a significant spanner in the works thanks to bots that target popular accounts and accounts that employ unscrupulous services to artificially grow their follower numbers. Further, as witness to Twitter's decline, a lot of legitimate Twitter accounts are mostly inactive. What this means is follower numbers are far less meaningful than you might hope. One online service ranks the campaign's followers as follows:

If they're right then it paints a very different picture indeed, and Hillary now seems to have the most real engagement. Interestingly Bernie has the best quality of followers by far, but still only 50%. So can we use Twitter for the vote? Hell no!

On YouTube it's Donald Trump who is winning by a landslide, with Bernie, Hillary and Cruz following in that Order. YouTube was seen as one of the major reasons Obama won the first time and now is seen as critical to any campaign. It's estimated that political adverts on YouTube get vastly more views than ads on local TV and are worth tens of millions to candidates, plus they stay there forever. It helps but how much is never known.

Those are the big players. Smaller players are no clearer. For example Reddit is dominated by Bernie supporters. Sanders was mentioned in more comments than the next two highest candidates combined, namely Hillary second and Trump third. Reddit trends young and liberal so it too is clearly not a balanced reflection of the US voter pool.

On Google It's no surprise that Trump's courting controversy and apparent masterful manipulation of the media get's him the most Google searches by a very big margin. The elections are a big enough deal that we can benefit from Google's own analyses. Their republican search statistics and Democratic search statistics are very interesting to see. Both of those pages also include the top search terms by candidate and the top questions asked about them and at any given time you can see what conversations are driving interest. Again it seems to make sense...except that search interest appears to be about feeding the trolls more often than not and again certainly does not parallel with votes.

So there are lessons in all of this and maybe the biggest is that social media is a powerful but unpredictable medium. PEW found that on most social media heavy activity is concentrated among a minority of users. You might argue that the social media race is more a reflection of how argumentative/trolls each candidate's supporters are.

As an aside, the AP has a page that gets updated many times a day where you can see what the trending Google and Twitter interest right now is.

The world has changed. Most people now get political news from social media and if it's true of politics then it's true of most other things. Social media can make a huge difference...but it can also fail spectacularly. There's a lot to learn and a lot we're still figuring out, and this is complicated by just how unusual an election this is. Let's face it though, it's a coin toss, a zoo, a shot in the dark, but one that every candidate has no choice but to take.

To those whose jobs require making sense of all this, you have my profound sympathy...because it makes little sense.

Silly - Dirty Face

Rallys we can buy into

Image promoting the Rally to Restore SanityImage promoting the March to Keep Fear AliveThe US is a racist madhouse full of right-wing nut jobs who want a holy war with Islam, a return to segregation and the death penalty for liberals and gays. And also spineless cowards who don't know what they want and are afraid of everything.

Or maybe not. Maybe the media voices controlled by rich crackpots are distorting the message and telling us lies? Maybe the US is actually filled with reasonable people, nice people, people who respect each other and want to coexist? Maybe the nice people outnumber the nitwits?

Lets find out. How about on October 30th this year we all go to the Mall in Washington DC to attend either the Rally to Restore Sanity or the 'opposing' March to Keep Fear Alive. Yes, these are marches proposed by comedians, but PEW surveys repeatedly tell us that the viewers of these two shows are the most informed US citizens of all. There is also a distinctly serious undertone.

This could be the best opportunity we have for moderates to be heard above all those strident assholes who dominate the public discourse today. Maybe it's time to show them that even though we have busy schedules (as Stewart said in his video, "You've got shit to do.") we can still make time for what is important. Maybe this is the one. It sounds like it might be. Maybe we moderates are not as spineless, unmotivated and lethargic as they tell us we are. Maybe we have it in us to take a little stand now, rather than wait until we're once again up to our necks in the crazies. Maybe we can also send a message to the world that this is a country that is more than the angry echoes they are currently hearing. Much more.

Or maybe we'll all say, "That's cool, but I have shit to do," and just phone another one in. Or maybe you're as broke as us and have not yet worked out how to pay for it. But I think this one is likely worth trying for. Come on folks! At a minimum you'll have fun and hang out with cool people. Think of the conversations! And the photos.

You can watch both the announcement of the rally and the announcement of the march.
Silly - Dirty Face

Jury of my ineligible peers

Last night I arrived home and was alarmed to find a letter from the local courthouse waiting for me. The only thing I could think of was a ticket for running a red light, something neither agrathea nor I are prone to. Could it be worse? No. All that had happened was I'd been called up for jury duty. Now there's a surprise. 13.5 years in the US and that's never happened to me before. I am of course ineligible to stand jury duty because I'm not a US citizen. They had a section for that on the form, right next to the "are you in prison" question, so I filled it in and mailed it off right away. Problem solved?

I did wonder why now and why this had never happened before. This seems to be one of those areas where things differ from state to state, where voter id rolls get used in some, voters rolls or id card rolls in others, and probably more besides. In conversation a couple of people suggested that some states link jury duty call-up to the voters roll as a not so subtle way of reducing the voting pool. Not cool. In Oregon, apparently the clerk of the court in my county/judicial district compiles an annual master list of potential jurors. This list draws upon lists of registered voters, licensed drivers and other approved sources.

Whatever is happening, clearly different branches of government are not talking to each other. I am eligible to apply for citizenship come August of this year and now I wonder if I'll ever be called up again, or if my current non-citizenship will see me fall through the cracks indefinitely.
Silly - Dirty Face

"I am prepared to die."

On this day back in 1964, before my mother had any children, Nelson Mandela gave a famous speech from the dock to open his defense during the Rivonia treason Trial, the trial that sent him to jail and made him the world's most famous political prisoner. Few South Africans were allowed to hear his speech. It started like this:
I am the First Accused.

I hold a Bachelor's Degree in Arts and practised as an attorney in Johannesburg for a number of years in partnership with Oliver Tambo. I am a convicted prisoner serving five years for leaving the country without a permit and for inciting people to go on strike at the end of May 1961.

At the outset, I want to say that the suggestion made by the State in its opening that the struggle in South Africa is under the influence of foreigners or communists is wholly incorrect. I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said.

In my youth in the Transkei I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days. Amongst the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland. The names of Dingane and Bambata, Hintsa and Makana, Squngthi and Dalasile, Moshoeshoe and Sekhukhuni, were praised as the glory of the entire African nation. I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle. This is what has motivated me in all that I have done in relation to the charges made against me in this case.

It's a pretty fascinating speech, one I was only able to read after apartheid's end. Remember that English was not his first, or even second language, though it didn't affect his eloquence.

It's a long and honest speech. He never denies his, "guilt," only explains why his actions were necessary. It's well worth a read, and I believe it should be mandatory reading for all South Africans. For white South Africans schooled with apartheid propaganda it will reveal a very different and far more accurate representation of our history than they have been exposed to, and will reveal many entrenched lies that they still believe. For others, including my American friends, it may remind them of the failings of their own current education system.

When Mandela made this speech he fully expected to be executed and indeed the statement is usually referred to using the words, "prepared to die," which he proclaimed in this speech -- something like, "In his prepared-to-die speech." Some say that Mandela was spared to avoid creating a martyr, but others feel that this speech moved the judge. I'd say the former was more likely.

His statement ended with this simple, but emphatic description of just what he was fighting against:
Our fight is against real, and not imaginary, hardships or, to use the language of the State Prosecutor, 'so-called hardships'. Basically, we fight against two features which are the hallmarks of African life in South Africa and which are entrenched by legislation which we seek to have repealed. These features are poverty and lack of human dignity, and we do not need communists or so-called 'agitators' to teach us about these things.

South Africa is the richest country in Africa, and could be one of the richest countries in the world. But it is a land of extremes and remarkable contrasts. The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty per cent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded and, in some cases, drought-stricken Reserves, where soil erosion and the overworking of the soil makes it impossible for them to live properly off the land. Thirty per cent are labourers, labour tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages. The other 30 per cent live in towns where they have developed economic and social habits which bring them closer in many respects to white standards. Yet most Africans, even in this group, are impoverished by low incomes and high cost of living.

The highest-paid and the most prosperous section of urban African life is in Johannesburg. Yet their actual position is desperate. The latest figures were given on 25 March 1964 by Mr. Carr, Manager of the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department. The poverty datum line for the average African family in Johannesburg (according to Mr. Carr's department) is R42.84 per month. He showed that the average monthly wage is R32.24 and that 46 per cent of all African families in Johannesburg do not earn enough to keep them going.

Poverty goes hand in hand with malnutrition and disease. The incidence of malnutrition and deficiency diseases is very high amongst Africans. Tuberculosis, pellagra, kwashiorkor, gastro-enteritis, and scurvy bring death and destruction of health. The incidence of infant mortality is one of the highest in the world. According to the Medical Officer of Health for Pretoria, tuberculosis kills forty people a day (almost all Africans), and in 1961 there were 58,491 new cases reported. These diseases not only destroy the vital organs of the body, but they result in retarded mental conditions and lack of initiative, and reduce powers of concentration. The secondary results of such conditions affect the whole community and the standard of work performed by African labourers.

The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation. There are two ways to break out of poverty. The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring a greater skill at his work and thus higher wages. As far as Africans are concerned, both these avenues of advancement are deliberately curtailed by legislation.

The present Government has always sought to hamper Africans in their search for education. One of their early acts, after coming into power, was to stop subsidies for African school feeding. Many African children who attended schools depended on this supplement to their diet. This was a cruel act.

There is compulsory education for all white children at virtually no cost to their parents, be they rich or poor. Similar facilities are not provided for the African children, though there are some who receive such assistance. African children, however, generally have to pay more for their schooling than whites. According to figures quoted by the South African Institute of Race Relations in its 1963 journal, approximately 40 per cent of African children in the age group between seven to fourteen do not attend school. For those who do attend school, the standards are vastly different from those afforded to white children. In 1960-61 the per capita Government spending on African students at State-aided schools was estimated at R12.46. In the same years, the per capita spending on white children in the Cape Province (which are the only figures available to me) was R144.57. Although there are no figures available to me, it can be stated, without doubt, that the white children on whom R144.57 per head was being spent all came from wealthier homes than African children on whom R12.46 per head was being spent.

The quality of education is also different. According to the Bantu Educational Journal, only 5,660 African children in the whole of South Africa passed their Junior Certificate in 1962, and in that year only 362 passed matric. This is presumably consistent with the policy of Bantu education about which the present Prime Minister said, during the debate on the Bantu Education Bill in 1953:

"When I have control of Native education I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them . . . People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives. When my Department controls Native education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge."

The other main obstacle to the economic advancement of the African is the industrial colour-bar under which all the better jobs of industry are reserved for Whites only. Moreover, Africans who do obtain employment in the unskilled and semi-skilled occupations which are open to them are not allowed to form trade unions which have recognition under the Industrial Conciliation Act. This means that strikes of African workers are illegal, and that they are denied the right of collective bargaining which is permitted to the better-paid White workers. The discrimination in the policy of successive South African Governments towards African workers is demonstrated by the so-called 'civilized labour policy' under which sheltered, unskilled Government jobs are found for those white workers who cannot make the grade in industry, at wages which far exceed the earnings of the average African employee in industry.

The Government often answers its critics by saying that Africans in South Africa are economically better off than the inhabitants of the other countries in Africa. I do not know whether this statement is true and doubt whether any comparison can be made without having regard to the cost-of-living index in such countries. But even if it is true, as far as the African people are concerned it is irrelevant. Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with the white people in our own country, and that we are prevented by legislation from altering this imbalance.

The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans. When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realize that they have emotions - that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what 'house-boy' or 'garden-boy' or labourer can ever hope to do this?

Pass laws, which to the Africans are among the most hated bits of legislation in South Africa, render any African liable to police surveillance at any time. I doubt whether there is a single African male in South Africa who has not at some stage had a brush with the police over his pass. Hundreds and thousands of Africans are thrown into jail each year under pass laws. Even worse than this is the fact that pass laws keep husband and wife apart and lead to the breakdown of family life.

Poverty and the breakdown of family life have secondary effects. Children wander about the streets of the townships because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go to school, or no parents at home to see that they go to school, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to growing violence which erupts not only politically, but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous. There is not a day that goes by without somebody being stabbed or assaulted. And violence is carried out of the townships in the white living areas. People are afraid to walk alone in the streets after dark. Housebreakings and robberies are increasing, despite the fact that the death sentence can now be imposed for such offences. Death sentences cannot cure the festering sore.

Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the Government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes. African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men's hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the Reserves. Africans want to be allowed out after eleven o'clock at night and not to be confined to their rooms like little children. Africans want to be allowed to travel in their own country and to seek work where they want to and not where the Labour Bureau tells them to. Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society.

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Silly - Dirty Face

My Older Brother Was Once a Wild Man... Even a Prisoner

At work our team plays a song of the day every day... well most days, ostensibly for fun and inspiration. We take turns picking a song and this past Wednesday I was up. I picked Juke Box Hero by Foreigner. It's a bit of a classic from the era when hard rocking guitar music ruled. Well, it didn't rule me. I'm not big on hard rock, but I do like some of it.

I was not sure why I picked this song, except that I thought we'd had a paucity of this sort of thing and I wanted to play something different. I did wonder, why is it that this song appealed to me, rather than others? What made one song stand out from the noisy, screaming, head-bashing crowd? After a moment I remembered; a military memory involving my older brother. Both of us were medics, Ops Medics to be specific, meaning old-style combat medics. A combat medic is both a soldier and a medic; you have to be able to fight, and kill, and then go and rescue wounded soldiers and heal them, all while carrying substantial additional weight (medical supplies). Medics were also one of the major targets of any ambush; insurgents always aimed to kill the officer, radio operator and medic, so as to hinder reprisal and recovery. Nevertheless, medics were held in low regard and given the name tampax tiffies (a tiffie was a nickname for a mechanic, so we were tampon mechanics).

My brother was two years and a few months older than me. Those of you who have seen this combination of boys of a similar age know that it most often involves an ongoing sibling rivalry that only ends when the younger brother gets too big to be bullied, or when the hormones stop raging, or both calm sufficiently, or something. We were quite typical in this and I took some stick from him until I reached a similar size. It wasn't bad. You've all seen much worse. All pretty typical, and it ended in mid high-school, before he went to the army.

The truth is our childhood was hard, bitterly so at times, and I think we were each other's best ally during those years. We fought, sure, but it was a dwarf next to the giant we never acknowledged, the unspoken and unthinking support we gave each other. It was always us against our mother and occasionally this included whichever man was in her life at the time. At school we had our own age-driven cliques, but at home it was us against everyfuckingbody, at least until our little sister came along a decade later. We were a fucked up, dysfunctional family, but between the kids there was at least this bond, this loyalty. And between us brothers, ten more years of this kind of camaraderie.

As medics, both my brother and I were unwilling conscripts, for different reasons. I was unwilling because I had liberal views and I hated these fuckers. My brother was the more common unwilling conscript, simply unwilling to be forced into the military. Those who were willing signed up as PFs (Permanent Force) and they despised the rest of us, and the feeling was mutual. Conscription occurred every 6 months. I was a January conscript and my brother was a July conscript. School in South Africa runs January through December, so this meant that while he did his first eighteen months in the military I was finishing up high-school and his last six months of "service" overlapped my first six months.

My birthday is January 13th and my conscription date was January 8th, so officially I was still 17. An admin cock-up saw my arrival at camp delayed a week, so unofficially I was indeed eighteen, by two days, when I fell into their clutches. After I'd endured 3 months of basic training (a mix of physical training and lightweight medical training) at the hands of small-minded fascists I was assigned to be an Ops Medic. Most medics had a pretty easy time of their military service, all except the Ops Medics.

Many other medics don't want to admit they had this easy time and I've met many bravado-filled idiots who pretended that they had been Ops Medics, lies quickly and brutally exposed by the younger Grant, whenever I met them. Truth is it was the nature of the lies that usually bothered me, the desire to appear to have been a fighting man, a patriot, a fascist. Ghod, I wish I'd done a better job of not letting the nationalists put a rifle in my hands.

The training for Ops Medics was intense, a further 6 months of training under the authority of even smaller-minded fascists. How fascist? Prone to taking training to dangerous levels just for kicks (many of us picked up niggling injuries that we carry still). Prone to petty displays of power, petty inflictions of small humiliations. Prone to telling me anti-semitic jokes when they found out I was Jewish. Small-minded people who reveled in the power and authority our fascist state gave them over us unwilling conscripts, and who occasionally misused it to a criminal degree.

Ops Medic training was 3 months of decent (but somewhat inadequate) medical training and 3 months of intense physical, weapons and bush training. How intense? Well, as I recall, we started out as 160 and only about 70 of us finished, for one reason or another. I was one of the 70 not to get too hurt, get booted or get reassigned. I was too tough, too stubborn, too unlucky, too something. Or maybe some sibling rivalry was still left in the mix and anything my brother could endure, I could endure too.

I was a terrible soldier. I was small, at about 5 feet and 8 inches and only 130 pounds. Yeah, those of you who know my six foot 200+ pound self might find that confusing. I had a late growth spurt in my 21st year-- four inches and a lot of new muscle-- which was almost two years after I was done with the military. But in the military I was always one of the smallest guys in any unit. As such my uniforms were oversized and I always looked almost as out of place as I felt. There was an unscripted scruffiness to me that wrapped my gangling awkwardness. Through endless inspections by officers and NCOs I regularly had them stop in front of me to try and determine what was wrong. Everything about me looked wrong, and yet everything was in place. I was shaven (baby face, shaved once a week back then), my uniform was ironed, my boots were polished, my hair combed. I was like one of those eye-puzzles we all study and can't quite work out. I frustrated the crap out of them... and I loved every minute of it. Being a bad soldier hidden in plain sight was one of my greatest achievements.

After a month or two of my Ops Medic training, my brother's unit returned to base from the combat zone in Namibia (Angolan border), the same war zone where I was destined to spend about 8 or 9 months. At this time his unit were an ill-disciplined bunch of short-timers (we used the Afrikaans term min-dae, meaning few-days), a group too near the end of their two years and too toughened by the training and war to care much about military discipline. Even by these standards my brother was undisciplined.

Indeed, it often seemed that following my older brother through life was to have a perpetual bad reputation as a first impression. All through high-school teachers would say to me, "Oh, you're Kruger's younger brother? Well, I'll be watching you!" In the military the same thing happened, both in basic training and in Ops Medic training. Being bad soldiers seemed to run in the family, but so did toughness. The two of us were simply tougher than the small-minded assholes and the shit they threw at us. Much tougher. Our lives had been harder and far more mentally stressful than anything the military could throw at us. Most men measure toughness in muscle, but the truth is toughness is largely in your head. While I was laughing at the military's pathetic attempts to psyche us out, most of the "tough guys" around me were cracking under the pressure.

To be fair, my brother going through everything first was often very helpful. It meant that I was often more prepared than those around me, armed with inside information and a few tricks. In the military, one such trick we both used was to seek out punishment, rather than obedience. The two most common punishments for "bad behavior" were making you do pushups and making you run long distances. We both found running easy, but during that training we were in such excellent shape that we reached a point where nothing they did fazed us anymore. We could do large numbers of pushups, or effectively feign an anguished, exhausted collapse, and we could run all day. Most guys hate to run long distances, but we were built for it (super skinny). Once you reach that point, well, y'know, you'd rather run than put up with their petty fascist shit. And we did. The punishment was preferable to the obedience. Pissing them off was a bonus. Them thinking their punishment worked, and endless source of amusement. Best of all, they usually gave you a time limit, so you could draw it out by being too slow... and get told to try again.

Overall, my brother pipped me at the indiscipline post because he did time in DB (Detention barracks) for AWOL (Absence WithOut Leave), and boy was he brazen about it. His unit came back from the combat zone and he went AWOL for a few weeks, making no real effort to hide it. One day he went back and found out that an emergency had cropped up and his entire unit had been sent back to the combat zone. He took an, "Ah well," approach to it all and came back home (I was still in high-school). A couple of days later the MPs arrived to drag him off to DB. He got off lightly and spent just a few days there because, well, what's worse than being sent back to the combat zone? And Ops Medics were in short supply. He was lucky, because time spent as a prisoner did not count against time served, so you could add time to your conscription.

I actually spent months AWOL, so I was worse than he was, but I was more careful and less brazen. I made sure I was present any time they took roll-call. Often this meant I had to hitchhike in to camp every weekday morning, turn up for roll call, then go home AWOL again. I lived in Johannesburg and our camp was just outside Pretoria, and the hike was usually one to two hours. I found ways to make the officer in charge think I was assigned elsewhere (a trick learned from another) but mostly they just had nothing for us to do and didn't care much. Officially we were on 24-hour standby, meaning we had to be ready to ship out immediately in case of some emergency.

A few weeks before my two years were up I was finally busted for AWOL, for only the second time. As punishment they put me on guard duty for the rest of my time (I was a two-striper, a full corporal, so I could be 2IB, short for tweede In Bevel, meaning second in charge). So yes, I got off much lighter than my brother, but only because they thought I was AWOL just one night. A few days later another guy did something worse and they gave him my punishment, so I got off lighter still. Best of all, between guard duty shifts, yup, you guessed it, I was AWOL again. There was something totally liberating about feeling zero sense of duty to them, and in fact loathing them.

As an aside, during this time I was hitchhiking back to camp for guard duty one day, when I was picked up by a beautiful young woman. She took a shine to me and invited me to her house for lunch and... Well, I had to be back at camp soon and I knew missing guard duty that you'd been given as punishment for going AWOL, because you were again AWOL, was asking for major trouble, so I declined. It's something I regret to this day. Worse, this was the day I found out that I was relieved from guard duty, so as it turned out I could have joined her without consequence. Girls did not often make a play for me back then, as witnessed by my failure to get her number. Ah well.

AWOL had it's risks. MPs (Military Police) where constantly trolling the highways and picking up guys without a valid pass. I had a few close calls where MPs arrived at a point on the highway just before me or just after me and I missed them. I even had cops pick me up for hitchhiking on the highway where it was against the law to do so (they set up special stops for military hikers), but the cops simply took me to the next legal stopping point and didn't even ticket me. It was the MPs you had to worry about.

There was a place where the highway from Pretoria split into two, one going south to downtown Johannesburg and the other out to the east. Traffic split pretty evenly at this point and you'd often get dropped here as your ride went the wrong way. The MPs trolled this spot heavily as it was the best place to catch us. Once, seeing them there waiting, I stuck with my ride into the east, but ended up far from any reliable route and it took hours to get home (I finally got on a bus route). So the next time I saw them there I didn't want to go through that shit again and I did something reckless. I asked my ride to drop me off a ways up the road, then I walked across the wide grassy island to my highway, just a few hundred meters further down the road from the MPs. I was betting I'd get a ride before the MPs got to me. One of the MPs immediately saw me and started walking my way, signaling to me to walk to him. I ignored him, pissing him off and making his gestures wilder. Sure enough a former conscript saw the MP coming my way and pulled over to give me a ride. As I climbed in the car I gave the now running and red-faced MP a cheery wave goodbye.

I was a little guy, regularly picked on for his size, religion, politics and attitude. To the guys in my unit, and in general, there were so many ways I was not cool, but in these and other things I thought myself pretty cool. I peaked when I was a major reason that my whole unit went AWOL. This I owe to my brother. Just after his unit's nine months of training there were a few days before his unit were sent to the combat zone for the first time. As a group they decided that they wanted to see their families before they went, but they were denied passes (leave). So in dribs and drabs they all went home AWOL anyway, most of their unit. After all, the logic was simple; what were the sods in charge going to do, not send the guys to the war zone? Delay relieving another unit? And sure enough, nothing happened. They all came back, endured a hissy-fit from their CO, and went to the war zone.

When my unit found ourselves in the same position I spread the story of my brother's unit about. I was not a cool guy that was listened to, but the idea was cool and it spread like wildfire. I had them at, "No real repercussions." We did the same thing, only faster, and within two hours only about a dozen dumb-fuck, goody-two-shoes, were left in our barracks. We came back in time to ship out, endured our own CO's hissy-fit... and nothing more. Later, I made sure I told future Ops Medics the story too. I figured some traditions are worth preserving.

But as cool as these few moments amidst the hell of conscription were, my brother probably had the coolest moment, and it helped me. My unit were in the middle of the worst of the physical side of the Ops Medic training. To put it in perspective we were joined by a group of paratroops at one point and we trained with them for a bit. Medics were looked down on while paratroops were seen as the coolest of the conscripts. Supposedly their physical training was much tougher than ours, but when we did fitness tests together we trounced them. But making us that fit was part of a fairly brutal process, what they considered, "Breaking us down to build us up again," but in truth was, "Torturing us because they could get away with it." Many of us have enduring injuries from that time and memories of being pushed beyond the point of vomiting and collapse.

In the beginning, before we'd adjusted to the harshness of the training, it was all a big shock to the system and pretty damned terrible. We were overwhelmed and on autopilot, like sheep surrounded by new sheep dogs. Our unit had barracks that were a series of side-by-side, connected three-story buildings. We'd often be getting some kind of rough treatment right there between two barracks. As fate would have it, my brother's min-dae unit -- freshly returned from the combat zone -- were placed in the barracks next to ours. We were in the midst of some major opfok (intense physical training, literally meaning, "getting f*cked up"). Mentally we were spread a little thin, bewilderedly enduring their petty torments, when suddenly the officers and NCO's commands were drowned out by loud, hard-rocking music, what I believe was Foreigner's Juke Box Hero.

I looked up and saw my brother's silly grin. He'd put his giant boom box (he always wanted the biggest, loudest one he could find) onto the ledge outside a third-floor window and cranked it up all the way. It completely broke our tormentors' stride. My brother's unit were not under their command and had already been put through what we were going through and many of them had seen the blood and gore of a war zone. They were tougher than us, and tougher than our tormentors. They had little time left, nobody knew what to do with them and they had nothing but bad attitude to fill their days.

There was some futile yelling, both at us and at him, before a couple of corporals were sent up to resolve the situation. I don't think they found my brother, or if they did nothing came of it. He'd disappeared at the last possible moment. Come to think of it I'm not sure the two of us really ever talked about that time.

It made a difference to my unit. In the short term, our tormentors were flustered. Their malicious momentum was lost and their authority dented. Some of my brother's disrespect and bad attitude had rubbed off on us and there was a little more bounce in our step. It was a glimpse of our own future; his unit were where we would be in 18 months, and they were not in awe of our officers and NCOs. It was a turning point. In some small way the breakers had been broken, they had been revealed as petty monsters, big fish in a little pond. We were still destined for plenty of suffering, but now we knew we'd eventually win, and because of that we had already turned torment's tide. Now we could say, "Do your worst." And they did, and we suffered, but eventually we won.

There were times my brother was really cool. This was one of them. I'll never forget it.
Silly - Dirty Face

O Happy Day, Oh Brand New Dawn

Congratulations to all my American friends on your new president. He gave a great speech, though he struggled with his oath (which I found quite charming). (EDIT: Turns out the error came from the Justice and that Obama was correcting him. Cool!) The speech was tough and hit most high-points. You could almost see Bush squirming during that speech and earlier ones. Everyone kept subtly and not so subtly reminding us that Bush had f*cked up, as if we didn't already know. He looked uncomfortable and unhappy and no sign of that seeming relief that it would all soon be over that one had sensed in recent interviews.

The US nation, and the world at large, said, "Goodbye abomination, hello Obama Nation." (Harsh, but too witty to pass up.)

A bunch of us in the office watched together, though others took the day off or the morning off to savor the day at home with loved ones. Our sysadmin picked up CNN's live stream which was of enough quality to be a good picture on the white screen we use for presentations. Even our director was watching. It was nice to share it with them, and to watch their faces. One made Obama cookies with blue "O"s on them and another made sticky buns with pecans in them (for, "Yes Pecan!" variation of, "Yes We Can!", per Ben & Jerry's).

My favorite moment was Obama's daughter taking photos/video of her dad as he gave his speech. It's going to be fun watching a first family that is so obviously filled with love for each other, most particularly between husband and wife, and who are not afraid to show it, and allowed to express that. Michelle looked like she was hearing his speech for the first time, though of course by now she's probably heard it countless times while helping him practice.

I also like that he mentioned non-believers. They usually don't and it's time it was recognized that we exist and that our contribution the the wealth and success of this nation is disproportionate.

My favorite thing is also something that troubles me: the sheer size of the crowd. The enthusiasm is outstanding because in these times you need hope and generosity of spirit and these people will listen to him and make a difference. It troubles me because such power can as easily be used for ill as for good.

My least favorite moment/s were that in general it was a tad too jingoistic and Christian for me, particularly in the earlier speeches. This is my usual complaint as a nonbelieving, anti-nationalism, jingoism-phobic citizen of the world. It's one thing to say this country is built on diversity, and contradictory to have the second-longest speech be from a Christian minister who is unabashed in his portrayal of Christian values being at the root of US greatness, and greatness in general. Further, I'm tired of the "Only in America" comments. Other countries have had female leaders or leaders from minorities long before the US. Rather than, "Only in America" it is really, "Finally in America." The US is behind the curve on this one.

Also, no mention of Spider-Man. Very disappointing. Nor a mention of dropping the ring into the lava of Mount Doom and ending Sauron's reign.

I'll watch Obama's speech again tonight with agrathea as I think it is worth re-watching. His performance was strong, particularly because you get the sense that he deeply believes most of it (there is always some pandering). He made references that usually get skipped and at first blush I took it as a marvelous sign for what we have to expect over the next four years. I believe he's a good bloke who wants to make the US and the world a better place. I think he may well be the best man for the job. I know the world has not been behind a US president to this degree in my lifetime.

I wish him luck. I wish all of us luck.
Silly - Dirty Face

End of an icon

It's finally over. The end of an icon... well two icons really. Two of my icons lose their lifespans. Bush ends his 2nd term as about the least popular president ever and Cheney ends up even less popular. Bush thinks history will vindicate him, but he "misunderestimates" history and it will decimate him and eat his brain-thingey. Now we have Obama (just about). I'm very hopeful, but I never trust a politician. He seems a good guy and I think he wants to help us, but I'm reserving judgment. Anyway, if you want to make your own Obama-Hope poster, then go here.

My boss is taking the day off. She wants to savor the moment and soak it all in. She wants to remember every minute. I found that quite charming, even though I am a skeptic. I'll enjoy her hope and relief, as I watch and wait.

If you want to reminisce about Bush, then this video is must-see-TV. Well, watch it if you need a laugh. It's a Letterman skit, Top 10 Favorite George Bush Moments:

I'd also recommend that you watch this, um, lowlights reel and yes, here's another (hey, he was a busy schmuck).

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Here's to a leader who cares more about the people, his employers, than about the rich and powerful, or himself. I am hopeful. So far the signs are mostly good. I have some concerns, but I do hope.
Silly - Dirty Face

Middle-Class Welfare

I work at a Trust and by supporting a range of local nonprofits, we are a big part of serving the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, the powerless the starving, as well as the environment, local economies and and so on. We facilitate everything that a range of diverse nonprofits serve. Philanthropy has its flaws, but by and large it's good to be a part of all that, to be on the side of good. I read something recently that provided numbers to show how much more effective philanthropic dollars are than tax dollars. This has much do do with the fact that we support strong nonprofits who are generally comprised of small effective groups of people who regularly are those who feel a calling for their work, as if it were a cause, and work longer hours for less pay in arenas they understand intimately. Government dollars and workers are not even in the same stratosphere. We facilitate nonprofits' good work. We are a part of the solution.

So what's the problem? Well, it's the middle-class you see. Big business, the influential, Washington and Bush (the evil mother-f*cking powers-that-be) have contrived to decimate every class that is not their own and currently we're going through a massive economic downturn that will rob the rest of us of much that we have. While welfare and nonprofits aplenty will try to help the poorest of us in these times (with mixed results), who serves the middle class? We're the ones being hit hardest by job losses and we have houses and cars and other things that need middle-class incomes to sustain them. How do you help the middle class? So many have lost jobs and livelihoods. Obama says we're on the agenda, but with Washington seeing is always believing.

So how can we help each other? Truth is mostly we don't even want to. We just put our heads down and hope we don't get hit by the shrapnel. We have that war-zone compassion, where we're really sorry the guy next to us just got hit, but really elated that it was not us. And further, there really is little we can do. We can't support another middle-class lifestyle over and above our own. Even if a bunch of us band together it's nearly impossible to support that friend to the degree they are accustomed to, or even need. And if we tried there would always be those sods who abused the situation. Or maybe that is just an irrational middle-class fear? For anyone abusing the group would lose their entire circle of friends if the abused the system.

So what do we do? Truth is our middle-class lives are too insular, too alone. Each family unit isolates themselves in their own cave. We survive alone and guard our space and privacy. At best there might be support to/from family, but generally we live our lives in cocoons, dreaming of inheritance or lottery wins that can shore up this fragile balance. We should save more, but mostly we don't. And when we do we are robbed, just as most of us have lost money to the recent stock market woes.

But we do care. We have friends and we visit each others caves and we draw each other out into open spaces, or fun places. We make our own families and there is real love, often more than we have for blood family, but we never seem to get to match those bonds of blood that will see a family bail out their struggling cousin, or rescue crazy uncle Charlie from himself... even when you hate uncle Charlie.

Every time I hear about someone in my circle or the next degree or two of separation losing a job I feel a little twist in my heart. And I feel helpless. How will I help my friends, should any of them need it? It all seems impossible. A couple of situations have come up and I've offered emotional support and a couple of times some small financial support. But in some cases it's not nearly enough.

I've been stewing on this for months now, as the first waves of Bush's economic armageddon wash over us, trying to think of ways we can get organized, become more like a real family... but I'm stumped. The status-quo is so deeply entrenched, mostly with good reason; we all have to earn and maintain our own middle class status. When we fall, we fall alone. It's almost the very nature of middle-class, or else we'd all be living in communes or kibbutzes. And maybe there are some ideas for us in approaches like those.

Part of me worries that this is all just a manifestation of personal security concerns. agrathea has a small business that is vulnerable to economic downturns and I'm in all kinds of trouble with the Mississippi house which my ex is completely failing to hold up her end on, forcing me to make most of her payments, something I can't really afford. I'm in no real position to help anyone else really, though we do help Theresa's granny. It leaves me second-guessing my second-rate ponderings.

But it's more than that. I know this. So for now I'll keep stewing on it. We are seemingly in a depression and some feel it already is closer to being comparable to the great depression than we realize. It's scary out there. I wish I knew how much was panic and how much was real and if there really is any effective difference between the two. I'd welcome any thoughts and ideas any of you have. Maybe we can get this conversation started. In the meantime, I love you guys and I hope we all get through these insane times unscathed. Maybe after this we'll all save more...and hopefully not lose it all to fraud and market crashes.