Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Classless Friends

I have acquired, in my two score and almost seven years, a number of “things.” Much of that time, I placed an inordinately high value on those that were material… they could be bought, or sold. Or lost. Indeed, in that same period of time I have lost many if not most of those things. And the truth is that although I placed an inappropriately high value on them, the evidence shows that those things were not all that valuable after all. I rarely ever think of most of my former possessions, but I often think of the nonmaterial, intangible and not-for-sale-at-any-price variety of “things.” These are the things that I value most today.

I used to be able to count my “close” friends with just my fingers… and with a few left over. While I was hospitalized and fighting for my life nearly nine years ago, those friends were there, and some traveled great distance to be there. Those I thought were my friends couldn’t be bothered, but in all honesty it might have been the same story for me if our roles were reversed. They were superficial friendships of a decidedly more seasonal variety; they were not built to last. It was a reflection of the materialism my life was based upon and I should not have expected any more. But that experience started a paradigmatic change in my perspective that, nine years later, has proven to be far more valuable than any material “thing.”

My friends today come from very diverse backgrounds. They range from high school dropouts to Ph.D.s. They are white-collar and blue; gay and straight; religious and secular; liberal and conservative; and from many different ethnic backgrounds. Yet all live by the principles of integrity, humility, honesty and a host of other universally laudable characteristics. Many people live by the intention, the desire and even the belief that these are the values they stand by, but the day-to-day truth is a far different story – it was once my story. It is not necessarily the difference between badness and goodness, but very much the difference between awareness and unconsciousness. I was on autopilot, seeking only to secure my comfort, my family’s and, if it was not too inconvenient, my friends’. Even my attempts at altruism were subconsciously self-serving.

Since those lonely days in the hospital, and many of those during the following two or three years, I have experienced a major change in my awareness that has necessarily changed the way I look at the world and my place in it. As a result, the quality (and the quantity) of the friends I have today matches that of the few I was lucky enough to have from those days gone by. And the qualities I have nurtured – those that I believed to have all along – have attracted those who live in the same realm. It is not that I am a better person now than I was then, rather, I am aware of who I am and I try to live up to those principles. In reality, they are qualities I possessed all along… that is, my belief was not wrong, I just wasn’t executing. My aim was way off.

My friends, like me, are successful. Some are pursuing higher educational goals, some are skilled in the trades, some run households, some are business owners and all are on a mission - a mission to succeed. They do the work; they have a clear idea of just how significant and insignificant each of us is. They all command respect not because of money or power or privilege, but because they live their lives based on those universal and timeless ideals that defines the best in humanity. Despite the diversity and difference in their backgrounds, all are in the same “class;” and much of that is the eschewal of traditional societal class separation. They truly are and view others as “classless.” And I am proud to be amongst this group of classless friends.

* Addendum:
My hospitalization was not some kind of friend or loyalty "test," I recounted it as an illustration to make a point. I have friends that were not able to be there physically for a number of reasons... but they supported me and still do.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Plagiarism

When I started this blog back in December of 2005, I had no idea where it would lead or the benefits it would provide. Now more than 3 ½ years later, those benefits are obvious, numerous and great. I know from my hit counter that my blog is read by a few regularly and is found through searches and other means frequently. Most do not leave comments, but some do. More than that, I have been exposed to the writings of many of my readers – other bloggers – who have a similar perspective on blogging as I. We don’t do it for money, yet we often pour our hearts and souls into our work… and it is work. Many, if not most, writers I know do not find composing one's thoughts, feelings and perspectives easy, but we are compelled to get it just right. It is its own reward.

But probably the biggest gift I have received from blogging is a connection with people I would never have “met” otherwise. Although most of those relationships I have established through blogging are based solely in this medium, it is a medium that allows for a great deal of depth. With a few exceptions, I have never met my blog “friends” in person, yet many are friends in the truest sense of the word. We care about one another; we support each other; and we read each other. Even after a lengthy hiatus from blogging, we often pick up right where we left off. However public this medium is, it is still very much personal.

I received an email from Dana (one of those friends) this morning. It was sent to multiple recipients, many of whom are part of my blog “family” and many others part of intersecting circles of friends. It was a notification… a warning, if you will. Her work had been stolen by another “blogger” (and I use the term very loosely) and posted on his blog as his own work. I am not speaking of a sentence or paragraph mistakenly “borrowed” without attribution, and not just one entire piece – but several complete posts copied verbatim and posted as his own. It is not only wrong, but it is also illegal. Dana’s email was a call to action, and acted we did. The following is her original email message, followed by my response and finally her epilogue.

Good morning everyone.

Through a plagiarism link, I found out that some of my writing had been lifted and posted by another blogger as their own. At first I thought it was just one recent piece, but the more I scrolled through his postings, the more pieces I found! I'm absolutely incensed and quite frankly feel sick down in my gut! I know this stuff happens, but until now I guess I held onto a bit of blind faith and didn't go out there in blogland checking. I will now.

I have since left comments on all the pieces I found, but had to stop when I came across a poem I had written in the spring for a young woman who had just had a stroke two weeks after her baby was born. (she's fine now btw). He used it as a "set up" for his own ramblings about his child! I was shocked! He even posted a Q and A I did for God's sake... one where the first question was "what colour do you feel right now???"

While reading, I also stumbled across pieces that Marja had written as well and informed her. She intends to let others know.

I have also written him an email... I'll give him until the end of the day to remove all of the plagiarized pieces and if he hasn't done so, will report him to Blogger. I don't know if they can close down his site, but I will ask them to investigate.

If you have any ideas as to how to stop this illegal act, I'd appreciate any direction or advice. I will put a warning up on my sidebar, but don't know if that will stop anyone intent on lifting intellectual property.

I also suggest that perhaps you check out his blog to see if anything you have written, or if any of your photos have been stolen. Here is his site! If you check it out, please leave him a comment about this!! The more comments he receives, the more inclined he may be to stop his stealing!!!!! Thanks.

http://biologicalclockticking.blogspot.com/2009/07/having-faith-in-othersand-in-myself.html

If you want to check to see if any of your work has been used anywhere else, here is the link. It was pretty easy to use. I don't know how you check to see if someone has lifted any photos.

http://www.copyscape.com/

Thank you for your support...

Dana.


Dana, et al.,

It would appear that the blogging community has dealt the blog in question its deathblow. Earlier, the link you provided did not go to that specific post, but the blog could still be accessed. There was just one post - probably stolen as well. I flagged the blog based on your email - your word is good enough for me - and I suspect I was not alone. The blog in question (now just a short time later) no longer exists. It is as it should be. I have no problem with anyone reposting my work as long as three simple conditions are met: it cannot be for commercial use; it must be properly attributed; and it cannot be altered from its original form. If anyone reproduces my work as his or her own, I get angry. Very angry. More than angry, I get justice - and it appears as though justice has been served.

It's good to see the blogging community working together. Most of us do this as a labour of love - for ourselves and anyone else who finds our words insightful, amusing, cathartic or whatever other value they may hold. We don't (most of us) get paid to do this, but it is work nonetheless. For someone to steal it is wrong on too many levels - That it is illegal is only the tip of the iceberg.

You are a kinder soul than I, Dana. I would not have given (and in fact did not) this so-and-so a chance to remove the plagiarized material... I simply would have hit him or her with everything I had. The crime has been committed - it goes well beyond mere intention or a "little" mistake - we are talking about entire posts!

I have not checked to see if my material (which is copyrighted and noted on my blog) has been stolen in a while. Although it is difficult to be absolutely sure, it looks like my property remains within my control. But thanks for the reminder, it is a serious issue.

Mike


Hello everyone... :)

Blogging most certainly is a labour of love, Mike. You are so right. It is also such a wonderful community of shared passions. So often I am inspired by something I've read, like a jumping off point for my own writing. There is a terrific give and take, and when someone violates that flow of creativity by stealing, it is wonderful to know (and feel) that the community does pull together.

I thank you all for your assistance. I have sent him another email threatening him and making it perfectly clear that I won't sit idle again and let something like that happen. I also told him he should be ashamed of himself... asked him what the Dalai Lama would think of such sinful behaviour! :) Buddhist my ass!

I did get in touch with Blogger and file a formal complaint. Whatever he has posted in the past has been cached, so they can still follow up if they haven’t done already.

I wish I had copied the comments from everyone! They were priceless!! I had a few facebook friends nail the guy as well, so I am completely confident that he is shaking in his weasley boots today.

Thank you all! I'll post something about it all, hopefully tonight.

Cheers...

I'm off to pour myself a glass of wine and toast you all xxx

Dana

The facebook community also responded, and now there is one less worthless blog in the world. It warms my heart that such selfless camaraderie exists over such vast physical distances, amongst such a diverse group. We share a passion for not only our own creativity, but also that of others. It is a passion we are willing to fight for. It is yet another of those benefits I mentioned above.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

One Bad Decision

I have recently had occasion to give some thought to drinking alcohol… and driving. Although the specific inspiration regarding this analysis is not important, the conclusions drawn are decidedly so. This is not meant to be yet another account of the dangers of drunk driving, those are already well documented. And it is not a call for increasing the punishment meted out for offenders – first time or repeat. It is rather a proposal that might actually reduce the frequency of drunk driving and, therefore, reduce the carnage and incarceration spawned from a provision in the current law that actually encourages those who drink to get behind the wheel.

Although drunk driving is a criminal offense, the vast majority of offenders are not “criminal” in any other sense. Many, when arrested, cannot believe that they are over the legal limit. It is this “legal” limit that is the problem. I am certainly not advocating raising the limit, but rather eliminating it. That is, the legal limit should be zero percent for everyone – not just commercial drivers, not just those under 21, but everyone. By allowing some alcohol consumption, the law essentially states: “this much is okay, but not this much.” Of course I realize that in California, like many other states, the parallel laws of driving under the influence and operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol percentage over the legal limit exist, but the emphasis is always on that “legal” limit and the vast majority of convictions are based on that standard of evidence.

The law, in effect, asks a non-expert to make an expert decision: “Have I had too much?” Even an expert on the effects of alcohol, however, cannot competently make that determination after having had just one drink. The first thing alcohol affects, well before the motor centers of the brain and also well before the legal limit has been reached, is judgment. The ability to make any rational decision is affected right when the most important decision must be made – how much is too much? Although a recent campaign informing drivers that “buzzed driving is drunk driving” has highlighted the fact that one need not be “drunk” to suffer the very real effects of alcohol, it is still within the context of the “legal” limit – again asking drivers who have already consumed alcohol to determine not whether they are “drunk,” but now if they are “buzzed,” as a buzz can be over the limit.

A blood alcohol percentage of .08, the legal limit in California and in many other states, is not very drunk, a fact this recent campaign wishes to make clear. But according to Virginia Tech, a BAC of .01 to .06 already has affected one’s thought, judgment, coordination and concentration – and this person is to decide where on the scale he or she is? There is a much better way to make this determination… anything more than zero is too much. And if that were the law, many of those who ordinarily would attempt to decide if they were okay to drive would have much less to base that decision on: one drink is too many – easy. Those who have chosen unwisely because they truly believed it was okay based on the law that says some alcohol is allowed - those otherwise law abiding citizens - would abide by this "zero percent" law, too.

But the DUI business is big. Not only does the state and local municipalities make a killing in fines, so too does the legal industry that supports it. If some large percentage of those who believed they were sober enough to drive had a framework that told them in no uncertain terms that they were not, the bureaucracy would dry up virtually overnight. The criminal justice caseload would shrink dramatically and although DUI incarcerations are generally short-term, there are literally thousands of them filling up county jails, to say nothing of those on work-projects and serving community service hours. And the recovery industry could concentrate on the true alcoholics and drug addicts, not the many sent to them due to a moment of alcohol induced and legally encouraged poor judgment.

The special interests are very interested in keeping the limit just high enough to keep well meaning motorists mildly intoxicated. In addition to those associated with the industries already mentioned, let us not forget about the liquor lobby - where one drink can never, ever be too many. Unlike so many complex reforms our incredibly dysfunctional state government claims to be working on, the solution to this one can be implemented quickly and pay almost immediate dividends – the most precious of which would be the of saving lives.

* Image used acquired from the public domain

Monday, July 13, 2009

From Bars to Stars

Many, many years ago, I used to in hang out bars. Mostly the same bar, my neighborhood bar… a “dive bar.” It was familiar; I knew the bartenders and many of my friends could be found there. As I moved, so too, eventually, did my regular haunt. It’s not as though I would patronize one establishment exclusively, but all had certain elements in common: a pool table, a dartboard and an adequate selection of, um, refreshing beverages. As circumstances in my life dictated (or allowed), my presence at these establishments fluctuated, but after some time, some of these bars throughout a period of my life became my “Cheers,” and everybody knew my name.

Although it was an interesting and somewhat memorable phase in my life… and to some extent it was enjoyable, it was superficial. It didn’t have to be, but for me it was. The relationships built at these establishments were based on very narrow criteria; as long as we shared a love for the bar scene, i.e. beer, pool, darts and small talk, we were fast friends. From time to time these relationships expanded beyond the bar, but it would most often be a relocation of the same thing, just off-site. I didn’t intentionally move away from the bar society, but after some time I guess it just got old. Too much of anything can do that.

And I can’t say I particularly miss it, partly because I have replaced it. I now hang out at coffee shops, albeit not with the regularity or frequency I used to go to my “home” bar. Though it is true I have a distinct preference as to which coffee shop I call my own (‘Nothing But Recovery’ - it’s not “mine,” but the owner is my friend), I patronize many and feel at home in all. This one, however, is where everybody does know my name. I buy food and coffee drinks here, but, generally, that’s not why I come. I come for the atmosphere and at NBR, I come for the social aspects. It is different here for other reasons as well – I can’t usually open my MacBook and start writing here because friends too often interrupt me. It’s not a bad thing – it is, in large part, why I come. But there are occasionally quiet moments such as this when I can write.

At the other coffee shops I patronize, and yes – many are Starbucks, I go for the ambiance. Starbucks seems to have nailed the formula, but there were others before and Starbucks sure doesn't do it best. As a matter of fact, the corporate, mechanized rigor has done much to destroy the casual nature of a Starbucks visit. Drive-throughs, an assembly line-like “manufacturing” process and WiFi-for-a-fee are but some of the drawbacks that come with a Starbucks experience. Yes, the coffee is still good and yes, it still has an atmosphere conducive to writing… and yes, they still have an appeal that can be counted on like a McDonalds Big Mac, but in the process the “neighborhood bar” aspect has been lost.

Near California State University, Sacramento, is a little place called Tupelo Coffee House and Roasting Company. It is literally a stone’s throw from and on the same block as a good-sized Starbucks. Although I have never been inside that particular Starbucks, I know it – it is virtually the same as all other Starbucks. Tupelo is different. Different better. The drinks are better not only in taste, but in presentation. Served in glass vessels with a decorative topping in the foam, they follow the creative and welcoming atmosphere. And nothing says ‘we want you to hang out’ more than free WiFi access. But there is more and it is difficult to present here with just words and pictures. Like NBR, it has carved out a niche – an oasis in the desert of Starbucks. When given a choice, I choose the independents… those who have a vested interest in my return business, who like what I like, who come to work for the same reasons I come for the coffee. I really don’t think Starbucks cares…

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Real Beauty

When I came to Sacramento County back in early 2003, I had no intention of staying. In fact, I did leave for about four months in the beginning of 2004. But by April I was back and I have been here ever since. I am now established here – it is my home. My home before was worlds apart both geographically and socially. Truckee, Calif., at about 6,500 feet, is large as far as Sierra communities go, but not like the suburbia that is the greater Sacramento area – although it is smallish when compared to other metropolises. At any rate, I felt there was a different socio-cultural dynamic at work here and I was not attracted to it. But that attitude was prejudice spawned by aesthetics – the mountains are beautiful; this valley, less so.

But there are people everywhere. And people are people – everywhere. I came here to escape the chaos that, through a variety of mechanisms, my life had become. It was not Truckee per se - or even the people there – it could have been anywhere, but a change of locale was necessary and Sacramento was it. I knew virtually no one here. I was separated from the few close friends I had left by geography… or lost track of them through time. I was all alone… and to be perfectly honest, I liked it that way. At least I thought I did. I needed to detach for a while – I needed to figure out who I was and what I was doing here, not in Sacramento, but on the planet. It was a major crossroads in my life – I was 40 years old.

Although I had made new associations and even some tentative friendships, I never let anyone too close. At first, that space did what I needed it to do, but eventually I had to reconnect with the human race. I had to make new friends, from scratch, at my (ahem) advanced age. It wasn’t easy. Once my roots were set and I knew I would not be leaving anytime soon, those tentative friends worked their way closer and closer to my heart. I’d like to say that I let them in, but the reality is that many saw in me what I could not see in myself and they actually pushed their way through. As time went on, it became easier for me to establish bonds with others – but those early relationships laid groundwork that I could not do by myself.

Since moving here more than five years ago, I have made numerous friends that are very close to me… friends whom I love very much. Over my life, there have been many associations that I called friendships, but they were not. They were negotiated relationships – unspoken, yes, but negotiated all the same. They were based on a commodity – something usually (but not always) tangible that had some value. It was a barter system. Though there were some friends from days gone by that are friends in the truest sense of the word, it was difficult at the time to differentiate – the term friend was much more nebulous than it is now. Now I can tell the difference.

It doesn’t matter what I have, where I live, what I look like, what I drive or any of the other external things that I thought made me who I am. My friends today care about me – the inside me, the core me, the real me. And at the same time, it matters not one iota to me what their external circumstances might be. There is a connection – one that cannot be manufactured. And it is real. So Sacramento and the surrounding area is still not as beautiful as Truckee, but it has something that I cherish even more…

My friends.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Comcast

I planned today to write about a couple of businesses (Starbucks and a local coffee house) that share the same block in Sacramento. I have a couple of photos and both specific and universal observations to share. Since those ideas crystallized this morning, a recurring aggravation has once again gained prominence in my world. Although these little irritants are present in everyone’s life – and my life has its fair share – this one and the company that is responsible for it had the misfortune of invading my peace not once, but twice in just the last few days. When looking back on its history for the past year, it is impossible not to notice. This will not be a metered, objective look at all the many and sundry factors that may or may not be involved; there will be no benefits of any doubts. This is a rant… and the target is Comcast.

It is not unusual to have an extremely limited number of options when it comes to television service providers. In the Sacramento community of Fair Oaks, at least in the part of Fair Oaks where I live, there are three and only three choices: over the air; satellite; and cable. Over the air is the most limited, although with the recent conversion to digital TV, it is more robust than ever, but there are other limitations that make it the least desirable option. There are the two major satellite TV providers, Direct TV and Dish Network – both of which are highly competitive as far as television is concerned, but lack in other ways, i.e. Internet and telephone service. And then there is cable, and my only option is Comcast.

I have been a Comcast customer for more than five years. I didn’t have to shop around; they were and are the only choice. Until just more than a year ago, Comcast provided me with adequate cable television service and better than average Internet service. My home phone service was for many, many years provided by either AT&T or one of its close associates, namely Pacific Bell. Even after the break-up of AT&T, the relationship between the “Baby Bells” and the mother ship was a cozy one. Now largely reconstituted, AT&T does what the one time Pacific Bell-turned-SBC did – and more. As much as I disliked the pricing, the customer service and the arrogance of this communication giant, I must admit that the service was exemplary. In more than 20 years, I have lost telephone service only once – during and for two days after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. That is a pretty darned good track record.

When Comcast offered telephone service through its cable infrastructure, I concluded that AT&T pricing was seriously out of sync with its competition, and there were others besides Comcast. I finally decided to give their phone service a try. Bundled with my cable and Internet, the price was very attractive and I was assured that the service was every bit as good as AT&T. It is not, and the problems are not just limited to the reliability (or lack thereof) of Comcast’s telephone service. In just more than one year, Comcast’s telephone service (usually combined with Internet and sometimes cable TV) has gone down no less than nine times. Nine times. The length of the interruption has ranged anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. One time it was down for two solid days for no apparent reason. Although this is bad in and of itself, it doesn’t end there.

With virtually every interruption, I have called in (on my AT&T cell phone from outside my home because of less than spectacular cellular coverage from AT&T) and received a recording acknowledging a “service interruption” in my area and thanking me for my “patience” while they are fixing it. It further informs me that I need not hold on, that they know about it and are working on it. The first two or three times, I was content to be “patient” knowing that the problem would soon be resolved. And it usually was. If that had been it, however, I wouldn’t be writing this. On the many subsequent outages, I decided that a real person should know that I was no longer patient and needed to know what they planned to do about not only the outage in question, but also the series of such outages. On more than one occasion, the customer service representative could not verify what Comcast’s very own recording did just minutes (often, many minutes) before, insisting that the trouble was with my equipment.

Of course I knew better, but they either could not or would not verify it. In frustration, I would schedule an appointment, which, by the time it came around, would be unnecessary. The right hand never seemed to know what the left was doing. In one memorable instance, I was standing at the end of my street where the Comcast technician was working on the cable junction box, telling me “yes, we have a problem” while on my cell phone a customer service agent was telling me the exact opposite, again insisting the trouble must be inside my home. I will concede that for the last three or four outages, everyone seemed to be on the same page – at least everyone knew what the recording did.

That concession, however, is small indeed considering I would not even know it had the system become reliable. It has not and I am writing this after the second outage this week alone. It is not raining; there is no wind; it is a balmy 88 degrees outside; and no one has crashed into any infrastructure that I am aware of. Based on my experience alone, I can say without hesitation that Comcast’s system is unreliable. Period. Although I can get by without television and losing my Internet is not going to kill me, I have grown accustomed to reliable telephone service. And an effective argument could be made about its necessity. If my cellular service was reliable here, I wouldn’t even have home service, but it cannot be counted on in an emergency. My home phone should be… I know it can be. It has been.

Soon, Comcast, it will be again.