Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Aurora Observations

                                                                          Karl Gehring - The Denver Post

A week ago this past Friday I was engaged in my normal routine of getting ready for work. This includes getting up at 4:30 AM. One part of this routine is taking a look at the news online. There really wasn't anything of significance on the local and national news sites I look at regularly.

It wasn't until I got in the car and turned on KDKA, and John Shumway teased about "complete coverage of the tragedy in Colorado coming up", that I knew something significant had happened. There were about 5 anxious minutes of driving, wondering about the where and what out there (my son lives in western Colorado), before the initial blurb was broadcast about yet another active shooter incident, this time in the large Denver suburb of Aurora

When I got to work, I got a couple of questions from co-workers about what I knew about the incident and the location involved. I'm somewhat familiar with the area, and have driven past the location of the incident on I-225 many times. I'm familiar with how public safety operations in the immediate area, and across metro Denver, are conducted. A former co-worker, who has been a dispatcher at the Aurora dispatch center for many years, was interviewed as part of the initial media coverage. 

Fortunately, none of the friends I have living in the metro Denver area were involved or anywhere near the scene of the shooting. Prayers have been going out for those impacted, including the responders.

Having had the time to take in some of the reporting and commentary over the last week, I've identified some points that seem to either connect or contrast with conditions or situations in the Pittsburgh area and in Pennsylvania.

1. The general public's understanding of this tragedy has been enhanced by comprehensive coverage in the Denver media, especially the availability of recorded radio traffic during the incident. KUSA-TV tied this audio in with some excellent interviews of the dispatchers involved, providing the public with a look at the human side of the job that doesn't get seen very often..or often enough.

The Denver media obtained the radio traffic either from the comprehensive hobbyist site radioreference.com or similar websites. This site also offers recorded archives to those who pay for memberships to support the site's operations.

There is streaming scanner audio available online for all of southwest Pennsylvania, through Radio Reference, other sites, or smartphone apps. There are also recordings of radio traffic from the Aurora shooting posted to YouTube

These recordings continue to drive reporting about the incident, including reports about the lack of ambulances at the scene in the initial minutes, resulting in many of the victims arriving at local ERs in the backs of police cruisers.

Also intriguing are some extraordinary attempts by prosecutors and the courts to lock down access to court records and involved officials. These attempts are being challenged by numerous media organizations. 

The use of these types of recordings by journalists is occurring more frequently for many recent critical incidents around the country. This would appear to be a potentially important resource for media outlets in Pennsylvania, since the official recordings are not considered open records here as they are in other states, including Colorado. I've written about this disparity previously. 

I haven't seen any major print or broadcast media outlet in our area post links to or utilize online scanner audio as part of their reporting. To try and ascertain the local media's awareness of this resource, or their policies regarding its use, I sent email inquiries to the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review editorial departments, as well as the news desks of three Pittsburgh TV stations. None of these media outlets chose to reply. 

If we can say for the purposes of argument that accountability and transparency in government results in a better level of service provision for all citizens, then a lot of what's happening in Aurora in the aftermath of this tragedy should be something that citizens interested in reform here should be reviewing. This is particularly important when looking to expand and improve the availability of government documents and records to citizens and the news media. 

After all, it wasn't that long ago that the Pittsburgh area experienced its own mass shooting tragedy. How would a more comprehensive approach to reporting and information gathering by local media and others improve our community's understanding of what transpired? Is there a need for greater openness or access to public records? How can the public interest be competently served?

2. There seem to be some eerie similarities between the Aurora shooting suspect, James Holmes, and John Shick, the Western Psych shooter. Both appear to have been intelligent, excellent students with impressive credentials, from seemingly stable home environments and possessing ample financial resources.

It wasn't until this past Friday, when reports surfaced that Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist, that the Post-Gazette ventured a comparison between the two men, apparently becoming the first mainstream media to do so. 

There are some questions that come to mind about these two unfortunate individuals:
What are the social or other factors that contributed to the mindset that led to their actions?

Did the use or abuse of prescription medications or illegal substances possibly contribute to their isolation, or other problems that manifested themselves in their actions?  

How did two men that showed such promise in their academic life suffer such a descent into irrational and violent behavior? 

I hope that some investigation and answers will be forthcoming, and not just to satisfy the prurient interest of the TMZ or Smoking Gun crowd.

Can we as a society learn more about what is causing these people to act the way they did, and learn from it? I hope so...

3. As one would expect, this incident has generated lots of debate about gun laws and gun rights. I can see the point about the right to bear arms if one chooses to, but I have to wonder out loud how much arms a citizen needs to be able to bear to 'protect'  themselves, and how much involvement the government should have in the process of tracking the sale of such weapons. There has been much commentary online about the regulatory hypocrisy when it comes to guns - the attached photo is but one example.

What really concerns me is the lack of discussion about improving both community awareness of recognizing the signs of potentially dangerous behavior, and/or improving access to mental health and crisis intervention services, regardless of social or economic status. 

It almost seems as if trying to ratchet down gun laws further, regardless of the opposition, is an easy way out compared to taking a comprehensive look at ourselves. What is about our society that causes promising young people like this to go crazy? How do we do something about it?

We got a taste of this locally last week, when a Leetsdale man was charged with drug and weapons offenses after police discovered an apartment full of knives, chemicals used in explosives manufacture, and notebooks with some interesting entries that police claim may constitute malevolent intent.  

Some of the commenters to the above Patch story seemed not only defensive of the suspect, but hostile toward the police that investigated and took action. Leetsdale Police Chief James Santucci expressed surprise that someone with Zachary Clifton's alleged propensities could exist "under the radar".

Some would advocate turning up the range and sensitivity of that "radar", through legislation and enforcement activities designed to catch people before they act - a sort of pre-crime detection strategy.

As with any discussion about these kinds of issues, emphasis will need to be on improving awareness, assuring diligence in service provision, and protecting the individual liberties of law-abiding citizens. Despite all of the clamor and cries for justice and protection that seem to exist in the immediate aftermath of something like this, we must place trust in the checks and balances of a free society. 

We also need to help and care for each other. 

4. One of the hallmarks of that free society, especially in the digital age, is the diversity and seeming universality of information, including entertainment products. As the entertainment industry, specifically the film industry, is inexorably tied to this latest tragedy, I found and have remembered several links to information, opinion, and stories that may help understand these concepts further.

Film critic and American man of letters Roger Ebert wrote an excellent column for the New York Times shortly after the tragedy.

Controversial filmmaker and activist Michael Moore has been focused on the issue of guns in America since his Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbinewas released. He also wrote a blog post after the Aurora incident, referencing the same salient points that he made nearly 10 years ago. He also provides a link where you can watch the whole film for free online. It's worth it.

Also check out The Lives of Others and Minority Report for an illustration of how we as a society can degrade the cause of freedom through fear, control, and intolerance.

There's lots to think about, probably more than we have time for every day. The important thing is not to be afraid. Easier said than done, but essential to maintaining our way of life, and our freedom in challenging times.

Enjoy your August.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Fortune Cookie Files

A close-up of my wallet, AKA the file cabinet, before a recent cleaning.

As part of my recent commitment to clean some things up, I started with one of the more essential components to the existence of most men - the wallet.
As one of the attached photos clearly demonstrates, I have a lot of stuff in my wallet. I'm the kind of guy that likes to have a lot of resources available - aside from the usual required pieces of plastic such as ID and a credit/debit card, I have loyalty cards (GetGo, Sheetz, Bottom Dollar, etc.), library cards (Sewickley and two in Colorado), postage stamps, a personal memento from my wife, a card-sized copy of the Bill of Rights, and space for coupons and receipts to accumulate. By the end of the month, I've got quite the collection. 
Despite medical warnings to the contrary, I like a wallet I can keep a lot of things in. Until I was about 25 I carried one of those big trucker's wallets, chain and all.
One thing that I've collected over the years stems from an affinity for Asian cuisine, and the omnipresent fortune cookie that comes with every meal. The fortunes themselves have little to do with the actual food or restaurant - truth be told, the best Asian cooking I've ever had was made by my sister-in-law in Oklahoma. 
Truth also be told, the fortune cookie is an American invention, and by Japanese immigrants to boot. According to Wikipedia - 
The exact provenance of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century, basing their recipe on a traditional Japanese cracker. Fortune cookies have been summarized as being "introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately...consumed by Americans."
Some of the fortune cookies that have graced my plate or take-out bag serve as a reminder or an admonition that I find valuable. These usually sit behind my drivers license until I clean and re-organize my wallet; they then get taped to old business cards and get placed in one specific spot for future reference. 
One timely and important piece of advice, taped to a monitor at
Allegheny County 9-1-1. Haven't had any take-out from that end of town yet.
There is a fortune cookie app available on Facebook. I will not provide a link to it - I like people too much to do that. As much as I'm interested in the random relevance or kitschy clairvoyance of fortune cookies, I don't like them enough to subject myself to anything from a Facebook app. For those Facebook friends in love with Farmville and similar time sponges, forgive me.
Sounds good to me, but I'm afraid that the money I save by not
buying more stuff will go toward more Chinese food...
It's also important to understand that these aphorisms are just that - an original thought in a concise or memorable form. They can be fun to read, dwell upon, even genuinely reflect on if the spirit moves you - but they are still mostly just the product of mere mortals. For example, how much stock would you place in a fortune that said "fracking fluid is high in essential nutrients"?
Remembering that you can get your own custom fortunes fairly easily nowadays further muddies the gene pool of mysticism and intrigue that can sometimes occupy the mind of the fortune recipient possessing an overactive imagination.
For me, the clarity present in scripture can be a healthy antidote to this confusion, even if some religious writers assert  (and I'm learning elsewhere) that most of the Bible isn't meant to be consumed in bite-size pieces. There are real and virtual fortune cookies available for this purpose.
You can even get instructions online for how to make your own fortune cookies with verses from LDS teachings. Although it's unclear whether or not the finished product would be suitable for church-recommended food storage, they would most likely be ideal for your next Mitt Romney fundraiser. 
So check out some of the samples I've collected. I know that some people also enjoy the language lesson and/or the lucky numbers that are on the back, but that's not what I've focused on. Perhaps I missed winning the Powerball because of it. Oh well..
Just as quickly as that order of Vegetable Lo Mein is forgotten, so may a lot of the fodder posing as advice or predictions, pinched en masse into rudimentary dough and baked with a hint of vanilla. 
But who knows what significance something so seemingly insignificant can have on the life of a single individual, and therefore on other individuals that person interacts with? Who's to say what the importance of the word "Rosebud", for example,  has on the psyche of one person, and possibly the collective psyche of a nation? How about the word "change" or "hope", for that matter?
Can fortune cookies be a metaphor or delivery system for American freedom? 

Some insight into this year's presidential race.
Have a good week ahead.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Blogito Ergo Sum..

Roughly translated, "I blog, therefore I am". Or am I? Exploring the recent newsworthy notion that we are not all that 'special', and how this relates to the unique narcissism of the information age.

My goodness, it's July already.

As expected, last month's commencement season was not without its share of surprises. My last post, which was in part about school district policies for participation in these activities, was still in the completion stages when David McCullough Jr., a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, stepped to the podium at that school's commencement ceremony. 

Mr. McCullough, one of 5 children of the historian and writer David McCullough, raised numerous eyebrows, though not as many hackles as anticipated, with a humorous, yet impassioned speech that made the same point several times to the Wellesley Class of 2012:

You are not special.

While the initial context of this statement might seem like outright blasphemy to those of us Pittsburgh area neo-boomers who were raised on Mister Rogers, the focus of Mr. McCullough's remarks (and I really recommend reading the whole thing) seemed to be on those who took this concept and ran with it like crazy - think Fred Rogers on steroids. "Here comes Mr. McFeeley with a very special delivery".  For example - 
If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. 
We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  
Credit: Emmanuel Chaunu
Mr. McCullough's observations point to an increasingly disturbing trend that I've seen not only in our society, but in myself as well. We're often content with doing things just enough to make it look good, or worse, seem more concerned with how something is perceived instead of how it really is. 

Controlling the message is often more important than solving the problem. How things work (or don't) in the real world is often secondary to how it will be perceived in the virtual representation of those involved, be it a blog, social media, or another type of media presence. Another contributing factor to the confusion is how much of the gory details can be compressed and/or excised to fit within the 140-character limit of a tweet. 

I don't feel it appropriate to let everyone know where I am, or what I am doing or thinking all the time. I have a Twitter account, but its use is infrequent. I won't go anywhere near Foursquare, and haven't even ventured a look at Pinterest. 

I am fairly active on Facebook. I use it to stay connected with friends and family, and share things I find or have sent to me by others. 

My wife sees these things, adapts those that she finds useful to her specific needs, but largely dismisses the nature of these changes in our society and culture as being too fast and superficial for anyone's own good. As someone who has embraced these capabilities, and the information and communication that is instantaneously available as a result, this sometimes puts us at loggerheads over the amount of time spent at the laptop, or looking at the smartphone.

She's got a point. In deference to her, this is one reason that I don't post as much as I used to. I'm too dedicated to being comprehensive, to not just gloss over a topic, or liberally populate my posts with references to other people's work.

Interfacing with the virtual world is merely a tool for information gathering and connecting us together. It does not replace genuine accomplishment, true understanding of the viewpoints and feelings of others, or the inner peace and joy that one can find in the arms of someone they love. It does not replace satisfaction with the essential joys or needs of life - no matter what some researcher at Harvard has to say about it. 

I am a news junkie, have been since long before there was an Internet. I'm interested in what is going on around me, and how it relates to the challenges of daily living. Combined with my radio hobby, this has provided me with both a career and avocation, along with a skill set that can be useful in certain situations. 

I've been following the multiple large and destructive wildfires burning in various areas across Colorado. This is perhaps one of the greatest contrasts between here and there, that being the sheer scope of the disaster and the property loss involved. The total area burned in just one of these fires equates to nearly 20 percent of the land area of Allegheny County. Never mind comprehending it - how do you deal with it?

This is a mental exercise at the core of my profession, which at times occupies a few too many of my remaining neurons to suit some people. 

Leslie and I recently watched the 1959 film The Diary of Anne FrankI thought about what may have motivated Miss Frank to so diligently write of the experience of living in hiding, and of her own changes as a human being, with the presumed intent of the writer for no one else to ever see it.

Considering the volumes of words that have been written about the Holocaust, the impact of this one small volume speaks much to the power of a singular voice, one powerful experience, to alter our perception of history forever. Apply this concept to today's millions who now leave their electronic footprints, images, and opinions for all to see in the form of social media, blogs, and other online fodder, and it's easy to see the potential for lots of diamonds in all that virtual "rough".

Anne Frank was special

Numerous other writers, scholars, and philosophers across history have documented their observations in a similar manner. One contemporary example isEric Hoffer. "The Longshoreman Philospher" was a voracious reader, and also a habitual note-writer. Hoffer's personal, daily writings were undertaken with a notebook that Hoffer reportedly carried most of his waking hours.

These volumes numbered over 130 when Hoffer died in 1983 - they are currently archived at Stanford University, and have been largely unexamined. Hoffer, who was self-taught and did most of his reading and studying at public libraries, did what many other informal learners do to keep track of what they find out, or what they think about. One wonders how Hoffer would leverage today's Internet and library resources to accomplish a similar end.

Eric Hoffer was special.

As one blog pointed out rather well, these types of "learner's journals" can be invaluable even in the electronic age. Data storage methods of the recent past seem to have gone the way of the 8-Track player:
If you had an early TRS-80 (computer) from Radio Shack, and stored all your journal entries on its cassette drive you’d be hard pressed to access any of it now just 25 years later.
Indeed - a lot of my files from the 80's and 90's are on 3 1/2-inch "floppy" disks. Those drives are hard to come by nowadays. I have lots of stuff on paper that is admittedly more accessible to me. This includes several volumes of notes on graph paper - the little squares facilitate both page organization and doodling.

With the advent of the Internet, the ability to store and retrieve data "in the cloud" has made it easier to access and reference this kind of collective work without the risk of loss due to fire or other physical disaster. Nearly 6 years of blog posts are easily referenced - including one from last year that paradoxically extols the virtues of real books versus the electronic variety.

If the weblog is for me the repository for most of my recent writing, then Facebook serves as my learner's journal. At least for now.

A line from the Mister Rogers remix keeps popping up in my head - 
Imagine every person you meet is different                                                  
from every other person in the world
You got it right there, Fred. The discovery of the person within is just as important. 

As the second half of 2012 begins, I'm trying to focus on improving those tangible, precious things that transcend this virtual representation of the same.

There are relationships to nurture, to try and make the most of every day with those around me. To give these people the full measure of my attention when I'm with them. 

There are books to read, ones that smell of dust and decaying paper - some are those trade paperbacks that fit so well into my hand. 

There are tasks to complete, many related to the enhancement of living space, the removal of clutter, and other essential tasks that have too often been pushed around by procrastination. As an old classmate said once, this can be fun - just wait and see.

Enough fun for now. It's time to get organized, and for me this means lists of tasks, steps, and plans, all on paper, not in a smartphone. There are still plenty of graph paper notebooks laying around to get this process off the ground.

I guess this is a Declaration of Independence of sorts. Not that I was dependent, just a little too distracted.  

Siri, initiate self-destruct sequence. Just kidding...

Have a great Independence Day holiday.