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12 07 2011

It’s funny: as I go along in my life, more and more I realize that things I learn seem to divide themselves neatly into chapters – units, if you will, like in a textbook, where during a few consecutive months all the areas of my life seem to converge on one subject and run into each other, conspiring to teach me a single lesson.

Right now the common thread is the tech industry. It’s weird: I get this fantastic internship at a PR company, and around the same time I watch “The Social Network” for the first time, and around the same time everyone starts talking about Google Plus as the next big thing. And around the same time I start running across articles about Google+ in my internship and seeing all this stuff about social networking platforms and how they compete.

I got a Google+ account, and I really can’t decide whether or not it’s going to catch on. The one thing which may turn the tide, I think, is the fact that all the data on Google+ is rescuable – meaning you can take anything from your profile and save it on your computer. That, in my opinion, is Google’s stroke of genius. The thing about Facebook is that our generation – every generation alive during its reign, really – has put a lot, and I mean a LOT, of time and energy into it. Facebook is a witness to our lives. Our statuses, our notes, our comments – they were all written with thought and care.

I’ve always wondered about the Internet as a medium of expression, and how it will pass the test of time. It’s kind of weird and also kind of scary when you think about how much time people spend lavishing attention on art which exists only on the Internet, and how impermanent that art is. Once a domain name goes inactive, that website disappears. It only takes a year or so. But the thing is, each of the websites that have commanded our attention have come and gone before we could get attached enough to care. MySpace came and went, Xanga came and went, et cetera, et cetera, whatever, whatever. But Facebook has been around for a long time – long enough for people to pause for a second before they abandon it. Not that they won’t abandon it. But the point is that websites aren’t going to stand the test of time like the Domesday Book or the Rosetta Stone, and very soon the world is going to start realizing that. Whether that works for or against Google+ remains to be seen. Will people abandon Facebook for something that claims to be more “permanent”? Or will people choose to stick with Facebook in order to satisfy a thirst for permanence?

At the end of the day, I think Facebook has one advantage over Google+ : it’s fun. Dividing all my friends into circles? It’s a chore. I still haven’t finished making my Google+ account and honestly, I don’t really feel like it. Can’t I just put my party photos on Limited Profile and be done with it? Must I decide which circles to select every time I want to say something witty about what I did today? I don’t want to decide who’s interested in my status about Pilates. In fact I don’t care if anyone’s interested, they’re damn gonna read it anyway because that’s how the Internet works.

I’m not sure if the Internet is ready to grow up yet. I’m not sure if I am, at least. A more mature social network like Google+ means less stalking, less pointlessness, less self-indulgence. Facebook is a titanic machine fueled by the twin human impulses of voyeurism and narcissism, and it’s going to take more than a good product to stop it.

But look at me, blabbering about good products and social networks. Yuck. If anything, this internship has taught me that I honestly find no enjoyment in the world every adult I grew up with is immersed in. The tech industry makes me feel boring, and old, and non-earthy, and out of touch with what’s really important in life. Whatever. It’s only until the end of the summer. If Google+ has taken over by then, maybe I’ll swear off the Internet altogether. Or maybe by then another titan of blogging websites will have overtaken WordPress and rendered these words obsolete.

I guess in a sense that makes blogging sort of Zen, like drawing lines on the beach that will be soon enough washed away into cyberspace. I have no problem with that being part of the art I create. Part.

But at the end of the summer I’m taking $12 an hour’s worth of sellout all the way to the bank and going to Europe, and I am packing in my luggage a leatherbound, bona fide travel journal. And not Google, not Facebook, not my internship nor any of the companies I’m learning about through it, will ever know or touch what I write within its pages.


I hate you, Apple. Sometimes.

23 01 2010

So this is the newest gadget coming out from Apple. Come on – I dare you to tell me you don’t want one. It’s slick. It’s cool. The problem is, I still don’t have a MacBook. As we speak, I am typing on a 6-year-old Hewlett-Packard PC roughly the size of a small suitcase. My monitor, another beast entirely, was purchased at a garage sale because the old one broke. It’s a gray 3x3x2-foot cube, and the screen occasionally turns green, at which point the only way to fix it is by slapping it. Why must you move so fast, Apple? My parents have promised to get me a MacBook when I get to college, but alas, I apparently will have just missed the cutting edge of technology if this orgasmic tablet thing follows through.

I realized yesterday that our school is down the street from Apple’s headquarters. I always knew where the headquarters were, and I guess I knew how to get there, but I never realized that I literally go to high school down the street from the international headquarters of the most powerful computer company in the world. It’s a huge, sprawling complex, all the buildings gleaming white as a MacBook Pro. They’re all built around a corporate ring road called “Infinite Loop”. It’s a dorky math joke – every loop is infinite, get it? Anyway, I’ve been inside it too (my best friend’s dad works there), and there, also, the architecture is pretty much redolent of what an Apple computer would be like if it were a building. There’s a grassy central square hidden from outside view (which I’ve never been in, but all the doors in the place are glass), and in the main lobby, there’s a poster with the famous words of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs is something of a god in the Silicon Valley. He and his partner, Steve Wozniak (also called “the Woz”), went to my very high school, where they were teased, pushed around and ostracized (there’s a reason why every school around here gets free Apple computers except for ours). They fought back by perpetrating a series of the most epic pranks ever to be seen at Homestead, and emerged with a nonconformist attitude with which they were ready to rock the world. I was going to paraphrase Steve Jobs’ famous quote, but it’s easy enough to find, so here it is. Imagine, enshrined in the ultramodern Apple lobby, a tableau with the following words:

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

That pretty much sums up Apple’s “personality” in a nutshell. And that, I think, explains a lot of their popularity. Well, not their popularity, but their cult following. Let’s face it: Apple has way too many devotees for an electronics company. You don’t see people groveling at the altar of Toshiba or searching specifically for products made by San Disk, but Apple is a religion, and too many people have been brainwashed into following its gospel. PC users (like myself) just buy whatever computer is cheapest, or fits their needs best; computers are a channel for other passions, not a passion in and of itself. But Apple users aren’t just Apple users, they’re Apple fans. They’re “Apple people”. They buy all of Apple’s products, and defend them to the end. And I have to admit: who wouldn’t fall in love with Apple? With their friendly little stores staffed by “geniuses” and their sleek, simple designs, Apple is the next hot thing in nonconformity.

Wait. Do I smell a whiff of irony? My point is, maybe Jobs and the Woz really are nonconformists. But the Apple corporation today is a big, bad, full-blown, competition-chomping business like any other, and is about as quaint, dorky and nonconformist as those American Eagle jeans with the fake rips and the weird squarish stains on them. Apple is not a round peg in a square hole, nor are it’s users. It’s a big, square peg ready to knock all the other pegs out of the way and look cool while doing it. Today’s model of the average Apple user is a high-powered executive, or a cool hipster with a few hundred bucks to spend on the latest iPhone – not an average Joe, and definitely not anyone who can afford being a round peg. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But Apple, its employees, and certainly its many disciples in the valley that worships it, need to at least accept that as the truth.

I find it incredibly ironic that Jobs and Wozniak, the quintessential outsiders, have created a worldwide hierarchy of insiders based on wealth. Apple is good, but you pay for that quality – hence, my blocky, two-year-old Zune. And I have fielded no end of comments from people asking me why I don’t just buy an iPod or iTouch. No, not just comments – complaints. People tell me over and over that Apple products are just the best, I just have to get one, it’s just stupid to have anything else. They usually don’t even have many good reasons. It’s the ultimate manifestation of peer pressure gone bad. Even when I explain that I can’t afford an iPod, they continue to wear away at me about how I really should buy one anyway, as if the “round peg” quality of Apple products gives them a God-given right to harp on me without having to wonder if they’re being inconsiderate.

But it’s worse than that: Apple, as a company, is deliberately erudite, selfish and exclusive, because none of their products are compatible with anything else. When you buy an iPod, you have to buy an iDock, an iCharger, an iStereo, and, in short, you are lured into becoming a slave of the Apple empire. In the rest of the computer world, things are fairly interchangeable –  a generic MP3 dock will fit any MP3 player, including an iPod. But needless to say, everyone in the universe has an iDock rather than a generic stereo, meaning that I can never plug my Zune in anywhere. As a result, I’m left sitting alone in the dark corner of the MP3 world while all the cool kids play music from their shiny iPods. I’m being way overdramatic about this, but I have to drive my point home (my round peg, so to speak).

I know several people whose parents work for Apple, and they’re all humongous douchebags about it. Whenever I mention Apple products they start rattling off about the newly-minted, high-tech equipment they got for free for their mommies and daddies, shamelessly pressuring me to buy this equipment too because it’s simply the best. One guy I know gets gets free laptops from his dad and resells them to his friends, making thousands of dollars per year, which he keeps for himself. He’s never worked a day in his life. I highly doubt that this new generation of cocky, spoiled Apple-users and offspring of Apple employees would have showed mercy to a pair of geeky “round pegs” if they had been at Homestead during those days. Was this your intention, Jobs and Wozniak? Is there any truth to that inspiring saying about the misfits and rebels, or do you fully understand that you’re a pair of ruthless businessmen taking advantage of the fact that people see you as underdogs?

If Jobs and Wozniak are aware of this fact, then that’s that; far be it from me to single-handedly convince corporate America to have a heart. But if they wanted to change things, they could start by making iDocks operate by plugging into the headphone jack of an iPod, not the USB cable. They could make Apple computers more affordable, or at least create a bigger range of choices for different price ranges. They could reduce the massive amounts of volatile e-waste they dump into third-world countries (Apple is also the least environmentally-friendly computer company in the Silicon Valley, by the way). And they could come off their high horse about keeping so much information secret and making everything Mac plug exclusively into everything else Mac.

Apple is at the top of the computer industry. They’re going to stay there, even if they give their followers some slack to buy products outside the Apple Empire that will still be compatible. And what’s more, they should use their power for the future of technology. Making hardware and software incompatible with that of other companies is detrimental to the future of the computer science industry as a whole. Why not work together with other computer companies, at least to some degree, and use Apple technology to enrich the global pool of knowledge and not just the coffers of one organization?

Anyway, I’ve rambled too long and too angrily. The only point of this is to tell Apple worshipers to shut the f**k up about how great their products are. If you are an Apple user, you do own one of the best computers on the planet, and you can be proud of it if you want. But you are not a round peg in a square hole. You’re just another slave to the machine. Get used to it.

November 2008 editorial

18 09 2009

Originally published in The Epitaph of Homestead High School.

With the election coming up soon, it can be no secret that California is one of the most liberal states in the nation. As the home of John Muir and Castro Street, Haight-Ashbury and hippies, ours is rightly named the “State of Fruits and Nuts.”

With this background, then, it should be surprising that so many Homestead students are involved in the pastime of hunting. In the state where it was first made cool to hug a tree, it’s odd to imagine Homestead students tramping through the woods with their trusty gun and camouflage vest. Hunting is stereotyped as a typically Republican activity: it’s popular in the Republican stronghold of the South, and hunters often support Republican policies that favor second-amendment rights. Let’s not forget vice president Dick Cheney’s gun antics last year, when he was widely ridiculed for accidentally shooting his friend on a hunting trip. If Senator John McCain is elected president, then VP nominee Sarah Palin will continue the tradition of sharp-shooting vice-presidents: Palin has been known to hunt caribou in her native Alaska.

Perhaps this incongruous quirk can be seen as a good thing for the political climate at Homestead. We must remember that living in a politically homogenous state has its disadvantages. When nobody’s there to disagree with you, it can be tempting to get out of hand and fight zealously for causes that you’re not totally informed about. Political awareness is weaned on arguments, and a state of people who all agree with one another does not cultivate strong political thinkers. In fact, one of the most valuable functions of the American two-party system is the way the parties counter-balance each other, keeping the public opinion on any one issue from ever being extremist.

This isn’t to say that Homestead’s hunters give a Republican tinge to the school. We’re still Californians, and there’s no doubt that our school has Obama supporters oozing out of the cracks, for better or for worse. But it’s heartening to see at least one controversial issue on which Homestead students split from the liberal norm. Of course there are people at this school who may not like the practice of hunting. But if we were all against it, our school wouldn’t be very ideologically diverse – and that’s never a good thing.

Just like the two-party system in America keeps debates going strong, so Homestead students of varying viewpoints keep controversies alight. That’s an important part of democracy, and it’s good to see it alive and well in our little microcosm of the nation. In the end, we would do well to remember during the upcoming election that Democrats and Republicans really aren’t all that different. Homestead’s hunters help us break some of the stereotypes of liberals. Just as many of these rough-and-tumble woodsman may be voting no on Prop. 8 or campaigning for a woman’s right to choose, we should all remember that somewhere in the South, plenty of Republicans worth their salt aren’t afraid to hug a tree.

Consider that during the next few days while hunting for the right candidate. And on Nov. 4, may the best man win.


29 08 2009

I’ve come to a sort of epiphany about homophobes. For those who don’t know, a “homophobe” is (in a literal sense) someone who is afraid of homosexuals. In the gay rights movement, the word is used to describe anyone prejudiced, bigoted, anti-gay or just plain uncomfortable about same-sex couples. But for the first time, I’m starting to think that the word is over-used. This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt the gay rights movement goes to excess (pulling down Yes on 8 signs, for example, or being sticklers about the thoughtless but harmless phrase “that’s so gay”). But in the wake of the argument over Prop 8 (the California amendment banning gay marriage), it really strikes me that not everyone arguing the other side was a homophobe. In fact, it would be a slur to assume so. I’ve become fascinated, then, with defining what a homophobe really is. I think the word has certainly grown beyond its original meaning of someone who is afraid of gays, and far be it from me to invent a new vocabulary for the various types of anti-gay people it now describes. But in an effort to avoid heaping all anti-gay people unfairly together, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of homophobes. Also, I’ve realized that I can stand someone who’s one type and not the other as long as his sentiments are in moderation. I’ll call the two types (rather pompously, I know) de facto homophobes and de jure homophobes. Let me explain what each one is.

1. De jure homophobes are people who are comfortable having everyday interactions with gay people, but for whatever reason (religious, moral, etc.), they have made a conscious choice to vote against gay rights legislation. It’s rare, but it happens. I’ve met a few of these, people who voted yes on Prop 8 but had the maturity to argue with me about it, and to still be my friend once we agreed to disagree. I respect the hell out of these people and I love, love arguing with them (although of course some of their arguments drive me insane).

2. De facto homophobes are more accurately described under the term “homophobe” – people who are just instinctively uneasy with the idea of homosexuality and gay relationships. They’re probably neutral on gay marriage; morally, they don’t care, and they won’t actively campaign against it. But if gays are near them, they may insult them or just plain avoid them; they probably feel more manly than gays, and are just plain grossed out by even the faintest thought of being gay themselves. Now, this may sound like typical homophobia, but it can be mild and insidious as well. It’s a weird example, but I would classify my best friend as a de facto homophobe. He’s a fanatic Democrat and campaigned tirelessly for No on 8. But although he makes a conscious choice to be pro-gay, in some way I think real homosexual activity makes him queasy. It’s an awkward situation. He gets defensive if people accuse him of being homophobic, and even if he is, I can’t blame him for how he feels. To the contrary, I am in awe of what he does every day: he consciously fights his instinctive disgust, because he knows that he owes it to me and to an entire oppressed social class. I could never express to him how much gratitude I have for that. But the fact remains: he is a homophobe. When a friend makes totally joking gay advances on him, he flips out; when he watches “Watchmen” he can’t stand to look at a naked Dr. Manhattan for more than a few seconds lest it undermine his masculinity. So, we have another form of harmless homophobia. Or is it?

I think that in their pure form, both of these two categories are fairly harmless. Which one is more hurtful? I’d have to say de facto; disgust is insulting and emotionally charged, while it’s easy to turn the other cheek to cold logic. But which one is more ultimately harmful to gays? Probably de jure, since they each have one vote against gay rights which will actually affect change.

However, ultimately, I think the only really bad homophobes are people who fall into both categories. Someone who’s queasy about gays, like my friend, is harmless; but someone who is so freaked out by gays that they take an active de jure stance against them is going to cause problems. These are the types of people who perpetrate hate crimes. Similarly, someone who is so morally opposed to homosexuality that they can’t bring themselves to interact with homosexuals is much more deserving of the term “bigot” then someone who has enough moderation to respect the other side.

I suppose I wrote this note mostly for pro-gay people. The moral is, keep everything in moderation, or else discussions can never take place. I’m proud of the ways in which I interact with borderline homophobes, because in doing so I reduce stereotypes and help foster the values of agreeing to disagree. I may be a homosexual, but I’m a writer first, and to me, freedom of speech – even to the freedom to tell me why I shouldn’t be allowed to marry – is a sacred American right that I’m proud to uphold. So, you militant gay activists: don’t hammer borderline homophobes into the ground without getting to know them. Talk to them, and if you think that they fit into one of the harmless categories above, cut them some slack. Because if we have the gall to judge others as bigots, how can we in clean conscience ask others not to judge us as faggots?

Don’t get rid of summer homework

10 07 2009

Editorial first published in The Epitaph of Homestead High School, May 2009

by Ben Lilly

Are the balmy days of summer sacred? Summer vacation is there so that beleaguered high school students can finally hang out with their friends and catch up on sleep. Unfortunately, we’re often nailed with a list of homework for next year’s classes before the year has even begun. As much as we love our summers, sometimes it’s an accepted fact of life that the only way to succeed is to go above and beyond. For that reason the administration should not limit teachers to only giving homework during the year, as they may do for the 2009-2010 school year.

Although it seems like a given through much of our lives that the school may not touch summer, this is simply not the case. Some public elementary schools, like Portal, operate on a year-round schedule with one major break every season, instead of a summer break. The law commands that we be in school for a minimum of days per year, but not a maximum. Therefore, the school has every right to extend its ruling over us during summer. The school has the right to hold us as long as it feels it needs to in order to teach us satisfactorily.

There are plenty of options for those who truly have a problem with being told to do things over the summer. Students can choose to go to a private school. While not everyone can afford such a measure, it’s always there for those who feel imprisoned by the public school system. There are plenty of less drastic measures as well. For one thing, summer homework is rarely given the very day we’re released from school. It’s usually given with a few weeks or even months left in the year. There’s no such thing as summer homework which must be done over the summer, because there’s always an opportunity to finish ahead of time.

The easiest thing for students who don’t want summer homework to do is simply to not take the classes that require it. The fact is, summer homework is only required for exceptionally challenging AP and Honors classes. Classes such as AP U.S. History (APUSH), AP Chemistry and AP English are Homestead institutions; taking one of them is something of a rite of passage. It’s no crime for these classes to expect something extra from their students. Summer homework lets the prospective students know right away the seriousness of what they’re doing.

In a practical sense, also, it’s necessary for some challenging classes to give summer homework because all the material can’t be covered in the year. APUSH students, for example, have to outline the first five chapters of the textbook over the summer. Although at first this seems like a heavy load, it’s nothing when one considers the fact that an APUSH student will eventually complete over forty outlines. The class would have to move at a breakneck speed to finish all forty outlines between the beginning of school and the AP test in May. Any APUSHer who’s lived through a two-outline week can attest that doing summer work is vastly preferable to speeding up the pace. Other classes, such as AP Government/Economics, need the summer reading to give students a context of the subject matter covered in the class. Such work doesn’t fit anywhere into the curriculum of the year, but if it was never done then the class wouldn’t be nearly as valuable or powerful.

During our childhoods, summer was reserved for carefree frolicking, but unfortunately those days are over. Students who take a light course load can lengthen their innocence a bit, but the fact remains that summer has to end – whether in high school, at a challenging university or on the first day of a nine-to-five desk job. Ultimately, getting summer homework isn’t a death sentence. There’s no such thing as a life free of responsibility. So how painful could it be to read one more chapter of The Poisonwood Bible after you load the dishwasher and make your bed? Those who have a grasp of time management will be able to finish all their summer homework, without ruining their vacation. And if you’re going to get summer work eventually, learning to do it painlessly might be one of the most useful lessons high school can give.