I Was the Victim of Voter Fraud

Awhile back I posted a nifty little poll on my blog asking you, my dear readers, what you would like me to write about.

You voted.  Thank you.

I made sure not to check the results until the poll closed, but the current results were displayed to voters, and so my readers who I also know in real life kept reporting back to me that the winning category was overwhelmingly “stuff about life: relationships/friendships/making-your-way-in-the-world.  maybe kinda self-helpy but hopefully not in an obnoxious way”.

This was not necessarily the news I had wanted to hear, but I had gotten myself into this ‘tell me what to write’ mess and I would deal with the consequences – no matter what they were.  Sure maybe after a decade in grad school I wanted someone to hear my anthropological take on politics and culture, but whatevs.

So imagine my surprise when I logged on to see my polling results and found the following:

The votes were pretty much split evenly between three categories: stuff about life, culture & sh*t, and politics & the world.  This was good, if unexpected, news.

More surprising to me was the fact that somebody had voted for me to ‘please stop writing’.  I figured it was one of those legendary internet trolls I kept hearing about.  But it bugged me.  Like back in the day when I was teaching and I would get 29 great teaching evaluations from students but the 1 evaluation that was negative – or just didn’t sing my praises as ‘like, the best teacher I’ve had’ – would gnaw at me for days.

So I did a little digging and I was able to obtain the IP address for the user who had cast that fateful vote (welcome to the internet, people!).  And then I called a tech-savvy friend of mine – I wanted to know if I gave her an IP address if she could find out more about who it was.  It wasn’t like I was going to freak out on the person, I just wanted to know.

And when she called me back she fessed up.  SHE was the one who had placed that single vote in that category because she needed to ascertain how much weight any one vote had.  This would make it easier for her to skew the results of my poll.  Why you ask?  Because, indeed, the ‘stuff about life’ category was leading the votes, and my friend wanted to make sure that she didn’t “have to always read about relationships and bullshit”, so she had voted in the poll like 20 times to make sure there was an even distribution into two other categories as well.

This was my fault, it turns out, because I hadn’t set the poll settings to limit one vote per IP address – although this same friend is internet-smart enough to be able to cast her vote through ghost host IPs.  Though I doubt she would have put in the time to do that.  But the point is, she could have if she wanted to.

So what’s my point here?  Well, there’s two really.  First, this whole poll and IP address fishing expedition kept me thinking about what Liz Lemon famously called the interwebs.  If you read my post about the film Disconnect (if you didn’t, you can read it here) you’ll know I’ve been thinking about privacy and identity in the age of the internet.  Given the recent revelations about NSA collecting internet data on US citizens this topic seems more timely than ever, so you can expect a post or two about that.

Second, I did hear you, and if you really want to read “stuff about life” then I’ll write some stuff about life.  Because I’m here to make you happy.

One thing though (and I kind of can’t believe I’m quoting Ani DiFranco here, but hey – it’s a good quote): “art may imitate life, but life imitates TV”.  This is something I think is really interesting – so simultaneously important and outmoded – television.  I know, even the word makes me think of some Pleasantville old-timey black and white with rainbow ears and knobs TV.

But at its heart, TV shows are stories – and, from the time we are old enough to “see spot run” we learn about our world from stories.  We learn how to make sense of this world through stories.  And we inevitable make up our stories own along the way.

All that is my long-winded way of telling you that – heads up peeps – I’m gonna write about TV.  And movies.  And stories.

But I’ll write some ‘stuff about life’ too.

One rule though, no crying.  There is no crying in this blog.  This is a cry-free zone.

See you again, soon.

I promise.


“Disconnect” – Identity, Surveillance & Mediated Realities

Michael Bluth (aka Jason Bateman) gets serious online.

Michael Bluth (aka Jason Bateman) gets serious online.

The opening moments of the new film Disconnect are confusing enough to reel you in, as you try to make sense of the scenes unfolding before you.  With the help of a naked woman in an animal mask, stacks of pumped up kicks, a cool P.O.V. shot from a camera mounted under a skateboard, and (wait for it…) urine in a protein shake, writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin get their hooks in the audience quickly – and then dare you to look away.  You won’t be able to.

Billed online as “A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world”, with the tagline ‘Look Up’– Disconnect seems, at first glance, to be a call to the audience to pay attention to the relationships and human beings who share our immediate physical environment (I mean, how often have we kept company with the tops of peoples heads as they play on their phones?).  At it’s most basic and overt level the film is about how technology brings us together and pulls us apart – but that’s not really anything new or different (nor is it the most important message of the movie). One of the things about Disconnect that is different – or rather, one of the more captivating aspects of the film – is how these moments of rupture and repair are authentically captured and conveyed in a way that makes the audience complicit in the downfall or redemption of the characters.  This strategy works to further blur the line between truth (the audience) and fiction (the film) in a way that often mirrors our virtual experiences.

Allow me to explain: In nearly every scene where a character is texting/Facebook messaging/I.M.ing/etc. we are spared the typical over-the-shoulder P.O.V. shot where the character is off to the side while the camera focuses in on the computer or telephone screen.  More often, in this film, the characters are shot head on, looking down (of course) at the computer or phone, with the words they are typing written out in real time on the left side of the movie screen.  So the words are – literally – inscribed onto the film itself – adding one more nicely fit layer to the onion of mediated versus unmediated interactions that the audience must peel away.  And this is part of how the audience is made complicit: we must actually watch the words as they come up on the screen, as if we ourselves were the one composing – or getting – the message.  In this way we are forced to be both the sender and the receiver, as the words unfold on the screen and the director alternates head-on shots of each of the two communicating characters.  It’s a nice little cinematic sleight-of-hand – a way of making us identify with the characters who are each struggling with their own identities (both in real life and online) even as the lines between these identities become necessarily blurred and crossed.

And identity is important in the film.  We get to see how characters (and by extension -we ourselves) create online identities – like in the scene where two girls are reviewing photos on their computer, selecting which images to put online (which ones will ‘fit’ their online identity), and one character admonishes the other as she walks out of the room saying, “don’t post that picture!” – a phrase I’ll wager you’ve both said and heard many times.  In this way, we have some level of consciousness about our online identities – and control over them – in ways we often do not in real life.  I believe that the film addresses what happens when we lose control over our mediated identities as a means to get us to meditate on our real world identities – and the way these play out in our relationships to one another as husband/wife/daughter/son/mother/father/brother/sister.

In this way, the film uses technology and our online identities as a vehicle for talking about identity writ large because it highlights how our online identities are things we craft and create.  Of course, we do this with our ‘real’ or non-virtual, un-mediated selves and identities as well – though this fact often exists on the periphery of our consciousness.  Still, regardless of the story arc for each of the three intertwining main plot lines, it is only in the non-virtual un-mediated moments –through real-life human interaction and physical contact – that any given character is redeemed.  Without giving anything much away (so I’ll skip the gender analysis I want to do & that this film desperately needs), I’ll just say that the one character who is not redeemed is the one who lacks the real world support system or human safety net that the other characters have managed to create for themselves even in non-traditional, non family-of-origin, ethically ambiguous and quite possibly illegal ways.  The message perhaps being that while the internet allows for connections and disruptions – it is only the interactions we have in real life that have the potential to truly save us.

And it is for this message that the film has been taken to task in reviews that claim the filmmakers are hitting us over the head with their moral lessons and over-worked clichés (like the fake Facebook profile that ultimately allows for real connections, the online support group that pulls a family apart, etc.) but I think that this critique is missing something important about the film – and that, to me, is the larger, more subtle yet inevitably more crucial message of the movie: We Are All Surveilled.

When we watch Disconnect with this message in mind (rather than the somewhat tired ‘is the internet bad or good’ question) we are privy to what I believe is the filmmakers much more refined analysis of larger, more systematic and social questions regarding privacy and surveillance – not at the level of parent and child but between individuals and The Man (whether you think “The Man” is the government or large corporations or some hidden Illuminati-type group of actors).  Clearly, this is a bigger issue than the film can address but I contend that this is the (not-so-hidden) message in the movie.  The film’s catch phrase “Look Up” could also be read in this way – as in look up the power structure, see who is really in charge here and who is watching us.  Even the promotional poster for the film points to this reading: in a busy city square where everybody is going about their business, Jason Bateman is looking up – ostensibly at a surveillance video camera that the other people in the square are seemingly oblivious to.

Granted this message isn’t really hidden in the film, it’s actually central to each of the main story lines – that whatever virtual reality the main character inhabits (or plays with, or acts through) is under surveillance from another ‘governing’ body (be it parents or the FBI).  But what is important – and largely unspoken in the film (except in a few playful moments) is that in each of the stories the characters have this sort of suspension-of-disbelief about the fact that they themselves have consented to this surveillance (and here I’m working hard to try to NOT talk about hegemony.  You’re welcome.)  But this consent is really key –WE create that Facebook profile, WE sign up for online payment systems or cell-phone banking (it’s so easy!), WE use GPS to get from point A to point B (which means of course, that WE not only arrive at our destination but are tracked on our way), WE give all those apps “permissions” (literally: permissions) to do a range of things on our fancy little phones (this is a larger issue that I’ll pick up in my next post in this series).  And then we are a little surprised (or completely shocked) when our privacy is compromised.

We are participants in our own surveillance, uploading scads of personal information, largely because it makes our lives easier – but what happens when the reality of our lack of control over this information sets in?  This is nicely illustrated in Disconnect between the ease of setting up a Facebook account and the near-impossibility of trying to deactivate it: the two character’s commentary in this scene is hilarious as they complain about how difficult it is to delete a profile, making comments like “they make you fill out so many things”, “they really don’t make this easy”, and finally “ugh, we have to put down a reason”.  The reason they select, by the way, being “I don’t feel safe online”.  Brilliant.

Brilliant, if not a little too obvious.  At times – like in the Facebook account deletion scene – the movie seems to be hitting us over the head with the message.  But then again, the filmmakers even seem in on that joke too – as in the very next scene that boy is wearing a t-shirt that reads “Overkill by Insight”, and the other boy wears a shirt that says, simply, “Overkill”.  Yeah, alright, turns out Overkill is a skateboard-based clothing collection, but its placement in the film is not an accident.  Neither is the impersonation of the Grim Reaper by a main character during a beautifully shot sequence towards the films end (I really want to talk more about this scene, but I don’t want to ruin it for you).

This issue of privacy and policing, and the ways in which we are complicit in our own online surveillance is the topic of a new series on this blog.  Watching and writing about Disconnect was a good way for me to begin to think through these issues.  Because it’s a film about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we do’, the ways we construct our identities, both online and IRL – but it’s also about a lot more important things that we need to be thinking about.  Needless to say, the film doesn’t give an answer, it just asks a lot of questions – the kind that Google can’t answer for you.

It’s a brand new year

Dear Readers,

2013 has gotten off to a VERY interesting start and amid all the new and crazy things that have transpired I have been woefully neglectful of my blog.  I actually went on my website for the first time this year a few days ago and was greeted by my “2012 Annual Report” generated for me by the kind folks (or computer programs) at WordPress.  The best part of this report was the map they included which shows where in the world people have viewed my blog.  Check it out:

going global

It’s not the number of views I was paying attention to but rather where the views occurred that captured my attention.   All in all my blog has been viewed (well, hopefully read) in 19 countries – including Nepal (!!).

Seeing that map was completely inspiring.  It reminded me of the power of the internet to connect people and ideas on a global level, and it also reminded me that so many people have supported my writing and taken the time to check out my blog when they could have been on Facebook or following the never-ending twists and turns of the Kardashian family.  So, dear readers, this is just a brief post to say thanks, to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about you, and to say that I’m back and ready to blog my way through 2013.

I’m switching things up a bit this year – there will be the usual rants about politics, culture and the world-at-large, but I’ll also be writing more about media, movies & T.V. (because let’s be real, at the end of the day it’s more fun to focus on FLOTUS’s new bangs than Benghazi).  Last but not least, I’ll be writing a little more about my own life.  You’ll get to join me on a new adventure I’m about to embark on, and you might even get to meet a few of the kooky characters that make my family and friends the most entertaining group of folks that I know.  That’s right, it’s about to get personal up in here – but I promise to do my best to make it funny, worth your while and not too damaging to anyone’s reputation :).

Thanks for joining me in the blogosphere so far – and here’s to a great 2013!

This Is How It Happened

...it is a hell of a townIt was a week before my birthday, and like any good Leo, I reasonably expected to have the most fabulous birthday ever.  Two nights at my favorite campground in upstate New York? Check.  All that was missing was a few nights in New York City amidst the hot August madness that would swallow me whole and sweat me out until I was ready to pound the pavement out of my consciousness by retreating to the stillness of the woods.  My favorite patch of woods – situated equally between a waterfall and a lake so clear that the last time we visited my traveling companion had named it “Camp Crystal Lake” – which stuck until she remembered that was the name of the place in all those ‘Friday the 13th’ movies.  Scary hockey masked Jasons be damned, I liked the name, until dusk fell and darkness wrapped itself around the trees and animals no more terrifying than squirrels managed to make their footfalls sound realistically like humans – probably humans with large knives and aforementioned hockey masks – and so this patch of heaven was renamed Pebble Beach.

In my fantasy this year we would spend a few pre-birthday nights in the city before heading up to Pebble Beach.  We would shop and stroll through Central Park, fill our eyes up to the brim with gallery-hung art, visit friends I rarely see, indulge in over-priced meals and end the day on some pillowtop mattress in a hotel room with a killer view of the city.  Sounds perfect – just like a Lioness imagines her birthday week will be (and yes I said birthday week – because one day of being the rightful center of attention is just not enough for most of us Leos.)  Fittingly – my original vision of this New York adventure included seeing the “Lion King” on Broadway – until I actually looked up the prices for this show – which had led me to two realizations: the first was that shows on broadway are ridiculously fucking expensive and second (though related) was that that was why unemployed ex-academics like me don’t go to shows on broadway.  What I had chanted so proudly back in the fall was now more of a sad admission: we are the 99%. (sigh).

So fine, scratch the show, I wandered off into the internet to find my fabulous hotel room – pillowtop mattress and all.  As I started plugging in dates and scrolling through the results my two above realizations set in again.  I am not the 1% – and that was about the chance I had of finding a hotel I could afford.

But fear not – for there was Craigslist!  And there in the vacation rentals section I found the most beautiful two bedroom apartment right in midtown available for the really reasonable rate of 150 a night.  Note: in literature this ‘really reasonable rate’ would be what we call foreshadowing.  But let me not get ahead of myself.

The apartment was gorgeous – I mean, there was a Tree in the living room.  There were two bedrooms.  The kitchen – all stainless.  And the dining room that overlooked central park?  Forget overpriced restaurants I could host a dinner party for my NY friends at my very own temporary apartment!  I emailed the owner right away – and yes, it was available for the dates I needed.  Great.  And then I got a little nervous – I mean, this deal looked to good to be true and anyway, how did the whole renting-through-Craiglist thing work?  I emailed the owner – his name was Martin Bullock – but he signed his email as Martin Bull (remember what I said about foreshadowing?) – and asked him straight out: was this legit?  Were these pictures (and I provided the link to the ad he had put up) ones of the same apartment that I would rent?  And how would I pay?  And how would I know I wouldn’t get screwed over?  I said I knew I was being overly cautious but I hoped a man of his stature (as he surely must be to own such an amazing apartment) would understand my concerns – and I assured him that I was a responsible adult just looking for a nice place in the city for a few nights.

He wrote back right away and said of course he understood my concerns, that yes those were the pictures of the correct apartment, and that he was a 40 year old man (with grown children) who had been renting this apartment for a decade and had never had a problem, as his reputation would attest. Okay, that’s what I read from his message.  What he actually wrote (unedited except for my italics) was: “I’m a 40 man with two grown up children,  I have also got my reputation to protect. I have being into my agent stuff for about 10 years now and never got myself stained. I will send you the receipt immediately you have the payment sent to the owner of the property as i will be the one to receive the balance of the payment from you on your arrival when i will be handling over the keys to you for check in.Once your confirm your booking Payment, your reservation is guarantee for the choosing date, you will receive a Receipt to confirm,I understand what you are trying to figure out on here and i can assure you that you are on the safer side booking with us.Because we have help so  many people book for an online reservation.”

I for one was relieved – yeah, he gets it!  My traveling companion – not so much. And I hadn’t even told her that he wanted me to wire money to him through Western Union – which certainly seemed reasonable.  Plus he sent me a very official looking contract, complete with a signature that looked like it might have said “Martin Bull” or maybe “Steve Johnson” – but whatever – the contract had one of those multipointed star shaped seals on it – like, how much more official can you get?

“Look at his English Kaila,” my friend said, “this is a scam”.  Now, this struck me as a little racist – what, someone who speaks English as a second language can’t rent me an awesome apartment at an incredible price?  I mean – he is a “40 man” as he said after all.

But no, my paranoid friend insisted that I get his phone number and actually speak to him.  So, fine.  I asked him for his number and he sent it to me, no problem, and the next day my friend called the number and received a message that the “Magic Jack number” that she was trying to reach was unavailable.  So she googled Magic Jack.  This was not good.  Especially since the first thing that came up was some article about how people in foreign countries could use Magic Jack to generate an American phone number.  Great, so on top of being totally racist we were now xenophobes as well?  I still wasn’t convinced.  So she googled the actual number he gave and this came up (it’s a fraud alert scam about someone named Nelson Davies who was renting a vacation property in North Carolina – and it included the contract he sent to the person he attempted  to scam).  “Give me the computer” – I said – and I looked at the contract Nelson sent out in North Carolina and there I saw it.  The exact Contract Martin Bull had sent to me – down to the same ambigious name scribbled in the ‘owners’ section.

And I was pissed.  I was pissed because this fabulous apartment would not be mine for the weekend (in fact, as I later found in my obsessive googling of “craigslist vaction rental scams” that the apartment which was photographed was likely in some other part of the world  – or lifted from the pages of Architectural Digest).  I was pissed because there was someone – or maybe many people as it turns out  – that prayed on those who didn’t have a lot of money (I mean who else is going to look at Craigslist for a vacation rental?).  I was pissed because maybe the websites I thought were racist and xenophobic might have been – at least a little bit – right.  And mostly I was pissed because I fell for it.

Martin continued to email me, and I continually emailed him back and asked him to meet me at the apartment that very afternoon when I would give him cash.  His emails back always failed to respond to that request.  Finally after an insane amount of time spent googling these scams I wrote him a very nasty email.  I was mad – and I got mean.  I called him a thief.  I called him a liar.  I said that he preyed on those without a lot of money – and that I had found him out – as well as his other aliases and that I had reported him to the FBI (which I had). I told him that he had invited generations of karmic retribution onto his family.  I ended my email by saying that his grandchildren would curse his name.

He responded right away.  He just needed my cell phone number so he could text me the ‘booking code’.  He’ll be waiting a long time.  As for NY, I decided to go upstate all the way – no days in the city of liars and cheats and scammers.  I leave tomorrow for wooded bliss.  And for all you would be thiefs out there – I’ve got a house sitter – so don’t even think about it.