Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Forwarding Address

Holy crap, guys! Remember a million years ago when I said I was going to move this blog and do all kind of cool web site-y stuff?  I almost don't either because it was a looooong time ago. 

But it's done (ish)!  Behold the glory of!

The new web site includes this blog, drawings, and players featuring my band's music, with more pages and features on the way.  I'll be honest, the site's  probably nowhere near done, but it's serviceable and I'm impatient, so let's all head over there and get the party started.

I'll leave this up for the time being as a detour sign, but all new entries will be on the new site.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bullshit on Parade

Recently some coy, anonymous Occupy types got their knickers in a twist about the cover/content of a shitty, puerile comic publication called Vex.  So they took all the papers from news stands, slapped stickers with a flower and a proclamation that Vex is lame and their position is awesome on the covers and inserted a rebuttal to Vex's position into the pages.

Then it was Vex's turn to get pissed off and melodramatic, so they started loudly proclaiming that the vandalism was a violation of their First Amendment rights to anyone who would listen.

All of which annoyed me in about a million different ways, so I started writing about it, but realized that it was actually so obnoxious that I couldn't even muster a real post, so here's what I have to say in lazy-blogger bullet-point-list style:

  • The cover was lame.  In response to the city's decision not to sell Congress Square to the Eastland hotel, they made a typically barf-tastic comic illustration of a scale with a drunk homeless bottle collector on one side (the weighted side) and a carpenter, businessman, and waitress on the other with the headline, "PORTLAND POLITICIANS PREFER BUMS OVER JOBS." Maybe it's the nature of the format or maybe Mort Todd and company are just looking to get a cheap rise out of people, but it's pointless and reductive to pretend that anyone thinks Congress Square is just fine the way it is. It's gross and kind of scary sometimes, but giving up already-limited public space for a ballroom/convention center when we're already building a huge complex on Thompson's Point and renovating the Civic Center is one of the dumbest solutions to the problem.
  • The Occupy response was lame.  I think it's awesome when people are passionate about a cause and take action in support of it, but not all action is created equal.  What was the intended audience for this particular stunt?  Presumably people who are either on the fence about the ballroom thing or think it's a reasonable idea.  What was the intended effect?  Presumably to sway those people to support your position.  So did anyone involved really think that the punked out guerrilla 'zine approach was going to win friends and influence people?  Anyone who thought the city missed an opportunity by denying the sale is way more likely to see it as a bunch of disgruntled, unemployed hippies trying ineffectively to stick it to the man, identify with the man, and become even less likely to support discussions about creative, progressive uses of the space.
  • Okay, free speech, for crying out loud?  Nice try, but the argument wasn't silenced.  The majority of the drawing and the headline remained intact and the argument easily identifiable.  Vex got its point across.  I'd be with them on this one if the issue hadn't been recirculated at all (they do allege that some number appear to have gone missing) but that wasn't the case. As Todd noted in this week's edition, the number "missing" would have marked a jump in circulation if they went out legitimately, which means they didn't expect that many to be picked up by readers anyway. It's likely that there was an issue, albeit modified, available to anyone who cared to have one.  I worked at the USM Free Press when Sigma Nu followed the circulation vehicle and removed every copy of the paper from both campuses in order to suppress bad publicity for a sorority: that was arguably the squelching of free speech.  As for whether you can steal something that's given away free, an argument people sympathetic to the vandals have made, the FP introduced language in the masthead limiting the number per "customer."  It's virtually unenforceable, but it does offer protection if someone makes off with all of them.  Which didn't happen here, but if I were Vex, I'd prepare for that possibility.
  • As I mentioned right out of the gate, no one's taking credit for these shenanigans.  So again the question of intended consequences comes up.  If you're trying to convince people of the righteousness of your cause, and insist that you've done nothing inappropriate, acting like furtive weirdos might not be the most effective route.  I doubt very much that this was ever about the actual issue at hand.  It looks very much like someone taking a swing at Vex because they find them intolerable and not very much like an earnest attempt to communicate.
  • As ludicrous as I find Mort Todd's free speech complaint, Rob Korobkin (author of the inserted essay but not, he says, the mastermind behind this escapade)'s attempt to claim that this wasn't vandalism is equally laughable.  The aforementioned mastermind(s?) may not have obscured Vex's message, but they did mischievously and maliciously alter it. That's vandalism.
So that's that. The whole thing is just so riddled with petulance and buffoonery that I want to clonk all their heads together and tell them to spread out, Moe Howard-style. 

To be clear, I'm philosophically with the Save Congress Square crowd and was a believer in the Occupy movement.  One of the most effective aspects of early Occupy was its insistence on making radical thinking and participatory, direct democracy accessible to people who might be alienated by the angry-punk image of G8 protesters:  The message didn't change, the approach did and it succeeded in drawing a stronger, wider base than any protest movement in recent history.  Watching that good will squandered on what appears to be a petty personal beef is quite sad. 

I think Vex's approach to the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill and/or badly substance-addicted is callous and inhumane. I find much of the content of the magazine at large childish and distasteful.  It's unclear to me whether Mort Todd's intention is to talk meaningfully about ideas or just fuck around indulging a snide and vaguely fratty sense of humor. Hopefully it's the second, because at least he's succeeding there.  Either way, I avoid it, because the result is distasteful to me.

 But in this case, everyone's behaving badly.  As much as both sides want to pretend this spat is about some universal, more meaningful issue, it's just schoolyard dust-up that ends up making everyone involved look small. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Privilege Denied

Here is a sad statement, but true:  When I cut my hair, I figured it was a matter of time before somebody called me a dyke.

My best guess was that the person who did it would be male, young, and a stranger.

So yesterday, when a teenaged boy came off the Maine State Pier fresh from a swim in the gritty, oil-slicked water of the near-shore harbor water, shirtless in saggy, soggy shorts, buzz cut, the chip on his shoulder visible, swaggering through the parking lot where I was driving the forklift and said, "Nice skills, dyke," it felt somehow expected.

What I didn't expect, maybe because I'd braced for it or maybe because I'm straight or maybe both, is how really awful it felt.  How personal, visceral, sickening it felt.

I think most readers will understand implicitly that I wasn't offended by the suggestion that I'm gay, and they'll be right.  But I've been catcalled and heckled and called a lot of names in my time, and nothing's shaken me quite like this and I've spent the past day and a half trying to figure out why.

It's not unlike the effect of the mother of all cuss words, cunt, a word that gives even my foul-mouthiest friends pause.  Unlike other slurs and swears that have been largely divorced from their literal meaning (the now ubiquitous f-bomb comes to mind) the c-word still links to a concrete anatomical idea.  It feels filthy to me, because it makes me feel exposed, self-conscious as though my body is being scrutinized.  Generally speaking I'm a confident gal, sure of myself in tasks intellectual and physical, content with my looks, and happy to live in this strong and healthy body. But that word carries with it a long, sad history of misogyny, the implication that a woman is defined by her body, that that body is inferior, that a woman is a sexual object, identified by and useful for her sexual organs.

Do I overstate the case?  I really don't think so, and definitely not inasmuch as I'm describing my own very immediate and very real response.

So yes, I had a similar reaction to dyke-as-slur because it felt like someone was thinking intimately about my body and what it does in private moments.  Which, what? That's some creepy shit.

And it's heartbreaking that while this was a new experience for me, it happens to people all the time.  Sometimes they're straight and that's hideous enough, but sometimes they're gay, and that's worse.  Because I can take some weak solace in the fact that this little troll wasn't criticizing my actual identity.  And it happened once (so far).  How much deeper would the sense of violation be if he'd hit his target and if there were more like him enacting these verbal tyrannies on a regular basis?

I've acknowledged my frustration with the use of "privilege" as a weapon for neutralizing discussion, but I will never deny that privilege is real.  In this uncomfortable encounter, I glimpsed beyond the curtain of my straight privilege.  I've been empathetic, but by necessity it's empathy based on imagination rather than experience.

As we approach an election season with gay marriage on the ballot yet again, I encourage everyone not to let the strides we've made toward equality lead to complacency.  In some sense I'm lucky to have a shove toward remembering that the personal is political and it isn't necessary for an issue to be personal to you in particular to make it one you ought to fight for.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Missed Opportunities and The Portland Press Herald

Okay, I'm going to make one more lap around the track and then cease beating the sorry carcass of the Portland Press Herald for the time being.

The paper has removed Audrey's photo and replaced it with a link to her Flickr set, put a check in the mail for use of the photo in print, taken down their ridiculously insulting op-ed on the subject, failed to make any meaningful response to the lifted photo debacle, and missed a genuine and valuable opportunity to raise their professional reputation above the Podunk Weekly Bugle (motto: Now with 30% more Weather Hamsters!) status they've recently enjoyed.

All companies, newspapers and otherwise, have policies in place that sometimes seem opaque or unreasonable to customers.  I sympathize.  I spend an outlandish amount of time at work explaining to people why we do this or that thing, why something that seems simple and obvious to is, in practice, not feasible.  There are very often factors operating behind the scenes that customers haven't considered. 

Even so, when dozens of customers all cite the same reasons that they find your policy problematic and those reasons are clearly stated and easily enumerated, it's in your best interest as an organization to consider whether they might be on to something.  Even if you stand behind the position you've taken, it's absolutely worthwhile to consider that suggestions embedded in the debate that might help you clarify or improve the existing policy. And if you find that you have, in fact, substantively violated your own policy, the professional and responsible thing to do is acknowledge your mistake, examine ways to avoid that error in the future and let your concerned customers know that you have done so.

This would be an excellent time for PPH editorial staff to clarify the procedure for identifying ownership of non-staff work.  Perhaps they could outline a simple set of steps: 1) Attempt contact via messaging functions on the source site, if available. 2) Google any pseudonym associated with the material.  By delineating and practicing a concrete set of best practices, they'd create a situation where a good faith effort at contacting a source is clearly defined and either did or did not happen.  If there had been a policy like this in place, this recent debacle might never have happened.

A much bigger discussion that the Press Herald should be having right now concerns their photo-crediting procedure in general.  I might be inclined to be a little more generous about their failure to identify a non-professional photo by a pseudonymous author if I didn't know that they regularly fail to credit photos they receive through official channels, supplied to them by known sources who, if they aren't the artist themselves, know the artist's name.

Currently if, say, a band provides the paper with a photo for a review or event listing, they credit the photographer only if the band explicitly tells them the artist's name. Yes, it would be nice if the band thought to do that anyway, but they're not in the publishing or visual arts fields and in many cases it probably doesn't cross their mind.  A media company, one that publishes content for profit knows very well that this is an issue.  The onus is on them to make sure their use of that content is appropriately credited.  It should be part of the initial request: "Please supply a photograph of your band/event and the name of the photographer."  If the photo is received unsolicited in a press kit or the like, there should be an immediate request not just for the artist's name, but permission from the copyright holder to use the image in that commercial setting.

Here's a quick side-by-side:

I work for a photographer.  He did photos for a local band in advance of their album release.  The Press Herald ran his photo in association with an item about the band uncredited.  When he contacted them, they essentially told him to take it up with the band. They didn't volunteer that they would add the credit; He had to suggest it himself. 

He later did headshots for someone whose work appeared in Maine Magazine.  When the magazine received the photo, they asked who took the picture and immediately contacted the photographer to request a release allowing them to run the photo.  That is responsible behavior by a professional media organization.

I understand that there are time constraints facing a daily newspaper, but "we were really busy" is a lame excuse for failure to meet basic industry standards.  I recently read a comment by professional photographer Jay York on the facebook page of the Union of Visual Artists, noting that two of his photos were in the Maine Sunday Telegram uncredited this week and that this is a regular occurrence despite their purported policy of "making every attempt" to properly credit work.  Here, again, a simple, formal, consistent policy of asking for artist info on receipt of art would do a world of good, both for stymied photographers for whom credit is key to their livelihood, and to the Press Herald's reputation as a serious and professional publication.

At this point, Audrey still wants, but knows she's unlikely to get, an apology.  I want that for her, even though I only know her in the context of our exchanges during this debate. And here's the thing:  if they really believe using the photo falls under Fair Use, they shouldn't apologize for that.  They shouldn't be apologizing simply to appease the crowd. What they do need to apologize for is their failure to do appropriate leg work upfront, their failure to respond to her reasonable request to remove the photo from the web site, and the bizarre attempt to paint her with the wacko brush in their op-ed.  But that apology wouldn't be sufficient for me at this point.

Audrey's case has cast a bright light on a long-standing, systemic problem within the newspaper.  Professional photographers have run into this wall for a very long time, and I'm happy to see this issue playing out in front of a wider audience.  But the only resolution that I would consider truly satisfactory would be for the Press Herald to do some real soul-searching, clean up their house, and reach out to their readership with solid evidence that they are working to make their product serious, professional, reasonable, and responsive. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Portland Press Herald is Bad at teh Internetz.

Photo:                    Permission: Copyright Holder  

Here is a very basic summary of a thing that happened:

Reporter Steve Mistler (and it bears saying that Mistler isa seasoned and respected journalist, a feather in the cap of the Portland Press Herald which spent the better part of the past decade running its credibilityand relevance into the ground) got a tip for a story, along with a link to a Flickr account that contained photographic evidence supporting the tip.  It’s unclear how close to deadline he got thisinformation but the story ran in the August 7 edition of the paper along withphotographs from the Flickr account.  

The owner of the Flickr account, Audrey Slade, was unaware of the use of her photos until a friend sent her a link to the article.  So here's where the dispute starts.

One of Slade's main contentions is that the paper never tried to contact her prior to publication, a contention that seems reasonable given that she never heard a word about it until after the piece went to press.  

The PPH has a rather more Clintonian approach to the word "tried."  Their position appears to be that they looked at the flickr page, didn't see a link that said, "This page belongs to Audrey Slade, click here if you're the Portland Press Herald and would like to contact her." That's maybe the snidest possible way to put it, but pretty close to the spirit of the paper's response which was that they were unable to figure out who the page belonged to and how to contact her by deadline, so they seized the photos marked "All Rights Reserved" (that, by the way, is the link for "how to request use of Flickr content) under the Fair Use exemption of copyright law and called it a day.

I have zero interest in examining the Fair Use claim.  I have no legal expertise and copyright law is an endlessly complicated field, particularly where the internet is concerned.  But I do care deeply about journalism, and newspapers specifically, so I will take issue with the procedural and ethical questions at hand.

So then. The claim that it was impossible to determine ownership/contact info because of deadline constraints would be laughable, if the paper wasn't doubling down on that assertion, behaving as though the legitimate questions raised by the photo's owner and others aren't worth their consideration.  In an op-ed response today, they let fly some of their pent up contempt. In response to criticism that they'd failed at a simple task:
"However, we neglected to click the message button on Flickr, which presumably would have sent an email to the account holder."
Allow me to translate, "Ugh, yeah, we GET it, there WAS an obviously marked link to contact the owner.  You just can't understand how much BIGGER our concerns are than your stupid 'process.' 'Presumably' we could have contacted her by clicking the envelope on the Flickr page, but how could anyone know whether, 'send a message' would send her a message?"  Riiiight. PPH is bad at teh internetz. Why don't you go write a twit about it or something?

Welp, PPH, you may not have sent a message on Flickr, but your larger message that we should sit down and shut up is coming through loud and clear. But I just can't when you're being so all-fired ridiculous.

Look, even if a message on Flickr went to an account the owner never checks, it would have constituted a reasonable attempt to contact her.  But fine, let's suspend disbelief, pretend it's reasonable not to do that, and go back to examining the apparently inscrutable nature of identity on the internet. Let's point out that the pseudonym on the Flickr account, the one that apparently stymied them (I picture fact-checkers in the newsroom closing the phone book with a thump: "Nope. No JadeFrog_01 in here!") is the SAME AS HER TWITTER HANDLE.  Close to deadline or no, Mistler wrote enough words to buy them time to send a tweet.

But all of those are red herrings, because they absolutely knew who she was.  They cited her by her job title while at Husson, "the former administrative assistant to Rodney Larson, dean of the School of Pharmacy," so the claim that they couldn't identify her is not only silly as noted above, but completely, utterly, unapologetically false. Unless they're as bad using Google as they are at Flickr...or, um, at asking that guy what his assistant's name was.

The bottom line is that the Press Herald knew they were in the wrong but didn't expect any pushback, or, just as bad, it didn't cross their minds that this was an issue.  Since they tell us they did try to contact her, it appears it was the former. 

What galls me at least as much as the initial breach has been their response.  Their first response was to insist that they weren't malicious, just incompetent, and when it was pointed out to them that no one is that incompetent, they dropped the "aw, shucks" routine and went straight for the "you people just don't understand the importance of the work we're doing."

From today's response:
Lost among these comments is the media's obligation to inform the public on matters of vital public interest.
Okay, fine.  But let's get real about the burning importance and timeliness of this particular story.  Rev. Bob Carlson is dead.  If this piece had waited one day while they contacted the owner of the photos, it would not have meant that Carlson was free to roam the campus for another day. William Beardsley is now the former president of Husson.  If this piece had waited one day while they contacted the owner of the photos, he would not have had one more day to make inept policy decisions.   The only reason that this story worked to this deadline was for the gratification of the PPH breaking it.  That they did it at the expense of reasonable, responsible journalistic procedure, made themselves look like incompetent buffoons in their excuses and continue to a) leave the picture up despite being asked by the owner to take it down (it's online, guys, you can link to the Flickr account if you want, but you can't pretend it's yours) and b) pretend that their position is reasonable is pathetic.

Several years ago there was a quiet discussion among professional photographers I know about the Press Herald's tendency to use their photos, particularly in listings, without notice, compensation or credit, and I recall the paper's response being a similarly disingenuous, "Golly, mister, is that yours?  I just found it on the ground on the internet."

If the PPH wants to distance itself from its reputation lo these past many years as ideal for housebreaking puppies and wrapping fish and not much else, they're off to a rocky start.

EDIT: Speaking of journalistic ethics, I should mention in the spirit of full disclosure that I did two freelance concert reviews for the PPH back at the dawn of time, which is to say in my early twenties.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Anywhere There's Oxygen

A silly video for Phantom Buffalo's "Anywhere There's Oxygen"

 Today we think our car got towed for unpaid parking tickets and our savings are temporarily depleted because we made an investment in a really great piece of recording equipment and haven't yet sold the other equipment that will pay for it and I'm scheduled for some overtime this week but thanks to some one-time unexpected bills, very little of the surplus will end up in savings, most likely.

So I've been thinking of this song by Phantom Buffalo.  It's always been a favorite of mine, and I think there are very few people who can't relate or couldn't at some point relate to the desire to be free of the daily grind, the pressure of the grown up obligation to figure out how to "buy my food and stay alive."

I wrote on this subject fairly recently and mentioned that I was making a move in the direction of leaving my job and moving to something more personally fulfilling, but even those baby steps have been halted having collided head first with the hefty time commitments of working in a seasonal business.  Only a year ago I would likely have folded up in despair and resigned myself to the high probability of being stuck indefinitely, but now that the ol' serotonin's flowing properly I see things in a different light.

In the midst of a particularly stressful and soul-crushing weeks at work recently, I cracked. Sobbing in the bathroom at work cracked.  And after several days of this, I had an epiphany while talking to the lumber delivery driver who's become my friend.  "I'm going to go give my notice for the fall after this boat leaves," I told him.  "Aw shit, girl, good for you.  I wanna do the same thing.  Good luck."  And in a state of total insanity, I did.  I walked into my boss' office just as he was reading a particularly defeated incident report I wrote that concluded, "Obviously I am a bad person," and I told him I was done after Labor Day.  After talking with him about it for a while, I agreed to think about it and I've since rescinded my resignation.  For now.  That I'm on my way out is a "when," not an "if" proposition.

Yes, I was acting rashly in an emotionally charged moment, but it wasn't completely irrational.  Being extremely risk averse I've built up an unreasonably high tolerance for bullshit when the alternative is walking into the unknown.  The safety of a job that pays well and offers health benefits is something I don't take for granted and I've been willing to work around the parts that don't work for me in order to hold onto it.  But I never intended to stay there forever and I know what I'd rather be doing.  So no, I'm not going to storm out the door in a fit of pique with nothing lined up, but I am going to have to make a bold move and possibly a leap of faith.

In our household we're at a crossroads where we're confident in our strengths and eager to put them into service.  We can easily picture a future in which we support ourselves by doing things that are deeply satisfying.  In the short term, though, that requires taking scary and decisive action and doing some serious preparation to put some sort of safety net in place before we throw ourselves into the uncertain future.  On a spaceship built for two going anywhere there's oxygen.