Friday, February 27, 2009

Facebook Primer

(News-Herald, Feb 26) Facebook turned five years old this month. If you aren’t sure why you should care, this column is for you.
Facebook started out as a simple college project. Colleges have long collected high school pictures from incoming freshmen and slapped them together into a book that newly arrived students could use to answer burning questions like “Who is that hot girl in my chem. Class?” One young whiz realized that this was a perfect task to feed to a computer. At first the site was used by a few colleges and allowed only students and family. Then it opened the doors to the world, and now facebook is the pre-eminent social site on the net.
Is that successful? Well, the creator of facebook has reportedly been offered as much as a billion dollars for his slice of website heaven. Clearly some folks are impressed.
There are two fundamental differences between facebook and the previous cybersocial champ, myspace.
The first is that myspace is ugly. It’s messy ugly, as if a five-year-old threw some neon paint, glitter and monkey innards in a blender, hit puree, and tossed the results at a computer screen.
The second and probably more important difference is that myspace was designed to let you make new friends with a bunch of total strangers. Facebook is designed to let you stay in touch with people you already know, and that removes a whole layer of stalkery weirdness that myspace includes.
But what do you actually DO there?
Facebook lets you stay in contact with people. It lets you know what they’re up to, and it lets you tell the world what you’re up to, all in whatever level of detail you prefer. You write updates; all your friends read at will.
For instance. Charlie and I don’t talk all that often. But I knew when Charlie’s divorce was final and also when he started dating again, as did all of his facebook friends.
I also knew when Mark was getting over a cold, when Beth was having trouble sleeping, how Julie’s writing project is going, the time and date of Rick and Deb’s choral concert, and where George and Melissa live now.
I know what my old college friend’s kids look like, not in the one stiff portrait at Christmas way, but in the dozens of photos in the family album way.
Facebook provides, basically, the same sort of surface intimacy and steady detail that you get from living or working next door to someone.
For families this can be great. My daughter is an awesome photo queen who greets each occasion with camera in hand. There are thousands and thousands of her pictures on her facebook pages, and I can look at them any time I want to and leave comments. My son has an exceptional skill at locating online clips and sites, all of which he can share with me through facebook. I can look at them, send some back, and it’s like we’re sitting and surfing together. And none of this daily sharing has to be affected by the three hour time difference between us.
Find this kind of transparency more scary than heartwarming? Your facebook only includes what you put there, only shows what you want to be shown, and you have complete control over who your facebook friends are.
There are always caveats. The smart user assumes that anything on the internet is forever, and facebook is no different. And while you may be wisely discrete, there’s no controlling your friends. One of my former students has a facebook group started by her college friends for everyone who was ever a victim of her projectile vomiting.
Though indiscrete collegians still abound, we oldsters are the fastest growing part of the site’s boom (though in odd patterns—my college class shows almost 100 facebookers, but my high school class shows two—counting me). It’s easy to read, easy to understand, and there’s neither special freakish jargon nor bizarre social customs to learn. You don’t have to bare your soul and you certainly don’t have to use any of the extra bells and whistles and games that are available.
Those on dial-up are at a disadvantage (again). But this is an easy way to stay in touch with old friends, far-away family, and people you just generally don’t want to lose track of. Maybe it’s lazy, but I see nothing wrong with an easy way to make the world a little smaller, to give us all a few more close neighbors.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Googling Venango

(News-Herald, February 19)Every few years I report back to you about how the Venangoland web presence is faring. Googling “venango” is uniquely instructive because it is a very unique name. “Oil City,” “Franklin,” and “oil region” all turn up a gazillion hits that have nothing to do with us. I have not yet solved the mystery of the Venango’s in Kansas and Nebraska, but they are mere drops in the Venango-related ocean.
As a side note, I think it’s also cool that there are streets named venango in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles. And I am really intrigued to discover that “Venango” also exists as a surname. But I digress.
When I first reported on this almost a decade ago, googling “venango” only turned up a few thousand hits. Three and a half years ago (hey-nobody said I was on a regular schedule for this) we found 1,350,000 hits. I’m not prepared to interpret my newest results, but today’s google actually turns up fewer hits—a mere 1,140,000. This may have as much to do with increased google efficiency as with actual internet shrinkage.
If quantity is down, quality is up. The county website now sits at the top of the heap. This official website continues to be a model of how it’s done, with actual services like dog licenses. You can follow links to the “Invest Venango” campaign, a push to shift business spending back locally. And there even video of the latest commissioners’ meeting. Most local agencies are equally well-represented.
Also close to the top of the googlepile are the ubiquitous wikipedia entries. Wikipedia is a great idea, an encyclopedia that anyone with a computer can edit; once I finish this column, I plan to add the story of how my great-grandfather, Wallace R. Greene, personally discovered the Ark of the Covenant under the Eight Street Bridge. I think the whole wiki-world needs to know.
Some groups need to get up to date. The Venango Museum of Art, Science and Industry had almost caught up to the present, but still provides a list only for events in 2008. For those who are particularly nostalgic, their other website, last updated in 1996, is still on line. Meanwhile, the “next meeting” for Focus on our Future is in January of ’08.
If I were interested in looking at birds (well, actually, I like birds, but I bribe them with assorted seeds to come close where I can watch them, so I guess I qualify as a extremely lazy bird watcher) I would enjoy Gary Edwards site, which provides a great deal of info.
That site is a rarity. Google is so well-organized now that you have to dig way down to find the curiously quirky sites, like the one that tells you which parts of the county get fluoridated water (fluoridation is no longer a Communist Plot, but part of the Corporate Global Pollution Conspiracy).
Googling also reveals that some developer nears Mars, PA, has poached our name for an apparently gated community down by the intersection of the Turnpike and I-79. Venango Trails offers ponds, acres of woods, bike and walking trails, and lovely Victorian homes. In other words, even as people carp and complain about how awful it is to live here, elsewhere people are spending buckets of money to build a replica of our area. I suppose there are two significant differences—theirs is much closer to crowded commercial urban sprawl, and way more expensive.
But I digress. It’s much easier to actually get things done on line than it used to be. You can find plenty of local real estate listings (including foreclosures). You can go to the Humane Society site and see what animals they have awaiting adoption. You can find a lawyer, oddly enough, with much greater ease than you can find a doctor. You can do a great deal of genealogical research, including searching through an increasingly large number of old books that have been placed in their entirety on line.
You can make local hotel reservations, and you can get involved in the sport of geocaching, an activity I promise to look into as soon as the ground is not cold and hard (say, June). This is, in fact, part of the beauty of being able to do so many things on line, because I just got my heating bill for February and if I’m going to spend this much money on warm air, I plan to stay right here and enjoy every last molecule of heat.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In Praise of Anorexia

This column scared me a little bit when I did the original research for it four years ago. I did a quick search before re-running it here, and see no reason to believe that it is any less true today than it was back then. If anything, the pro-ana sites have gotten more subtle and clever in their non-disclaimer disclaimers.
(News-Herald, January 2005) I should tell you up front that this week’s column is absolutely straight, that I am making up nothing, exaggerating nothing, inventing nothing. What I’m writing about is not news, but it was news to me (and so may be news to you) until one of my students showed me the extraordinarily scary world of pro-ana.
You’ve heard about anorexia and its cousin bulimia, eating disorders in which people (mostly women) slowly starve themselves in an attempt to erase what they see as gross, fleshy excess.
There are numerous theories about the cause of the disease—cultural worship of size 0 models, an irrational compulsion to be perfect, physiological chemistry gone haywire. Karen Carpenter is perhaps the most famous fatality, but I’ve known students who struggled with it all the way into their adult lives.
This is a behavior with deep roots. Only the ignorant would suggest, “Well, they should just eat and get healthy.” Sure. And if every single one of your senses says that you’re on fire, you stand still because someone else says you’re not.
Treatment is hard. The Harvard Eating Disorder Center says that of those treated, 50% recover, 30% make partial recovery, and 20% have no improvement at all.
Into this comes the pro-ana movement. Pro-ana’s and pro-mia’s (that’s for bulimia) reject the notion that anorexia is a disorder and that anyone needs to be treated. They assert that it is a lifestyle choice; one site calls is a spiritual path and discipline. Treatment is just society’s attempt to control and dominate the ana’s.
This is another movement that the internet has helped connect and power. A google search on “pro ana” turned up 32,200 hits. Many of those are “anti’s”—people who are speaking out against the pro-ana movement. And many sites disappear quickly, because web hosting services often remove them upon discovery. But the ones that are pro and still there, well—it’s stunning.
Here are some real quotes (often called “thinspiration”) from real sites.
“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”
“Food hinders your progress.”
“One day I will be thin enough. Just the bones, no disfiguring flesh. Just the pure clear shape of me, bones. That is what we all are, what we’re made up of and everything else is just storage, deposit, waste. Strip it away, use it up.”
“Like a plant, surely the body can be trained to exist on nothing, to take its nourishment from the air.”
They salute and celebrate the strength of will, the enormous control that it takes to keep their food intake to a minimum. “We are the epitome of strength among a population of complacent, over-weight human beings.”
“For me, food’s only interest lies in how little I need, how strong I am, how well I can resist—each time achieving another small victory of the will.”
There are many message boards where ana’s share tricks, words of encouragement. They post thinspirational pictures, photos of fashion models like the barely-there Kate Moss.
One talks about how light and free she feels. Colors are brighter. Her head feels lighter; lights flash in front of her eyes. She has eaten nothing for three days. Other writers applaud her example. Another boasts that she hasn’t had her period in three months, proof that she is approaching her goal.
They share tips. Lists of things to do to avoid thoughts of food are on every site (and I saw sites in at least six different languages). There is advice on how to keep calories under 200 per day. One girl recommends canned chicken broth and another responds that you should buy the boullion cubes, which have 5 calories instead of 20.
There’s more practical coping advice. “Lie in fetal position and curl up. It helps your stomach stop hurting.”
There’s lots of advice for hiding anorexia, not because of shame, but because the rest of the world won’t understand, will try to control you, will try to break your will. There’s a continuing theme of becoming a shelled-up person, open only other ana’s. One site sells three-strand red bracelets as a sign of solidarity with other ana’s.
It’s tempting to take the hard line. I’m sure there are people that say that
if these loons want to destroy themselves, the gene pool is better off without them. I’m sure that none of those people are the parents of an ana.
I can’t imagine how scary it would be to discover your daughter suffering from this. The only thing worse would be discovering people cheering her on.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Rendell's School Consolidation Plan

(News-Herald, Feb. 12) Last week, Governor Rendell declared his intention to make 400 school districts vanish. Now, I’ve said that Venangoland needs four school districts like an octopus needs extra arms. But the governor’s announcement does not have me clicking my heels.
First, as seems to be typical of Smilin’ Ed’s proposals, there’s no hint of details about how this might actually work (see also: gambling money tax relief and I-80 toll). So this plan could be a real winner or a massive disaster.
The stated consolidation aim is to reduce administrative costs, but I have my doubts. Imagine four lemonade stands, each with one manager. I consolidate them to save money on managers—keep one, fire three. Only now with no manager on the sites, I hire a manager for each branch. And to get the benefit of buying lemons bulk, I need a procurement manager. And a secretary for the top dog, who now has to interface with his command structure. By consolidating badly, I go from four lemonade administrators to seven. Savings? Not so much.
In the ed biz, it’s potentially worse than that. Sometimes when a district administrator can’t do his job, he just hires assistants and consultants to do it for him. Savings? Even fewer.
Another key factor in consolidations is that they are usually coordinated by the people that we are supposedly going to winnow. Combine school districts, lemonade stands, or even, say, hospitals, and all the high-priced administrators stick around with new titles. When it’s time to cut payroll, it’s the worker bees that are shown the hive exit. Savings? Small. Loss of services provided to customers? Larger.
Different districts could feel different impacts. According to state figures, Cranberry Schools are 377 out of 500 districts in size, but 50 out of 500 in Administrative Cost Per Pupil (Greater Nanticoke SD is #1, with less ACPP than anyone else in the state). Franklin is 256 for size, 365 for ACPP. Oil City is 239 for size, 333 for ACPP. Titusville is 253 in size, but a whopping 404 for ACPP. Valley Grove is a teeny 428th in size, but ranks 243 in ACPP.
The most consolidated school district hereabouts? County-sized Forest SD comes in at 492nd place in low administrative costs per pupil.
The wild card in many districts is transportation, but since that’s a rural issue, I don’t expect any of the suited dopes in Harrisburg to get it. In some cases, such as Franklin/Valley Grove and Cranberry/Oil City, transportation is part of what makes a merger sensible. But if four out of every five school districts are going to be merged away, some serious transportation problems are going to emerge. All those massive administrative savings are going to be spent on buses (plus therapy for the students who will ride them for four hours every day).
School sports will become prohibitively expensive, given the amount of travel needed to get to the next nearest high schools. But Philadelphia schools will be happy to wrestle for money with 99 other districts instead of 499.
The biggest problem with the governor’s proposal, beyond its use of a broadsword solution for a scalpel problem, is that it puts the broadsword in the wrong hands. The best people to handle school consolidation in Venango County are not Harrisbugian suited dopes who couldn’t find Venango County if they were hungry dogs and we were a pile of sausage.
Smilin’ Ed offers other concerns. He figures that the 80% of PA districts that have fewer than 5000 students raise “questions about the diversity of courses offered to students.” I wish the state were this concerned about educational diversity when they’re suggesting we stop teaching everything except the material on the PSSA tests.
Consolidation is a good idea. We should do some. But a top-down mandate slapped together out of arbitrary ill-considered numbers backed up by no real plan is not my idea of how to do it. Want to save some administrative costs? Cut the PA Department of Education budget by 90%.
Not that what I think matters—nor anyone else, either. This plan has one more thing in common with some of Smilin’ Ed’s brainstorms. The state legislature will have a chance to vote on it. And if they vote it down, the State Board of Education is directed to go ahead and do it anyway.
Still, some have embraced it. In fact, my sister-in-law likes it so well that she suggests merging some states. Think of the money we could save by getting rid of a few governors.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jesse Reno

Mike Dittman at Venangago-go a few weeks back posted a reference to local war hero Jesse Reno, which reminded me of this piece that saw print ten years ago. It[‘s reprint time!
(News-Herald, May 1999) My friend Richard brought to my attention the book Remembering Reno by William F. McConnell, recounting Jesse Reno’s life and military career. Reno was born in 1823 and raised in Franklin. His West Point graduating class (1846) included George McClellan and Stonewall Jackson.
24-year-old Lieutenant Reno was part of Winfield Scott’s force attacking Vera Cruz, Mexico, in March of 1847. The war with Mexico trained many young officers; Captain Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant distinguished themselves against Santa Anna.
In 1853, Reno surveyed a road to run roughly 280 miles from Sioux City, Iowa, to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Upon completion of the nearly three-month trip, Reno submitted his report to U. S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.
Reno was thirty before he was able to marry. He and his wife settled into a fairly cushy posting at a Philadelphia arsenal for a few years, but then Reno was called up when Pennsylvania’s own President Buchanan decided to sic the US army on the Mormons.
The tension had been building since the 1846 settlement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Utah; the Saints were determined to maintain control of their territory, while some other portions of the country were unwilling to admit a polygamous state to the union.
President Buchanan attempted to remove Brigham Young as governor of Utah; Mormon fanatic John Lee reportedly incited a band of Native Americans to kill 120 settlers bound for California.
Reno was part of the federal force sent to get matters back under control. The whole business might have turned ugly (or uglier, at any rate) except that commanding officer Colonel Alexander dithered until the troops were forced to dig in for the winter and devote all their energy to staying alive, far away from any remotely grumpy Mormons. By the spring thaw a peace had been brokered, and Reno could return to his family after nearly two years.
When the Civil War broke out, Reno was jumped from captain to brigadier general in order to serve under old friend Ambrose Burnside, who was serving under Reno’s old classmate McClellan. Reno’s first work under Burnside was successful; unfortunately, he next served under Pope in the Union’s disastrous defeat at Bull Run.
I can’t look at the Civil War without being struck by how many men faced familiar opponents. Reno found himself battling Stonewall Jackson, former classmate and good friend, three separate times in his last months in battle. They would cross paths one more time. John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized Barbara Fritchie, a 90-year-old Union supporter in Frederick, Virginia, who waved her flag at Jackson’s troops. When one raised his musket to shoot, the poet gave her the line, “Shoot if you must this old grey head but spare your country’s flag.” Two days later, Reno passed Fritchie’s home and was invited in for a glass of homemade currant wine. Upon departure, the widow presented him with the large bunting flag from her window. It was that flag which would cover his casket at his funeral.
Shortly before the Battle of South Mountain, Reno met future President Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. It was not a particularly pleasant meeting; the terms “sons of bitches” and “court martial” both came up.
A week later, while traveling up a line of troops, Reno was shot. At the rear he was greeted by old friend and classmate Brigadier general Sam Sturgis. “Hello, Sam, I’m dead,” said Reno.
Reno was thirty-nine years old when he died.
His wife never remarried; she died in 1880. Of their five children, only two lived to adulthood. Conrad was a prominent Boston lawyer. His brother Jesse was an engineer who perfected a plan for the construction of subways in New York City and invented the escalator. The brothers also supposedly introduced Dwight F. Davis to the game of tennis; you may have heard of a small cup named after him.
Reno, Nevada, was named after Jesse in 1868. Reno, Pennsylvania, was dedicated to his memory in 1865. According to Hildegarde Dolson, the Pithole to Reno railroad hired as its head engineer Reno’s old classmate and commander, Ambrose Burnside.
Reno is a good reminder of how much soldiers sacrificed. Not just the premature death in battle, but all they gave up before then: the opportunity for a home, a stable family life, the emotional cost of being pitted against old friends in battle. I think that all deserves at least a moment of silence before we light the charcoal on Memorial Day.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Good-bye, Midnight

(News-Herald, February 5) I didn’t have my first dog until I was an adult. She was a humane society dog. We named her “Buffy” as a not-particularly-imaginative tribute to her color.
Buffy was eventually stricken with a condition that made her unable to process food (it has a fancy name, which I’ve long since forgotten). A shot would bring her back to normal for a week or so, and then food would pass straight through and she would lie there miserable, essentially starving to death. I don’t really remember how many times I put her through that process; I hope it wasn’t as many as it seems. I believe I had some vain hope that she would magically get better. One of the last great kindnesses that my ex-wife did me was take Buffy to the vet the last time. It’s funny the euphemisms we use to make our responsibility easier; not just “we put him to sleep” but “we had to put him to sleep.”
Soon I brought Midnight home from the Humane Society. He was a peppy, friendly dog, two or three years old, a collie-shepherd-mystery dog mix.
Midnight was not an indoor dog. He viewed walls with suspicion, even outright dislike if they weren’t decorated properly. He hated floors and would search in vain for a place to put his feet down that didn’t bother him.
He liked the outdoors and was inclined to explore the greater Hannaville area. He was no dummy—he would get off his line, wander abroad and then come back and sit in his rightful place, wagging his tail. “Who? Me? Were you looking for ME? Clearly I am right where I’m supposed to be?”
We acquired a humane society cat. The cat taught Midnight how to catch chipmunks. When he was excited, he jumped straight into the air, like a kangaroo or mutant bunny. He ate grass. He liked to burrow and push his nose into fresh dirt. Midnight seemed to have some species identification issues.
He had two basic barks. One was his challenge, a “who the heck do you think you are” bark. This might have been helpful had he used it on strange humans, but he never met a human he wasn’t glad to see. This bark was reserved for unfamiliar dogs who ventured into his territory (defined roughly as “Planet Earth”). Once we moved to town, he used this bark on me when he caught me taking off in the kayak. His other bark was the Bark of General Distress, reserved for moments when he had gotten himself stuck.
He liked snow. He wasn’t so crazy about water. He hated the Fourth of July, or at least the fireworks portions; he would climb into the burrow he’d dug under his shed and stay there until the next morning.
He consented to walk the bike trail with me, despite my unwillingness to stop for proper underbrush inspection every two feet. He didn’t mind having me sit and read with him outside, though at times he was concerned that if I stared at the book for more than two straight minutes, I might forget he was there.
He found the neighborhood entertaining. The geese and ducks, the neighborhood dogs, the neighborhood children—he was happy to lie in the sun and watch all of them.
He had steadily mellowed with age, but last winter he finally started to slow down. I bought a space heater for his shed. The neighbors contributed some straw and he had more cast-off blankets than a Salvation Army collection box.
This last year he could no longer climb into his burrow under the shed. His back hips began to stiffen. He ate as much as ever, but seemed to be losing weight. He had trouble getting up. He was uncharacteristically easy to sneak up on; he either couldn’t hear or didn’t care.
Ten days ago he finally couldn’t get up at all. I took him to the vets, who gently suggested it was time (human doctors should all take bedside manner lessons from veterinarians). I wasn’t prepared. I almost didn’t have the nerve to stay with him, but it’s good I did. Anything I could have imagined would have been worse. It’s comforting to consider how easy his passing was, terrifying to contemplate how simply life can be gone.
It’s a hard call for every pet owner; when is it too soon, too late. Midnight was 16 or 17 years old. He was a good old dog. I’m sorry he’s gone, glad I knew him.

From my Flickr