Just Shelley

The superb lyrebird

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Thanks to Athanasius Kircher Society for this wonderful video of the Superb Lyrebird, narrated by David Attenborough. It’s perfect for a Friday afternoon and guaranteed–guaranteed–to put a smile on your face.

I must update my own tale, Mockingbird’s Wish to include this wonderful bird; add this to my list as yet another reason to visit Australia.

Just Shelley

Perpetual State of Fear

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I grew up with duck and cover, fear obsession culminating in that abysmal, overdone, excessively histrionic Day After miniseries years ago. I grew up afraid; made more so, nay encouraged, by my own government. My government, which feared communism more than plague, hurricane, or other phenomena if one judges the amount of energy and wealth expended in defense.

After a while, people got tired of being afraid. We got tired of silly wars with very unsilly death counts. We got tired of being afraid, and turned that fear into laughter and even derision. We watched movies such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, we protested in the streets, and we created art–book, paintings, photos–in defiance not of government so much, but against fear.

Then the best possible thing happened: The Soviet Union collapsed. The walls of Berlin came down. The hand of friendship was extended to the west, and didn’t we rejoice in the streets?

Not our government, though. The enemy without that we had depended on for so many years was now gone. How can you control a population, if you don’t give them something to fear? Not to worry, though–those in Washington DC are nothing if not creative. We now have a new government-mandated fear. This time the enemy won’t let us down: it won’t take down the walls. It will be nebulous, and undefeatable, made more so by our own actions. We, the last of the generation of ‘duck and cover’ can now rest safely at night knowing that our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, will know fear. Every damn day of their lives.

You see, it is to our government’s advantage to have us be afraid. When we’re afraid, we don’t look around us and see how 43 million Americans still have no health care coverage; the middle class is dwindling while the ranks of the poor are increasing; there are jobs, but too many at wages that can barely cover subsistence living. You can get a happy meal for less than a gallon of gas now, and buying both feeds the same corporate machine which is raking in record profits at a time when our country is teetering on the edge of a major climate and economic shift.

When we, the people, are afraid, we’re so easy to manipulate. People concerned about cost of living? Just parade a few gays around, mention the sanctity of marriage. If that doesn’t work, show an Arab.

Take the events of this past week. The members of the Democratic party in Connecticut did a very rare thing: they kicked out an incumbent candidate in favor of a relative unknown. Why? Because the incumbent no longer represented the views of the people in Connecticut. He, Joe Lieberman, supported the war in Iraq; almost fanatically. They, the voters, do not.

What was the result of this action? Leading Republicans come out saying that the Democratic party was being manipulated by the ‘extreme’ element, and that it was soft on security; completely forgetting that many members of the Republican party itself are against this war in Iraq now; completely disregarding everything that’s been uncovered the last few years that proved–proved– that iraq was not a threat; absolutely ignoring the growing belief that rather than make our country more secure, we’re just creating more support for those who would have been most likely eliminated if we had just focused our energies in the correct direction.

As fate would have it, the very next day we had another terrorist scare. This time dozens of people from throughtout the world were arrested for a plot to create untold numbers of dead. What were the headlines? “Unimaginable death and destruction?” Yet, this is a world that watched as a tidal wave killed a quarter of a million people a little over a year ago because there were no early warning systems in place. This not counting the thousand who died from Katrina last year, the hundreds from the heat this year, the thousands who die daily from something as simple as hunger.

(Unimaginable death and destruction. Tell, me: how many planeloads of people does it take to equal the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq? Now, how many to equal the number of civilians killed in Iraq and Lebanon? If they were on planes, would their deaths ‘mean’ more?)

Exactly how far will this newly refreshed fear be driven? All the way to November? Let’s see how this impacts on flying. The following are the restrictions for carry-on baggage from American Airlines:

Passengers Transiting In The United Kingdom Only
All U.K. transiting passengers will be required to check any carry-on items they bring to the airport regardless of origination. Passengers who have already departed the U.S. and will be connecting in the U.K. will not be allowed to use the transit area within U.K. airports and will be routed back to the ticket counters to check their carry-on luggage.

All Flights Departing From The United Kingdom
All carry-on baggage must be processed as checked baggage for all flights departing from airports in the United Kingdom (U.K.). American Airlines will waive excess baggage charges through August 17, 2006, for those passengers who need to check their carry-on bags due to these new restrictions, up to a maximum of two excess pieces. All other baggage rules apply.

Nothing may be carried in passengers’ pockets. Passengers may only take the following items through the airport security checkpoint, in a single transparent plastic bag:

* pocket size wallets and pocket size purses plus contents (money, credit cards, identity cards, etc. but not handbags or purses)
* travel documents essential for the journey (passports and travel tickets)
* prescription medicines and medical items sufficient and essential for the flight (a diabetic kit for example), except in liquid form unless verified as authentic.
* eye glasses and sunglasses, without cases
* contact lens cases, without bottles of solution
* for those traveling with an infant: baby food, milk (the contents of each bottle must be tasted by the accompanying passenger) and sanitary items sufficient and essential for the flight (wipes, creams, disposal bags)
* female sanitary items sufficient and essential for the flight, if unboxed
* tissues (unboxed) and/or handkerchiefs
* keys (but no electrical key fobs)

If an item does not appear in the list above it is NOT allowed. Additionally, no liquids, gels or other items of similar consistency are permitted to enter the sterile areas. This also includes liquids and gel products purchased as duty free.

There’s nothing I would like better than to be a woman having to board a plane holding tampons in hand. How about holding tampons in one hand, baby in another, and having to taste my own pumped mother’s milk, just to verify that it isn’t nitro. Better yet: having to do so while checking in my laptop and camera, so that the baggage handlers can use them as footballs just before they get stolen. Actually, there’s some comfort in this: the camera and laptop will be so badly damaged, the thieves won’t be able to sell the items.

Personally, I’d love to see a policy severely limiting carry-ons. I get tired of people who bring their entire household with them on the plane. But until airlines realize you have to get baggage handlers who actually give a damn about their jobs, and then pay them accordingly, as well as actually developing consistent global security policies that are worth something more than news bites, forgive me if I look at all this recent fooflah as nothing more than political maneuvering.

As for this new round of fear, just like in the 1960’s you can only push fear at people for so long before they push back. It’s time for our government to be afraid, very afraid. Not of terrorists, but of laughter.

zeFrank’s Be Afraid–funny and serious, an explosive combination. Don’t take this man on a plane in your carry-on.

Mr. Science says Let’s all pour our liquids into the same container in a crowded airport terminal and see what happens, shall we? (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

And you know what’s really funny? Laughter scares the shit out of the terrorists, too.

Just Shelley

Automatic Enrollment

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

In order to work on the contract for a large company earlier this year, I had to take employment with another company. This isn’t that unusual, though I typically won’t accept such conditions–I am an independent, and if there’s concern about taxes being paid, a simple filing of a 1099 with the government will ensure I square up at year’s end.

Regardless, it’s not unusual to have to work for one company to contract for another. What was unusual was finding in one of my paychecks an unauthorized withdrawal for the company 401(k). That’s when I found out about a new concept called automatic enrollment.

It would see that people are not contributing enough to their company’s 401(k)s. Chances are most people don’t because they barely make enough to make ends meet. After all, costs of goods has increased while wages have remained relatively static. The thing is, though, for those who do contribute, especially the larger contributors, the fewer company employees participate, the less money they accrue to their account. In other words: those in upper management and making higher wages are impacted when those making less don’t set aside some of their money in order to bolster a weak 401(k) (raise ADP scores, I believe it is.)

As for the fund management companies, John Hancock in this instance, the fewer people contribute to them the less money they have to invest, and the less fees they can take.

Now, one would think that withdrawing from a person’s paycheck without their permission would be illegal. It’s true that 32 states have anti-garnishment laws that seemingly conflict with this practice, but the IRS is all for it. One reason given is that this makes 401(k)s less discriminatory.

Another is that it’s seen as a way to encourage people into contributing to their future retirement. There’s concern that people are ‘intimidated’ by 401(k) plans and this is why they don’t participate. Again, though, when people are barely making it month to month, retirement is a long ways off. Since it’s a company’s lower paid employees (who, interestingly enough, seem to make the bulk of said companies), who are not participating and making the plan less feasible for those who are, I would say that retirement is less a concern than paying $4.00 a gallon for gas.

A person can choose not to participate. However, most people, especially contractors such as myself, when sent packages regarding employee contributed retirement plans don’t necessarily look through it to find out that the company practices automatic enrollment–especially when you’ve never heard of it before. I just tossed the package when it came, as I knew I didn’t want to participate in the plan. Big mistake.

Once I found out about the automatic enrollment, I canceled it, but here’s the kicker on this approach: I couldn’t receive the money until the employment was terminated. Once the contract was finished, I now have to fill out a form, copies of which go to the IRS as well as the pension fund, just to get this money back. As it is, the pension plan charged a fee for ‘managing’ my contribution; and the IRS will charge a fee, now, because I’m taking ‘early’ withdrawal.

And if people were intimidated about 401(k) plans before automatic enrollment, what makes anyone think that they’ll be less intimidated now that they’re automatically enrolled? A 401(k) requires informed decisions to be truly effective. Without, incidents such as the recent Enron escapade happen, and everyone loses their money.

A better approach would be to provide education about 401(k) plans to employees–and this includes those aspects of the plan where the IRS is involved. Many people are concerned, and rightfully, about needing to get access to this money because of a future problem and worry about having to pay penalties to the IRS.

More importantly, it’s better, by far, for lower income people to use cash rather than credit card, and to eliminate credit card debt. If the person is automatically enrolled in a 401(k), told it’s good for them, confused about the practice, and then because they don’t have the extra cash, go out and spend more using credit cards with 18 to 28% interest — whatever they make in their investment is offset by their use of the cards. Cards many times issued by the same companies that provide such plans.

There is a great deal of inertia among young people to invest in 401(k)s, but again, young adults are paying off student loans, buying cars and houses, furniture, getting married, generally just establishing themselves in life. It’s not usual for young people to push the ‘future’ out to the future. I can agree that perhaps this is a mistake and should be discouraged.

As has been discussed, though, in numerous financial publications, automatic enrollment puts these people into the absolute safest investments; investments that don’t necessarily return enough to make the investment worthwhile. These deductions do, however, add to the overall health of the fund–upping the ‘ratings’ and some such thing (there’s a lot more to this than is apparent from all the noble talk.)

Now 401(k) plans are a good thing, especially when the company contributes matching funds (mine didn’t). Again, though, they require active participation of the employee to be truly effective. As it is, for all the talk about ‘helping out the little folk’, I don’t think it’s clear exactly who does benefit from increased 401(k) participation: the lower income wage earners? Or the higher income wage earners, with a lot of money to invest?

Why am I writing about this now? Because Congress just passed pension fund and 401(k) reform legislation providing for, among other things, automatic enrollment for all companies that offer 401(k) plans, regardless of individual state concerns. Though the reform is welcome, as well as permanent passage of some of the limits, the bill is controversial for a number of reasons, not the least is that this is seen as pushing companies away from more traditional pension plans, into 401(k)s; something Sam Ruby can attest to as IBM has frozen its pension fund in favor of automatic enrollment 401(k)s.

The real irony of Congress passing this bill is that, in the same week, it failed to raise the minimum wage. Again. This follows last year’s passing of the so-called ‘bankruptcy reformation’ (which immediately had to be altered because of Katrina related losses). This follows on Congressional support for major drug companies over some old person trying to save a few pennies on their prescriptions (not to mention the only health care reform passed in the last 8 years — the Medicare Drug Plan.) This follows the green light Congress has given to telecommunication companies to control the ‘pipes’, so to speak. This follows on increases in the costs of gas by up to 50%, at the same time oil companies have earned their highest profits (many of them helped along by ’subsidies’ Congress can’t seem to find time to eliminate.) This follows on…

Well, let’s just say there’s a long string of ‘follows on’. Whether you’re a member of the social goodworld awarecorporate and family values, or the kill or be killed parties, be aware of this new legislation and run, don’t walk, to your HR and ask what this means for you.

Update Wikipedia article on 401(k)s because most of it is beyond my kin.

Just Shelley

Minnesota’s Fringe Festival

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Birdchick writes on her husband’s participation in this year’s Fringe Festival in Minnesota.

The concept of the Fringe Festival is fascinating, and I wish we had something similar here in St. Louis. I gather that every year, people submit ideas, and a lottery determines which are included in the Festival. That’s it: no juries to judge which performance is, or is not, included. The performances are scattered about the city, feature any type of art, and anyone is welcome to participate. It’s a wonderful idea.

Way to go, Minnesota. Next year, I’m spending August with the fringe, in the land o’ lakes

Diversity Weblogging Writing

Measuring Success

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Before I started the new weblog(s), I told a friend that I was going to avoid saying anything even remotely critical about BlogHer. It does no good to do so, I told him.

I’m sure he knew that I could not follow this vow. I don’t know if being critical of Blogher will do any ‘good’ or not. I do know that fighting for women to be heard–inside blogging or not– has been a part of me for too many years to see it co-opted into a new business model; or used as an excuse to disregard women (even the flirty, sexy, beautiful ones) the other 360 ought days when BlogHer is not running.

I wanted to point you to Jeneane and Stowe Boyd’s response to Dave Winer’s Blogher recap. I particularly want to empathize Boyd’s reaction to the conference, which I found honest and direct. Tara Hunt also came out with a post related to some of the ‘bloghim’ responses. In addition, she provided her reasons why Blogger is not for her–most of which parallel other’s thoughts.

I’d already mentioned my concerns about the marketing aspects of BlogHer. These were, in a way, enforced by Lisa Stone’s only mention of the conference at the BlogHer site. In it she discusses the ’success’ of the women in the keynote panel of the conference; their success, and how, it would seem, the new BlogHer measures such:

If success is the best revenge, revenge must be sweet indeed for this quartet. For today, each of these women todays enjoys kudos from their readers/users (even critics), while at the same time being able to point to cold, hard facts such as Web traffic and revenue that demonstrate their ideas were worth pursuing.

Is that the true mark of a good idea within weblogging? Web traffic and revenue? Not writing or worth of the thought or the person…web traffic and revenue?

Women make up 50% of weblogging. That used to be a rallying cry, demanding that we be heard. Now it’s been reduced to facts and figures to place in front of the likes of Johnson & Johnson, GM, or some condom maker. This is influencing, heavily, the direction BlogHer seems to be taking.

Barbara Ganley wrote on some of this, in reference to the fact that DOPA passed–a law that has dangerous implications to the freedom of the Net in our country. Not a word was mentioned at BlogHer:

…rumbling through the two days was, as Laura points out, a strong whiff of the almighty dollar. People were looking for hints on increasing traffic to their blogs, making money blogging, encouraging advertisers. In sessions I attended, and in the buzz around the pool, there was a whole lot of attention paid to getting people to your blogs. Fascinating.

Okay, so I learned that my world is indeed what I expected to find out–a bit out of touch. But I expected there to be a huge outcry against DOPA–after all, Danah Boyd spoke on Day Two. But no–NOTHING within my earshot. And in fact, as I went around talking about it, I found out that many, many bloggers, including those in academic circles, hadn’t even heard of it. How can that be? I was shocked and not a little bothered–we were surrounded by the sponsors giving us everything from zipdrives to condoms, fake flowers to souped up water; but no talk about legislation that will deepen the digital divide by making blogs and other social networking sites out of reach for kids without computers in the home, and force those who do use the sites underground to form their communities. Read Danah Boyd’s inspired research on MySpace and adolescents if you don’t believe me.

If DOPA did not generate interest, where was the emphasis at BlogHer? From what many of the attendees stated: Mommyblogging.

I salute parents (and grandparents, and uncles, and aunts, and close family friends) who write about their children but that term is offensive–to women and to men. It forms a clique, a ring that keeps women without children on the outside, as if we’re freaks of the natural order. However, it has a catchy sound, doesn’t it?

Not all think so, though. One blogger, after a night at the conference seated next to a table of mommybloggers, wrote her opinion of it in no uncertain terms. The backlash was immediate, and not unexpected. I didn’t agree with much of what she said, but I can understand why at 2 in the morning she felt the need to say it.

What was unexpected, though, was that at so many of the sites that condemned her, there was a strong element of their being right, with much murmuring that there will always be women who turn against their own kind; women who aren’t warm and nurturing because they use such harsh terms. Wait until she has a child, they would say, then she’ll see. I must have read that dozens of times. Wait until she has a child. All the while, of course, not being able to link to her because it might shock the sensibilities of their audience. Or worse: give her attention.

(I thought the comment, I hope one of their kids barfs on your shoes was rather funny, though.)

Mothers, and empowerment. Leaving aside their disbelief that a woman would actually choose not to have children, these women, these mothers who feel so empowered, have forgotten their history. The earliest advertisements on TV were geared towards mothers. Much of the ads in early print were geared towards mothers. Yet mothers still send their children off to war. Mothers still worry over their sick babies, because they can’t afford a doctor and health insurance costs too much. If mothers have power, where are the changes we must assume every mother wants?

If we, women and men both, follow a path where the only measure of success is the number of ads at our site, the links we have, the money we make, then the only power we’re exercising is that of consumer–catered to, perhaps; but essentially meaningless.

Melinda Casino, who is both a contributing editor and was a panel presenter at BlogHer, wrote a long and thoughtful response about her impressions of Blogher tonight. It was titled, appropriately enough, Goodby Grassroots BlogHer. In it she lists out her disappointments of the conference, including the marketing and, ironically, the lack of diversity.

She talked about one incident:

…I was sitting in the audience waiting for a presentation to start, when a woman came up and knelt down by my side. She seemed friendly and I thought perhaps she’d seen my presentation on Day One, and wanted to chat about it. Or maybe she was familiar with my BlogHer posts…

I realized with a sinking feeling, as she handed me her card and a book, that she was making a one-to-one sales pitch. I politely accepted her “gifts”, sensing she’d then move on to the next customer, and she did.

I read in the liveblogging of the session on sex how the representative of the company that supplied the condoms for the goodie bag participated in the discussion. From this, I gather we can rest assured that the constuction of their condoms is of the highest quality.

I will freely admit that it is Melinda’s post that spurred me to write this one last post on BlogHer. When she mentioned this event, it reminded of all the concerns that have been expressed the last few years about the growing ’selling’ of weblogging–that one day we would be sitting there, in pleasant expectation of a conversation, only to be given a sales pitch. When the lines start blurring, we don’t know what’s real anymore. That will kill this environment faster than any law like DOPA.

Melinda also mentioned about the married, heterosexual, mother focus of the event:

Lisa WilliamsAn audience member got up and contributed a comment during the closing discussion on Day Two. She said something like, “There are a lot of married women with children here…” I thought she was going to segue into making a point about how we’re not all heterosexual married mothers. But to my surprise her statement—and it was just a statement at that point—was interrupted with a big round of applause.

I’d like to point out, sans applause, that:

woman ≠ mother

woman ≠ heterosexual

I don’t do Melinda’s writing justice. I suggest that you read the rest of what she wrote. It took a lot of guts to write it, and I admire her greatly for doing so. I wish now that I still had Burningbird, so I could send her and the others I mention in this post more traffic. Barring this, I hope a heartfelt “Well done”, will do.

I won’t write on BlogHer again. No truly, this time I won’t. I would ask that the company remove the tagline “Where the Women are”, because it really isn’t all that true anymore. Is it? Still, if they don’t, such is life.

I also wish, and I mean it, much success for the organization. I have no illusions that I will change anyone’s viewpoint with this writing. Perhaps the emphasis on women’s purchasing power can, this time, be used as a weapon for social change. In this, I hope they succeed.

I’m going a different path, though. One that doesn’t measure success based on ads, links, and revenue. And I’m not going to look back.


An excellent somewhat alternative perspective of the conference, via a metaphor of shoes, by Maria of alembic. These boots are made for walking, indeed.

Kevin Marks also posted another thoughtful viewpoint of the event and some of the responses.

Less than impressed with Jory Des Jardin’s defense against accusations of ’selling out’, which was not a part of the criticism.


According to Phil in my comments, and this post the blogger who stood up may have said she was unmarried and didn’t have kids.

Regardless, this shouldn’t be an issue at an all inclusive women’s weblogging conference.