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March 30, 2008

Retardcapades; or, our heroine breaks her blog

Seriously, how the hell do I fix it so the entries aren't weirdly indented and running way off the right side of the screen? I can't figure out what I did. Is it somewhere in the stylesheet?

Posted by katie at 12:03 PM

March 26, 2008

The Scene of the Crime: Ich bin ein Washingtoner

Part I: Written 11:02 PM EDT, Tuesday, March 25th 2008.

Thereâs a particularly endearing Home Movies episode in which we find out that the kids have ended every single movie theyâve made with the exact same, identically intoned line: âItâs time to pay the price.â But the kids donât realize theyâve been doing it, because every time, it seems like itâs the natural conclusion.

As many of you know, dear readers, I am living in our nationâs capital for the next three months, as the graduate fellow at the UC systemâs study center here. As you may imagine, this has taken some planning and some time spent applying, securing recommendations, getting funding, strategizing, making research plans, and so on. The point is that Iâve been talking about this for awhile.

My charming father responds exactly the same way every time it comes up. Like the Home Movies kids, he delivers his line in a meaningful and ominous tone, and like the kids, I donât think he realizes that he says the same thing, the same way, every time.

âHey Dad,â Iâll say, âIâve almost got my crap together to go to DC next quarter.â
âOh, right,â heâll say. âSo youâre going to the scene of the crime

Today we had the following conversation:

Katie: Hi, Dad. Oh, wait. Itâs really early there, isnât it?
Dad: Itâs about 7 AM. Where are you?
Katie: Iâm in Washington. I just called to say I got in safely.
Dad: Oho, youâre at the scene of the crime?
Katie: Well, actually, Iâll be over there later this afternoon. Right now Iâm in Virginia.
Dad: So youâre next to the scene of the crime.
Katie: Uh, yeah. Iâm staying here until Wednâ
Dad: And then youâll be at the scene of the crime.
Katie: Okay.

My father and I have rather different politics, and so over the months that he has delivered this identical line so many times, I have been unable to bring myself to ask him to which crime, precisely, he is referring. I have a horrible feeling that he actually means Whitewater, or maybe last yearâs Democratic congressional victories. Or perhaps heâs expressing that most timeless of American sentiments: the absolute conviction that whatever the government is up to, it can be safely filed under the heading of No Good.

Even all the way from California, Iâve been able to pick up on the idea that Washington is a government town. I got that. What I didnât extrapolate from that is the fact that, as a government town, and as a government town in what I suppose we might as well refer to as wartime, and as the seat of the military branch of the government, now, therefore, Washington is also a big time military town. I mention this because Iâm unaccustomed to riding public transit or walking down the street with so many people in various kinds of uniform. I would have been less surprised if Iâd encountered the humorless-looking guy in the full border patrol uniform back in LA, quite frankly, where weâre at least close to a border. Here, at the Pentagon City metro station, I wondered what border he could possibly be patrolling. The line between station and street? Is the sidewalk a border, or a liminal zone? But since he had a gun, I decided to keep my fucking trap shut.

Itâs not that Iâm dumb enough to be surprised that thereâs a lot of security in the national capital or anything. But Iâm not accustomed to how it feels, and it makes me uncomfortable to be surrounded by so many people who are essentially living representations of authority and enforcement. And while I also think that my home campus is a little cavalier about security, I was unprepared for the degree of lockdown at the Study Center here. Iâm sure it will become normal in a day or two, but so far today the military-authority stuff is the thing that has thrown me the most.

It makes me keep thinking about my dadâs repeated (and repeated and repeated) one-liner about the scene of the crime. Whatâs going on here doesnât feel to me like the scene of any real or specific crime â whatâs here is actually a scene of criminality. All these uniforms and security measures everywhere are concrete, tangible manifestations of lawfulness and authority, and everywhere they are, they drag the suggestion of latent, intangible, indefinable danger with them. Whatâs safe and good is what you can see, and whatâs scary and weird is the thing that hasnât happened yet. But in a big staged battle between authority and criminality, the visible and the invisible, the known and the feared, I keep wondering: where is the place of the private citizen? At the scene of a crime that hasnât happened yet, how do I know what position I occupy? For that matter, how does the guy in the uniform know?

This isnât simply to complain about the military-industrial complex or my not-so-latent problems with authority. Washington seems like a great city so far, and Iâm living in an awesome neighborhood. Christianâs mom chauffeured my ass around, drove me over cobblestones, provided me with a siesta, and fed me a chicken pot pie; the undergrads got a PowerPoint presentation on alcohol poisoning at their orientation. Iâm fucking worn out from wrapping up the quarter, moving (thanks again, burly friends!), travel, and fighting this stupid cold. Iâm going to sleep now in a comfy, comfy bed in Alexandria, VA, and tomorrow morning this house will be the scene of the crime when I steal Christianâs motherâs towels and sheets and take them to my extravagantly expensive, shoebox-sized apartment at the Center.

All Washington blog updates will be under the category The Scene of the Crime. Tomorrowâs possible topic: Iâve Always Depended on the Kindness of Strangers; or, Does Anyone Know Where My Linens Went?

Part II: Written now

Iâve gotten my internet connection and ID card problems sorted out, with the help of the IT guy, who is an American Studies student at U of Maryland. We hung out and talked about Stuart Hall while he took the worldâs most unflattering ID picture of me and helped me sort out my clearances. So Iâm already on my way to being inured to the military-authority stuff, since now I can actually enter and exit the building and use the internet to learn how to make napalm in my room.

The UC Center is awesome. It feels like back when I had a real job , with a desk, and keys, and a cubicle, and an ID badge. I have a library card for Georgetown. I have copier codes. I have had an agonizing meeting with the professor for whom Iâm working re: the wording on our course syllabus and reorganizing the class so that Iâm responsible for all the work. And then, magically, there was food in the lobby. It reminds me of when I was working at the dot-com. Actually, thereâs also a dog in one of the offices here, and a TV dedicated to video games, so itâs almost exactly like my dot-com job, except that we never took a work field trip to Gettysburg.

Itâs also reminiscent of my dot-com job in that Iâm ostensibly getting paid but itâs not entirely clear what for. I sat down to set myself up at my cubicle, and five minutes later, I stood up and brushed off my hands. âWhoof,â I said. âThereâs that taken care of. Guess itâs time for lunch.â

The main difference is that I have an âapartmentâ upstairs, by which I mean something that looks like what would happen if you built the worldâs smallest hotel room in a hallway. I will try to post pictures later. In the meantime, I have to go back to Alexandria, pick up my other suitcase, come back, and then try to figure out where to buy food. The undergrads got another presentation on alcohol poisoning this morning. I immediately volunteered to chaperone every possible field trip, because this sounds like fun.

Posted by katie at 10:57 AM

March 03, 2008

Retardcapades, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Global Capitalism

Imagine for a moment that you are buying, oh, an extremely expensive high-tech pair of hiking boots. After much shopping youâve found the pair that you think will serve your needs for clambering over some hypothetical mountains. These hiking boots cost a lot, as they tend to, but youâve decided that theyâre worth it because theyâll do what you need. And for the heck of it, letâs say that this brand of boot comes standard with a cushiony gel insole. Are you with me?

Now imagine that the store youâre buying them from offers, for an extra couple of bucks, to include an appropriate pair of hiking socks with your boots. Letâs say itâs a special deal on buying the two together. âGreat!â you say. âI need both hiking boots and hiking socks, and they have taken the trouble of finding some that go together and selling them both to me at a discount!â

Now letâs imagine that youâre halfway across the Grand Tetons in your extremely expensive hiking boots and conveniently included socks, when you realize what the store didnât tell you: that they knowingly threw in a pair of socks that, in combination with the cushiony gel insoles of these particular boots, would cause your feet to catch fire. Q: Does this make any sense?

I have a new friend at the tech support call center who seems to have solved the mystery of why Iâve had three (3!) debilitating virus attacks, each requiring a full system wipe, in the two (2!) months I have owned my new computer. The issue becomes clear when I tell you a secret: the above story is merely a fable. Make the following substitutions to decode the secret meaning!

Yup: Stupid Dell runs Windows Vista (itself perhaps the most unpleasant operating system Iâve ever seen) standard on its products. They also bundle their systems with Trend Micro security software. But Vista + Trend Micro evidently = a whole host of problems that theyâre still just hearing about.

This makes perfect sense, of course, if looked at from the point of view of strategic business alliances rather than that of technology. And since I know exactly jack shit about technology, then the former is in fact the only way that I can look at it. In fact, Iâm kind of impressed by the companyâs ability to tune out irrelevant bullshit about whether certain products work together, or whether they, as is in fact the case, mutually interfere and prevent each other from working.
Q: Why are you bundling these two things together?
A: We have made a deal to bundle these things.
Q: Do they work together?
A: We have made a deal to bundle these things.
Q: They donât break each other, do they?
A: We have made a deal to bundle these things.

I finally got the solution to this puzzle last night when I was on the phone, spluttering mad, with my new friend at tech support.
âWhat do you mean?â I huffed. âYou recommend these things to go together!â
The kid on the other end of the phone produced a prizeworthy Derisive Snort. âI donât recommend this,â he said flatly. âThe company bundles it.â
âAh,â I said, as light dawned.

Because I am technologically retarded I donât trust myself with dangerously anarchist operating systems and open-source software; I assume that anything that I can locate for free on the internet is filled with child-porn viruses; and I prefer not to do much else with the computer other than turn it on or off. (Although at this point Iâve gotten so I can restore the infernal machine to factory condition with no help, with one hand tied behind my back and while eating a sandwich.) This is why I wanted someone else to make all the decisions about software and OS combinations for me. Poor naÃve Katie. All I wanted was to take the damned contraption out of the box and turn it on. I donât want to learn about freeware. I donât want to know what any of this stuff does. I just want it to do it.

Last night I finally just talked to the kid on the phone about what kind of system he has at home and what kind of security programs heâs running. Not at all the stuff his company sold me, but he told me heâs got basically the same system as me and has never had a real problem. I made him stay on the phone with me and spell out URLs letter by letter while I downloaded exactly the same programs that he has. I guess itâs a little like if I called from the Grand Tetons about my flaming feet and had a guy walk me through the process of taking off the combustible socks, filling my boots with free pine needles, and then sticking my feet back in. âGosh,â I imagine myself saying, âthat was easy and free. Are you sure thatâs it?â

âYeah,â I imagine the guy replying. âIâve had pine needles in my shoes for like two years and my feet are fine. Feels better than burning socks, right?â

I wasnât able to have this conversation on either of my previous two calls, because, of course, on all previous occasions I have been talking to extremely polite and well-mannered employees working at an overseas call center someplace. Both of the employees I spoke to had heavy South Asian accents and insisted that they had improbably white-bread names like Bob and Justin. Both evinced, in the manner of those not born on American soil, a work ethic, a willingness to stick to the script, and a degree of employee loyalty that made them ultimately completely unhelpful. âI am going to scream,â I would say somewhere during Hour Two of the phone call. âSend me a new computer or I will kidnap one of the children I seem to hear playing in the background and I will sell them on the organ market.â
âYes, Missus Katie,â âBobâ would say. âDo you mind if we start again with turning off the unit and once again pressing F8 many, many times?â

My new friend, by contrast, sounded like a stoned, bored American college student or a stoned, bored out-of-work programmer â in other words, like exactly the kind of person Iâm accustomed to speaking to. In the manner of the lazy, rude American worker, he cut right to the chase. âOh Jesus,â he said. âThis guy last night had somebody with exactly your problem and they spent like a million fucking hours on the phone trying to rule everything else out. Do you mind if we just start from scratch and I help you set up your system the way I have mine?â
âWhat, you mean the rational and easy way?â I asked, startled.

Both of the employees I spoke to at the Bengali call center spoke lovely and articulate English and were much better at differentiating between similar frustrated utterances than I am in any of the languages Iâve âstudied.â They were unfailingly polite. But last night it was a profound relief to talk to someone who spoke my language.
âThank fucking God,â I said.
âNo shit, dude,â he said.

Posted by katie at 06:10 PM