Tag: Denis Johnson

I am my Data: WSJ Reports Planes Used in Spying Program

Design By Joseph Lapin
Design By Joseph Lapin

Right now, I’m sitting at the bar in Thorn Street Brewery in North Park, San Diego, drinking an American Strong Ale. B.B. King is on the radio, and a bartender is pouring pints, and she looks like one of the characters out of a Denis Johnson short story. This place feels like it’s about to turn into a juke joint, as they’re now blaring the “Mess Around,” glasses are clinking, and people are talking loudly over the music. The bartender is now shaking her hips, trying to tease the tips out of the wallets. What I’m thinking about is turning to the bald guy in the teal polo sitting on the stool next to me and telling him about a story I read recently in the Wall Street Journal, but I think he would end up thinking I was the neighborhood mad man.

Basically, I want to tell this guy next to me and the old woman drinking a beer in front of me like it’s a hot tea about the brand new American spy program. I want to tell them all about how “the Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of mobile phones through devices deployed on airplanes that mimic cellphone towers,” as reported by the WSJ. I want to tell them that this program has been instituted secretly since 2007, and it’s really freaking brilliant and scary and wrong and right all at the same time. I want to say this as I hear stiletto heels clomping along the hardwood floors and the bartender now complains how she is so hungover from her birthday last night.

Here’s what happens: the Cessna aircraft “mimic cell towers … and trick cellphones into reporting” their data in hopes of tracking down terrorists or drug dealers. The technology is so impressive that it’s reported to be able to pinpoint targets “under investigation by the government,” and it sweeps thousands of phones at the same time in order to nail down the targets exact location, even within a massive skyscraper, while pushing aside ‘innocent bystanders and “letting go” of their data.

Of course, the Justice Department is neither confirming or denying the report, but they are defending the action by the U.S. Marshals Service, as reported by several sources, and it’s in line with a much larger stance that our government has taken on data: Whatever works for the greater good and security of our country is within the Constitution and, yes, The Dark Knight.

But how many people were shocked by this news? I mean, Kim Kardashian broke the Internet, and it wasn’t the news of another American spy program. Now, relax, I’m not trying to get on a high horse here and discuss why it’s important that we pay attention to the news over celebrities showing their gorgeous and stunning booties (We only have one life [unless you’re a buddhist], and if you want to spend it cramming your brain with celebrities asses and their petty relationships, then I support you; I watch plenty of ESPN), but what really just shocks me is that we still don’t care that our data is being harvested like Monsanto corn and that we still don’t see this massive data collection as an invasion of privacy.

I actually argued this in a Salon article I wrote after I heard that our government admitted to the existence of Area 51, and I’m still trying to make this point today. (People shredded my article on the comment boards.) As a country, we’re so used to our authorities lying to us, spying on us, fucking with us, playing with us, tricking us, mind-fucking us, that we eventually stopped being shocked, we stopped being scared, we stopped caring.

The truth is planes collecting our data on a massive scale with approval from an actual court system that is relatively secret isn’t thought of as shocking anymore. Think about it: we’ve since this well before Will Smith starred in I, Robot. Remember Enemy of the State? This isn’t even the only movie that shows how invaded our civil liberties are in terms of data collection. There are countless.

Our pop culture and news have reported on data invasion more times than Kevin Bacon has appeared in films. I feel somewhat bad for the WSJ. They broke a gigantic story, but it’s already old. It’s almost a footnote in the battle for civil liberties in the digital age. I mean, this is what the ACLU said in the WSJ article:

Maybe it’s worth violating privacy of hundreds of people to catch a suspect, but is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples’ privacy?

So yes, I get it. I’m not an idiot. Advancing technology can have a gigantic impact on the protection of our country. Yes, it’s important to use these new techniques to capture dangerous criminals in order to safeguard our communities, our people, our children, our infrastructure, the very bedrock of the American people. It’s important that I can have the freedom and the safety to sit in this bar and criticize my government while B.B. King just seduces Lucille with so much charm and sex that it feels the sound is about to melt the walls. (Yeah, I’m going overboard with my metaphors, but that’s my right as an American [lol!].) I’m not trying to take the stance that data can’t be used to help fight crime, but I am against the idea that collecting my data isn’t an invasion of privacy.

When the U.S. Marshals fly over “most of the U.S. population” collecting the remnants of my cellphone, I take that personally. I read that as they’re literally snatching pieces of my unconscious and conscious thoughts. What I surf on my phone, my location, my texts, my browsing history are really intensely personal parts of my existence. It’s like when someone drives your car and rifles through your music collection or the police walk into your home and check your browsing history or that Spotify is sharing with the world what you’re currently listening to without fully being cognizant of this information.

I am my data, and when I was born as an American, I didn’t sign a freaking terms of service that allowed the government to invade my privacy. I take offense to my government collecting my data with planes and fake cell phone towers without my permission, without my knowledge. Perhaps I would be all right with this type of security if I was given the options and the collection of my data was guaranteed to be private, but I don’t trust my government yet. I believe that whatever technology the media reports on the Justice Department will already be 1,ooo steps behind what  technology their currently using to “protect” our lives and invade them at the same time.

Wow, someone in the bar behind me just yelled, “you’re a fucking sniper.” Well, that’s it. I’m signing out from North Park, San Diego. Remember, your comments are always appreciated — especially if you disagree with me.

What Writing Creatively Really Needs: Hope

The last week was great, because I was able to take some time away from pitching and writing and step back a bit.  I’ve been freelancing, now, for four months, and it’s time to take stock of where I am at.  It’s a difficult journey, but I have great support.  Over the last two weeks, I have had work appear at the LA Weekly, OC Weekly, and Salon.com, but when I look back on the last four months, my creative work has suffered a bit.  I’ve been so focused on trying to write for projects that will help me survive that I’ve forgotten, to some extent, about poetry, about short stories, about my memoir.

Maybe that was a part of the plan.  Maybe I needed some distance.  And when Thanksgiving “break” came, I found myself writing a new story, and it was my first true science fiction story.  It’s set in a Los Angeles in the future, and while I feel somewhat nerdy writing the story, it’s been a pleasure to allow my imagination to wander — to envision a new world.  And this has helped rev up the creative process.

This would have never happened four years ago.  I would never have even given science fiction a chance.

When I was in graduate school, I started out only interested in literary pieces.  I was (and still am) a huge fan of Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, Stuart Dybek, Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Junot Diaz, and I only cared about one story — the lyrical, literary story.  I actually had a teacher in undergrad, after much pleading to tell me where I needed to grow as a writer, tell me that I only valued the realistic story.

But when I got to FIU, I met a teacher who started to introduce me to genre — especially Noir and horror.  I was resistant at first.  I thought genre was for hacks who wanted to make money.  Then I started to read Raymond Chandler, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.  One of the best anthologies this teacher suggested was the American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny From Poe to the Pulps.  I suddenly became aware of the tremendous possibilities of genre and the infinite combinations — even surrealism, abstraction, the philosophically stirring existed within the forms.  Yes, I was ignorant and stubborn, but I was learning.  So I read everything from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau to Borges, and I saw similarities and possibilities.

Now, this isn’t any new revelation.  Just look at Michael Chabon and many other writers experimenting with genre.  But I was suddenly freed from the reality that all writing had to be real and true.  Truth is a word, anyway, that has nothing to do with facts or even reality.

So I wrote my first horror story at FIU, and at first, it was torn apart, somewhat, in the workshops.  I had a tendency, then, and a tendency, now, to go over the top.  So I revised and worked on it.  And about two weeks ago, it was accepted into a future anthology by Sirens Call Publications.  The story is called: “The Castle on the Hill.”  The anthology is a haunted mental-ward theme.

My point is this: sometimes in order to feel free again, to be reminded of the infinite  possibilities of this world, of art, of writing, it’s important to live within a form, a genre, a guiding principle.  Sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s better to be free and without direction.  Right now, I feel somewhat stuck in between both ideas.

I’ll wake up tomorrow, and I won’t truly know what the day will bring. I’ll sit down to write a pitch, and I might find a better idea.  I’ll sit down to finish a story, and I might end up writing a poem.  And maybe it’s only in this searching, in this lost wandering do we come to direction, to guidance, to form.  Well, the most important commodity, when it comes to writing, has to be hope.  Hope that you will find a thread.  Hope that your character will come alive.  Hope that you will finish.  Hope that you will be appreciated.  Hope that you will find the words to say what is pulling at your heart-strings.  Hope is what gets us through the feeling of being lost.

And so now, I must come to a stopping point.  I didn’t really know where this blog was going to take me.  I didn’t know really what was even on my mind.

Music in My Life and Writing

Before I was even born, my mother was playing music directed towards her womb so I could hear.  My mother used to sing at church, and for hours a day she was in our basement, playing and singing in front of a beat-up upright piano.  The keys were jagged, and they would cut you if you weren’t careful.  She taught my brother and me how to play.

So when it came time for me to choose my instrument, I took up the drums.  I had a couple of bands as a kid, and I even went to college for music at Stetson University.  They had a great program, but they were mostly a classic program with a very strict and small jazz program.  Well, I wasn’t into that at the time — now I love classical — and during college I realized, suddenly, I didn’t want to make a living out of music.  I didn’t want it to be the only thing in my life.  One day, I will tell you the story of a great professor, Dr. Michael Raymond, who changed my life and made me want to be a writer.

I hated the music school at Stetson.  I liked the people, but I hated the program.  And it was a top-notch program — just not for me.  I wanted to play the drum set, and I wanted to play the set LOUD.  I used to go into the drum room, and one of the teachers used to complain that he couldn’t concentrate.  So I quite to become a writing major, which is eventually my chosen path.

But even though music isn’t what I wanted to center my life around, it still plays an integral part of my day and my writing.  Let me explain.   Continue reading “Music in My Life and Writing”