Tonight I attended a candlelight vigil for Mumbai at Boston’s City Hall. A few hundred people were there — more South Asian faces than I’d normally see in a Boston crowd, and other faces of all kinds. The service was sometimes muffled by the sounds of the city, but simply being among so many people and religious leaders of several faiths, holding candles in the comfort of a circle, felt good and meaningful.

At the bus stop next to the vigil, a bus pulled up. Along the top were images of coffee beans, an Indian man… it was an Incredible India ad. I tugged the sleeve of the man next to me, needing a witness. His eyes lit up.

After the service, I lined up to write my ‘message to Mumbai’ in a book provided by the organizers. Vigil for Mumbai, by my much taller friend, AlexisI quickly read a few other messages; they were long and heartfelt.

The attack upset me deeply. In trying to stay connected and inform my worry, I was surprised by how much the geographical distance actually mattered. The U.S. mainstream media — television, radio, and Internet — were blank. The Web provided pockets of information and corners for emotional togetherness, but searching for them became too much (though I did find a few sites I can turn to in the future).

Sometimes conversation isn’t useful, and images shouldn’t be processed alone. I am grateful to the organizers of tonight’s gathering for bringing people together, and giving us thoughtful people to listen to. I hope the people of Mumbai know just how much their loss of life and security has touched people so far away.

 

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Credit Card Isolationism

October 21, 2008

Sometimes it feels that there’s a conspiracy to keep U.S. citizens from leaving the country or even wanting to. In addition to the obvious news media blackout and cultural isolationism (e.g. denying entry visas to world performers), there are passport processing delays, sky-high airfares, a weak dollar, and now… our credit cards don’t even work in Europe.

A year ago in France I had no problem except at train ticket kiosks. But two weeks ago, I was able to use my Citibank Mastercard at only three vendors during a one-week visit. And those had to be convinced to try. I called Citibank and a helpful supervisor explained: Europe now requires all credit cards to have a chip (a gold square embedded in the plastic card) and a pin. These are credit, not debit, cards, and you securely enter the pin at the point of purchase. (The supervisor said she wasn’t informed of this issue until customers started calling in.)

A Boston Globe article and this other good article confirm that I am not alone.

The Citibank supervisor searched her list for a card with a chip and pin that I could get, but found none. According to the Globe article, there won’t be any for a while:

“It would be costly to change all the transaction terminals in the US,” says Don Rhodes, director of risk management policy at the [American Bankers’ Association], “and right now the industry doesn’t seem to feel the level of fraud justifies it.”

Great. To the already compromised reputation of American travelers, we can now add “backwards” and “unable-to-pay”. I wish I could threaten these credit card companies that we travelers might just get used to life without credit cards. But I’d be lying. I want one, and I want it to work everywhere I go.

Addendum 10/22/08: Here’s a more detailed article in the Globe about the debate over the costs and benefits chip-and-pin card deployment. Why can’t the credit card companies offer U.S. consumers chip-and-pin cards with the magnetic strip without immediately updating the U.S. transaction terminals? When in the U.S., the magnetic strip is read, and when in Europe, the chip-and-pin is read. The cynic in me suspects there is no good reason for not doing this, while the idealist in me looks forward to a good explanation, which I will share should I come across it.

I spent last weekend in Western Massachusetts, visiting my parents and enjoying a summer performance in the fresh mountain air at Tanglewood.

Freed from the seemingly endless To Do list of my Cambridge life, I embraced one of those projects that nearly always ends up at the bottom of the pile. I descended into my parents’ basement to winnow a few boxes of personal memorabilia. They were mostly grade school and college notebooks, awards certificates, and personal essays assigned by voyeuristic middle school “English” teachers who know they’re panning for gold during a rush.

Even a media girl will tolerate only so many boxes of dormant paper, because someday her parents will make her store them herself. At least computers arrived partway through this lifelong accumulation of paper, creating the illusion that one is a minimalist (and then making it a reality through malfunction or obsolescence). But, with the paper that remains, it’s so hard to know what to keep and what to throw.* 

However, there was no question as to the fate of one yellowed 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper. In 1987, a summer school teacher wrote a brief evaluation of my participation in a class where we made our own magazine:

Rekha was a fast learner in the art of “lay-out” and “paste-up.” She has a good logical mind for organizing material, and likes to add her own creative touch to the format of a magazine. I appreciated the leadership she provided as editor and enjoyed working with her on her own articles.

I was thirteen years old. In the years that followed, I considered careers in interior decorating, environmental law, medicine, architecture, photography, international diplomacy, or something that would fulfill my eighth grade class designation as First to Make a Million. I eventually faced my destiny and went into media… and here I am, 20 years later, laying out digital objects and curating content with logic and creativity. I might have saved myself a lot of searching if I had paid attention to these little indicators. Then again, what I do now didn’t exist back then.

ADDENDUM
[Because I was reminded that truth, edited for narrative flow, will still be treated as truth (see comments).] There’s another story about how my earliest memories include sitting in the back of my parents’ car, listening somewhat involuntarily to NPR. And how, while a teenager, lots of people told me I had a great voice, and that I should be a journalist, and how I agreed but for many years I was too scared to try. But that’s going to have to wait until I find another artifact to peg it on.

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*I would be curious as to other people’s criteria for retaining or letting go of personal artifacts over the years.

Not too long ago, most people I knew continued to harbor a certain social prejudice well after the major social prejudices had fallen out of favor among the thinking set. This prejudice was not against a person, or a stereotype. It was against the computer.

No one ever spoke openly of this prejudice. It was transmitted subtly: a gentle roll of the eyes when someone cautiously suggested that a quick Google search might resolve the conversational impasse; a derisive snort when the token geek in the room offered to show the group what he or she was working on. When a friend said in mixed company that her local movie theater used to project video game play on the big screen for public viewing, there was an unmistakable ‘only in Maine’ undercurrent to the response.

Those of us who were less prejudiced almost unconsciously learned to suppress our impulses to introduce a computer into good old human interaction. With labels like “video game addict”, “internet addict”, and “geek” with a “dork” intonation floating around, it was best to keep demonstrations of the non-physical world to oneself.

(This unspoken rule had one exception: The showing of one’s digital photos on one’s computer with everyone gathered around. A descendant of slide carousels and photo albums. Here, eyerolls meant that the photographer took twice what they would have taken on film and edited nothing.)

I didn’t feel the oppression, as I had internalized the prejudice. There’s one keyboard, one screen, and one pointing device. Computer use is individual by design. Look inside a cafe or office and you get the idea.* It followed that introducing such a private physical relationship into mixed company would be considered unseemly.

About three years ago, however, my unconscious attitudes surfaced and changed. Martin Wattenberg came to MIT to talk about “The Social Life of Visualizations.” He focused on how people socialize around visualizations of data, the most fun example being his NameVoyager, which lets people enter a name and see a graph of its popularity over time:

When we launched the NameVoyager, we expected that it would be of interest to expectant parents… What we did not expect was that it became popular even among people with no interest in children. The site has received millions of visits since launch, and has been the subject of thousands of blog posts and online conversations. The activity around this visualization was one of the inspirations for my current research focus on the social aspects of data visualization and analysis.

Martin showed several other examples of how data visualizations inspire (mostly online) sociality, and how well-designed data visualizations inspired people to interact more deeply with the data in the process of interacting with each other.

I was totally with him on this. Soon after, I was with a pregnant friend, and she let me pull up the NameVoyager on her computer. We had a ball looking up names of everyone we knew and every name she had considered for the baby. With Martin’s emphasis on digital sociality fresh in my mind, I became acutely aware of my own different but related assumption that computers and people shouldn’t mix in physically social space. Yet here we were having so much fun. I began to feel a sort of defiant validation… why NOT bring computers into conversation?

Me in my element

My new liberation was not confined to displays of data; it was about Web surfing in general. In my self-proclaimed role as an avid media curator, I find all sorts of cool stuff online. And since my personal breakthrough, I unapologetically pull this stuff up on the nearest web-enabled computer when the conversation leads me there. I call this social surfing, not to be confused with the Web 2.0 version that assumes people are alone in their physical space and socializing only online.

As you can see from the photo, I am serious about this. I even like to think I’m particularly good at it. Usually I show the coolest new thing I’ve found. But there are some classics as well, which I especially enjoy showing to people who are easily amazed by the Web. These include:

My enduring takeaway from Martin’s talk became much broader than he intended. But I do have him to thank for it.

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*Now, of course, people are often very social online. Yet even online socializing has experienced prejudice, that of being viewed as less authentic — or simply less social — than in-person interaction.

When people talk about microblogging they usually mention twitter. That has a distancing effect on me, because I don’t take twitter all that seriously. (Quick explanation: microblogging is blogging, but with more frequent updates of very little text – less than 200 characters.)

So, I hear “microblogging”, and I think, “that thing I can’t relate to.” Or, when I’m feeling darker, I think, “that thing that serves as yet another indicator of the degeneration of our society’s communications and eventually, society itself.” (Kind of like this comment and the one below it on flickr’s Atrocious Apostrophe’s [sic] group.)

Delicious Firefox add-onBut I can be slow sometimes, it’s true. No, really. Yesterday, while perusing my many RSS feeds, I saw the word “microblogging”, had one of my above thoughts, and then resumed surfing. Saw a link I liked, and clicked the delicious add-on button in my Firefox browser. (Quick explanation: delicious lets you save Web sites and share them with other people who use delicious.)

And as I began to enter text in the notes field of the “add bookmark” popup, I finally realized:

I’m a microblogger, too.

:-)

**Update: Russell Buckley of MobHappy writes an interesting roundup of the Web 2.0 Expo that I attended last week. He muses on twitter’s version of microblogging, and, incidentally, includes a spot-on critique of conferencing techniques that I, too, find to be not useful at all.

A few weeks ago I stayed with friends in Santa Monica. I covered a lot of ground in a short period of time.

This travel-log cata-logs the shops, restaurants, parks, and other things I encountered, some of which you might want to encounter too, if you live there or visit.

Overheard while strolling down Main Street in Santa Monica:

Guy with clipboard: “Stop torture?”

Woman entering cafe: “I like torture.”

Me, to myself: (Tee hee.)

Woman: “I’m from Texas.”

Me: (She was kidding… right?)