So I was a big fan of the science fiction TV series Babylon 5. It was created by and for fans of written science fiction, and it didn't shy from social and political criticism.
One continuing plot involved the rise of authoritarianism in "EarthGov". Securitiy guards as well as ordinary citizens were recruited by an organization called "Nightwatch". In order to ensure the "security" of humanity, Nightwatch encouraged its members to report any suspicious activities of their fellow citizens. They'd put up posters saying things like "TRAITORS CAN'T HIDE". And so forth.
I watched this stuff back in the mid-90s... I remember thinking, "It never hurts to repeat these warnings against totalitarianism... After all, my parents went through a lot of these types of things. But still.. This seems a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary in our modern democracy. I can't really imagine this sort of thing happening again any time soon. After all, we've learned our lesson from McCarthyism and all that."
The image on the left is the armband that Nightwatch members wore on Babylon 5. The image on the right is the quickly-pulled logo for the newly created Information Awareness Office in real life.
They used to call their program "Total Information Awareness", but they've since renamed it "Terrorist Information Awareness". I feel sooo much better now. Thank God Congress had the sense to put the smackdown on their proposed TIPS program for recruiting citizens to report on each other, but the USA PATRIOT Act is still mostly intact...
I no longer have the faith I once had in our system. Yes, this country has grown. Yes, we are aware of the lessons of history. But I no longer think Nightwatch is an impossibility. And that scares me.
Now that I'm about to start my first Real Job, I've been looking at expenses and all that. Here's an excerpt on MSNBC from a new book called "The Two-Income Trap". In short, a ridiculous number of middle class families with children are filing for bankruptcy. Both parents work in most of these families. It's just not who you'd expect to be in financial trouble. Today's two-income family generally has less in savings and disposable income than the one-income family of before!
The book points out a major cause: As these families make more money, they spend it all on a bidding war for houses in good school districts. The costs of providing their children "a middle-class upbringing" are getting jacked up. In any case, middle class families who are paying for few luxuries are still going broke.
I think it's interesting how in poor areas, people have children to save money, to have cheap labor, essentially. But in richer areas, the costs of raising children are bleeding families dry.
Oh.. and here's an NYTimes article about the same book. It has more numbers: Adjusting for inflation, the 4-person family today pays 70% more for housing than the 1973 family, while the houses are only about half a room larger. The Times article also has some criticisms of the book, mostly about how it excuses middle class families for not buying cheaper cars and cheaper day care. Still, fascinating stuff. I mean, who knows where I'll be myself in another ten years, eh?
From this article I saw a quote that embodies Ashcroft and the Patriot Act in a nutshell:
"The course we have chosen is constitutional," Ashcroft said recently. "Because we are safer, our liberties are more secure."
Just remember that when the Chinese government fired on college students, they said it was "to preserve stability".
My family just got new cell phones. My mom's phone has a list of pictures you can send along with your text messages. They're mostly various faces with an appropriate label, like "I am sad". Some of the descriptions and faces match better than others. My favorite, though, is the one to your right.
Gotta love it.
Her phone was free, and it's ridiculously small. The catch, though, is that it has a pretty crummy UI, and it's imported from Taiwan. You see, her phone doesn't support voice mail, and I can only guess that this is because they don't have voice mail in Taiwan. But guess what? In kluging together a solution, I got to find out how voice mail notifications really work!
On a typical phone, when someone leaves a message, you get a little voice mail icon. You hit the voice mail button, and it dials up a number to access your voice mail. When you listen to or delete all your messages, the voice mail icon goes away.
When someone leaves a voice mail on my mom's account, she instead gets a text message with the contents: "_@". Pretty wacky, but I guess that's the way voice mail really works? So she has to delete that message and then call up her voice mail manually. (I put the number in her phone book.) Once she clears her messages, she gets another SMS with the contents: "Δ@". I guess that's the message that tells her phone to clear the notification. :) (Maybe the actual messages are longer and getting truncated somehow, but it's still pretty neat.)
If you ever live abroad for a while, be very very careful with making sure bill payments and account closures go through properly before you leave. I've had quite a bit of fun with my cell phone account in England.
Back in March, I travel around Europe and set up a direct debit account so I can use international roaming. In April, before I leave England for good, I settle all my bills, turn off direct debit and international roaming, and put a few pounds of pay-as-you-go credit on my phone for the last few days. I figure: It's pay-as-you-go, so it won't hurt to leave a couple quid on there. (Since my landline was already disconnected, it would be very handy to have the cell phone there the last few days.. In retrospect, of course, I should've just closed off my cell account too and dealt with using pay phones.)
I pay for all this with the debit card from my British bank. It's a debit card, right? So I don't have to worry about bills confusing things. (Or so I thought!) A few days later, I close that bank account, and everything seems to be fine.
Anyway, in June, my landlord forwards me a letter from my old bank, demanding money from me. Well, first I have trouble calling their toll-free numbers from the US. You can't do that, it seems. I have to look up a non-toll-free number. Then I keep getting bounced around various departments. It turns out that while I had charged the payments to my debit card well before I closed the account, the charges didn't actually go through until after I closed the account. So I never paid for them. Fair enough. I get Tania to send them a personal check on my behalf, and that settled that. I'll just pay her back when she visits.
I also get a letter from the cell phone company, saying I had never closed my direct debit (which I did!), and that I might soon be liable for monthly fees. So I call them up to close my account.
"Well, you have a credit of five pounds on your account. Do you have a credit or debit card I could credit this to?"
"I've left the country, so I don't actually have any card you could put that on. Can you just cancel it? I don't want the money. I just want to close the account."
"I'm sorry, but we can't do that. We can't close the account if there's a credit on it."
"But I don't care about the money. I don't want it. Could just you clear the credit?"
"No, we can't delete the credit. Can we send you a personal cheque?"
"I've left the country, so that won't work.. Well, can you send it to me anyway to the US?"
"No, I'm afraid we can't send it internationally."
"Can you send it to my friend in the UK? It'd have to be addressed to a different name though, since it would be a university address."
"No, sorry, we have to send it to your name."
*sigh* "But I don't want the money! Can't you just close the account? I don't want the credit!"
"We can't do that, sir. We have to give you the money back."
Eventually, I decide to let them send the stupid check to my old address. My landlord never seems to received it, though. *shrug* I really can't care less. I just want my account to be closed!
So is that the end? Of course not! A couple of months later, in August, my old landlord forwards me another letter from the cell phone company, this one demanding 24 pounds from me. Come again? Didn't I have a whole ordeal because they owed me money?! And they threaten to send it to a collection agency or to take me to court and charge me court fees for it, too!
I call them up, and this time it turns out that there were calls I made back in March or April... that they never got around to billing me for back then. They only billed me for them in July! Sheesh! But I had already settled all my charges from March and April! How can charges just magically appear months later?! I suspect that it's some glitch and I don't really owe this money.
Oh well. I'd rather get it resolved than make trouble, and it's only twenty-four quid, so I get Tania to write them another check. (They have no problems accepting checks from other people. :P)
I'm going to call them back at the end of the week to make sure everything's finally done and the account is finally completely closed. Knowing my luck, I'll probably end up with a 1 pence credit that they can't erase or something.