Erased from the yearbook

This is probably the most egregious case of revisionism and exclusion I’ve seen in recent memory. Not surprisingly, it’s another homosexual student at a high school in the South.

A post on The Stranger (warning: linked story contains profanity) details the story of Ceara Sturgis and her senior yearbook of Wesson Attendance Center, and links to the original story at the Jackson Free Press. What the yearbook staff and/or school officials did (it’s not clear exactly who did what) is one of the worst things that can be done to a high-school student, particularly an honor student like Ceara: all references to her were deleted from the yearbook. From the Jackson Free Press story:

“They didn’t even put her name in it,” Sturgis’ mother Veronica Rodriguez said. “I was so furious when she told me about it. Ceara started crying and I told her to suck it up. Is that not pathetic for them to do that? Yet again, they have crapped on her and made her feel alienated.”

And further down in the article is perhaps the most damning evidence of all (quoting Veronica Rodriguez, Ceara’s mother, again):

“They mentioned none of her accolades, even though she’s one of the smartest students there with wonderful grades. They’ve got kids in the book that have been busted for drugs. There’s even a picture of one of the seniors who dropped out of school.

“I don’t get it. Ceara is a top student. Why would they do this to her?”

There is no mention of her academic honors. Her name isn’t in the list of graduating seniors. And of course, no picture of her wearing a tux at the prom. See, Ceara’s a lesbian, and that is apparently just too much for the folks at Wesson. This not only reeks of community exclusion, but of revisionist history as well.

I don’t know if there’s any way the school can even make things right at this point. They can’t. The yearbooks have been printed, and Ceara’s been left out. The truly insidious part of this is the damage that has yet to happen, years from now at reunion time when it is doubted that Ceara is a legitimate alumnus of the school. That’s the part that really makes my skin crawl and my stomach churn. I’d like to think most of the students will notice Ceara’s consipicuous absence from the yearbook, and note it now while it’s still fresh in their minds.

This does hit rather close to home for me, so I can’t just post this without relaying a personal experience of mine, which is intentionally going to be a little light on details. It somewhat parallels Ceara’s.

On at least one occasion, I feel I was cropped out (either in post editing, or intentionally out-of-framed at exposure time) of audience/attendee shots at a local event, which were later posted to Facebook. While arguably, what an amateur photographer does with his/her camera is his/her own decision, there is no question in my mind based on the identity of the photographer and certain people that were at this event that this was an intentional effort to leave my image out of the documentation of the event. Of course, the person in question is a tech community leader widely known as “an \*\*\*hole” and is probably less known for his photography than his attitude.

Still, for anyone to think I and others would not notice smacks of naivete. To realistically expect I’d just sit there and be happy-go-lucky about it? To quote Bob Barker in the “cheaters prosper” playing of Shell Game on The Price is Right, “that’s dumb.” (I linked the clip because it makes great comic relief if you need it right now, and I suspect many of you might.)

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am thankful that what happened to me was relatively ephemeral, all things considered. It’s possible it’s not even going to be an issue weeks, months, even years from now, or it’s acknowledged with “yeah I remember having to zoom in to crop Shawn out of the shot” and I laugh with everyone else as we all take sips out of our drinks.

Since this is somewhat relevant, I’ll go ahead and mention this little detail about me: I had to switch schools prior to my senior year, so yes, I am missing from the senior yearbook of the school where I spent the majority of my time in high school. I’m not bitter about it, as my exclusion is legitimate, and I’m in the three yearbooks where I should be.

Out of hand: a radio station’s attack on a community leader

Okay, a bit of an intro here. I am not a fan of hip-hop (rap), I don’t follow the scene. During normal radio listening, I only have my radio tuned to 97.9 briefly while I’m switching stations from, say, 106.9 or 107.5 to something on the other side of the dial. Nevertheless, my pet peeves include community exclusion, censorship, and stupidity (particularly on the part of large corporations). This story appears to contain all three of these elements.

I apologize for any apparent misspellings, but they aren’t; this is really how those in rap/hip-hop spell their respective names.

My introduction to this squabble began when I read a posting to the Houston Press Rocks Off blog about an open letter from Matt Sonzala to radio station KBXX (97.9). This controversy centers around Trae the Truth, some derogatory comments made against him after a shooting following Trae’s community event on 2009 July 22, as covered on mtv.com. The following is a statement sent by Trae’s publicist as published in the story:

“Tragically, a community-driven event that took the collaboration of so many people, and personally cost Trae thousands of dollars to put together, was spoiled by one rotten apple,” said a statement sent to MTV News. “We are truly saddened by the fact that despite thousands of children receiving free immunizations and school supplies, and everyone from government officials to senior citizens thoroughly enjoying the day, which drew an estimated 10,000 people, what will be remembered is this one violent act. … Despite everything, we hope that Trae’s efforts to reach out to and give back to those in the community whose needs are often not addressed will continue to be recognized and supported.”

Matt’s open letter makes reference to the KBXX interview the morning after:

The next morning, KBXX conducted an interview with Trae. On air personality Nnete made some off color comments that from all accounts I have received, implied that a situation like this would of course happen at an event produced by Trae Tha Truth. Basically she said that these are the kinds of people that he and his music attract.

Bun B phoned in to the station immediately after hearing that and told them that they were wrong for what they said.

Then of course, it gets a little more out of hand (still quoting Matt’s open letter):

Trae of course took offense to the statements made against him and on his next mix CD, mentioned Nnete on two songs. The rhymes were insulting, but not threatening.

Finally, the return salvo from KBXX was to ban any mention, let alone actual airplay, of Trae from the station and its online properties (and if Trae’s Myspace blog entry is correct, this actually includes all Radio One stations, among which one-time rival Majic 102 is also included):

URGENT: – Effective Immediately: DO NOT AIR: “Trae tha Truth” on our station. No interviews, no calls, no comments, no posts on our website, no station twitter, no station facebook, no songs in mix show no verses on remixes, or songs in regular rotation. No exceptions. The current online postings will be removed shortly. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors. Thank u. Have a great weekend!

My take on this, so far, is that it’s damned hollow and quite to “wish him all the best in his future endeavors” and yet issue this kind of an edict. Especially since it appears the bad blood between Trae and the station came from Nnete’s unwarranted comments. (I’m still looking for a recording of the interview; if anyone has a copy or knows who to ask, please do let me know.)

Fast forward a bit, and we have a few incidents where KBXX suspends
or fires station personnel for associating with Trae, to wit:

  • DJ GT suspended for responding to a Twitter post questioning his involvement in the ban;
  • DJ Baby Jae of the Kracker Nuttz suspended for making a mixtape with Trae, completely outside the work environment (something that frankly is not KBXX’s concern); and
  • Three tenured DJs at KBXX (collectively known as The Kracker Nuttz) fired for playing a Chamillionaire song with a guest verse by Trae.

And that brings us to today: Tuesday, 2010 April 27, and this post to the Houston Press Rocks Off blog, which I quote in part:

Not surprisingly, [KBXX program director Terri] Thomas said that company policy prohibited her from making any comment on the situation, which flared up again late last week when former local hip-hop promoter Matt Sonzala published an open letter to the station on his Austin Surreal blog

“Company policy prohibits that,” Thomas told Rocks Off. Traditionally one of the top-rated stations in the Houston-Galveston radio market, The Box is owned by Radio One, the Lanham, Md.-based company that also owns and operates Houston radio stations Majic 102 and Praise 92.1.

(I’m not igoring the bit about Radio One owning both major urban-format stations; I’ll likely cover this in a future entry, as this is a bit disturbing in and of itself.)

And again:

Rocks Off: Are you familiar with the letter that Matt…

Terri Thomas: Like I said, I’m not at liberty to comment.

This already doesn’t look too good for KBXX. You’d think as much attention as this is going to get, that someone in the position of program director at a radio station would keep up to date on what is being said. The “not at liberty to comment” is an ostrich move; stick one’s head in the sand, and hope it all blows over.

The management of KBXX has done a lot to divide and destroy community here. Maybe they think they can get away with it because one of their on-air personalities said something questionable and Trae decided not to just sit there and take it. But the ramifications go far beyond just one hip-hop personality not being played or even mentioned on the flagship station of the format in his hometown. Consider the following (quoting from Matt Sonsala’s open letter/blog post):

… In the days following the tragic earthquake in Haiti, Bun B put together a benefit concert with a lot of Houston hip-hop artists to raise money for the impoverished nation. Trae, being a popular artist and a man of the community was of course invited to be a part of it.

The event organizers were informed that KBXX would not support it at all, if Trae was a part of it. Trae decided to back out of the show so that it could be advertised and promoted on Houston’s main urban radio outlet – but still showed up in support of the cause.

This, in my opinion, is way out of bounds. Are there people out there in the Houston community (particularly the arts, tech, and marketing/PR crowds) that make me uncomfortable? Of course there are. I’ve been told there are people I make uncomfortable, so I guess it all works out in the end. However, I’m willing to work alongside anyone at charity fundraisers. Sometimes, that’s what building community is about: setting aside personal differences and discomfort to make a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

If there’s a personal rift between Trae and Nnete, that’s one thing. My understanding is that things like this happen in the hip-hop/urban scene from time to time. Heck, they happen everwhere. The reaction of KBXX management to what was (and arguably should have remained) a personal dispute between one of its employees and a local artist is pathetic, unkind, unfair, thoughtless, anti-social, cold, egregiously divisive, and patently devoid of good taste.

In summary, my two points are:

  1. We all can learn from this unfortunate chain of events, regardless of what community(ies) we are/will be part of.
  2. It’s never good to cut someone out of a community for reasons that amount to “because we can.” And I feel that’s what has happened here.

I may follow up on this depending on what happens.

Exiting the rat race: a story of an iPhone developer’s departure

Dan Grigsby, best known for his Mobile Orchard blog for iPhone developers, has decided to hang it up per his recent blog entry which was also reported in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Dan draws an excellent parallel between two historic situations involving “ask permission” environments and the current situation involving Apple’s iPhone and its increasingly more restrictive development environment:

In the mid nineties, ahead of even Amazon.com, I founded one of the earliest e-commerce companies. At that time, most banks forbid Internet credit card transactions. They were fearful, so they enacted policies that blocked innovation. Of course that wasn’t universal: a few banks bucked the trend and, together with entrepreneurs like me, created a new sector of the economy. Pedants will point out that we still needed a bank’s permission; more reasonable readers will observe that there was no single daddy entity whose approval we required.

Early last decade, at roughly the same time and in parallel, I created a company like PayPal. Person-to-person payments threatened the banking establishment to such an extent that we were routinely told PayPal-like transactions were criminally illegal. A decade later, Wired Magazine placed PayPal as the cornerstone of the future of money.

The innovation in both of these examples made the establishment uncomfortable — they’d have stopped us at the gates had they been able too. Apple can, at their least bit of discomfort.

The lessons here should be relatively obvious: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apple can exercise what is in effect an absolute veto over any particular iPhone application. Of course, there is no shortage of applications that will make Apple uncomfortable as a corporation; there are tons of blog entries about iPhone app rejections of questionable merit.

It makes me uncomfortable that those that dare call Apple out are usually dismissed. It takes high-profile iPhone developers and bloggers to finally put their virtual feet down and say “enough is enough, I’m quitting this rat race because even if you win you’re still a rat.”

Apple’s tightening of the chokehold, telling developers exactly what programming languages they can use (Objective-C, C, C++, or Javascript), and even then placing developers completely at their mercy, denying the App Store placement of what would otherwise be useful applications, is a recipe for inevitable bad PR and a peasants’ revolt. This is something I would have expected a company to have done back in the 1980s; it is woefully out of place in 2010. The irony of this, is that the Apple Computer that brought us the Apple II computers and the original Apple Macintosh was much more freedom- and hacker-friendly than today’s company.

The most discomforting thing, is that Apple is much closer to the rule than the exception. My best arguments against buying Apple’s iPhone also apply to any number of other products, most notably the Blackberry series and Microsoft’s Kin. (While Google is not exactly squeaky clean, they aren’t being nearly as restrictive in development of applications for Android-based phones such as the Droid and the Nexus One.) The most promising freedom-friendly smartphone, the Neo Freerunner, is being made in very small numbers and is disproportionately priced given its featureset.

Maybe Dan Grigsby can get Apple’s attention in ways others can’t. No one developer or blogger will be able to effect the type of change truly needed; it’s going to take a mob of angry developers to abandon Apple before they take notice.

Revolt against the black-box era

A recent TechCrunch article highlights the efforts of a site called iFixit, which provides instructions for users to repair their own gadgets instead of sending them back to the manufacturer and paying a (usually rather steep) fee for repairs.

Given that some manufacturers such as Apple intend battery changes to be done at the factory now (something unheard of as recently as 2005), this is a welcome step in the right direction. It’s great that we have someone willing to challenge what’s becoming a new status quo, but kind of sad that we’ve gotten to this point to begin with.

I remember my first computer, the Atari 1200XL, and the printer we bought for it (which I wound up not really using that often), and for that matter the printer we bought for our first PC (a Packard Bell 80286-based unit with a whopping 1 megabyte of RAM and a 40 megabyte hard drive, which were huge in a world where the new 3½ floppy disks that held 1.44 megabytes were just catching on). Both printer came with all kinds of documentation on exactly what codes to send to it to change the font or text size. There was no messing around with proprietary Windows drivers as most programs ran under DOS and wrote to the printer directly. It was expected, particularly in the case of consumer level computer equipment, that one receive programming documentation; a lot of hobbyists programmed in lower level languages at least in part (I remember fondly writing assembler language subroutines to speed up dog-slow interpreted BASIC programs).

Fast forward to 2010. A fair amount of the software support for GNU/Linux and the many BSD Unixes is obtained from reverse engineering. Sometimes manufacturers play nice and provide the appropriate documentation. But too many, particularly in the case of 3D-accelerated video cards and wireless networking, consider that documentation a trade secret or (in the latter case) cite liability concerns under FCC or equivalent government regulations. Thankfully, there are some that don’t.

We’ve gone from appliances that came with schematics to Apple’s iPod and iPhone coming sealed except for the SIM card opening of the latter (and how to open even that is not obvious without doing research), Microsoft’s Zune being equally obnoxious when it comes to battery replacement, and many other devices with appearances of being designed in the presence of someone whose job it is to say “to hell with the user being able to fix it, we can charge them to fix it at our factory and make even more profit.” Even cars are not immune, I can only imagine what my grandfather would think about today’s cars lacking something simple like an idle adjustment screw (which has been extinct even as of my 1997 Ford Thunderbird, and I would assume anything more recent as well).

The iFixit site is a step in the right direction, but the ultimate responsibility for a change in trend comes from the manufacturers, and the manufacturers only speak one language in the end: money. Ultimately, the responsibility is on us. Vote with your feet and pocketbook.

Failing to deliver: a ripoff by AT&T

Mark Brimm recently wrote a blog entry about AT&T and its failure to deliver on purchased search engine advertising:

So here’s the scoop. Basically, this all started back in about July of 2009, when I decided I would give AT&T’s online search a try. It started out kind of innocuously. $75/mo or so for their lowest level of service. And I mean low…I got no traffic whatsoever (unless you count a few clicks while speaking to the account rep on the phone!). Then I decided maybe I was just being cheap, so I slowly inched the account power up a notch little by little until I’m being billed for $300+/mo for a listing at the very top on a page that comes up for a loose group of very targeted local keyword phrases that my account rep assures me is being showered with over 1,000 visits per month.

[…]

Eventually, this became a billing issue. I told them I wanted out. They said that I had agreed to a year contract. I said I didn’t get what was stated in the contract. They said they’d send it to collections and it would then go on my credit report. I told them I’d file with the BBB, tell the world my story, and sue them if they did. They said “that’s fine”.

Maybe the representative didn’t grasp the concept of negative publicity. It’s kind of a sad state of affairs when it is typical for the “peasant level” employees of a company to be able to dismiss three threats (BBB, negative PR, and legal) with a simple “that’s fine.” At the least, a competent phone rep would at least escalate the call at this point. (Though, at some companies it’s policy to immediately disconnect the caller upon a legal threat and only communicate via surface mail from that point on. To be fair about it, at the point where Mark felt this necessary, he wasn’t losing much by this treatment, even if that was policy at AT&T which apparently it is not.)

Either way, AT&T didn’t deliver on the contract, and a contract works both ways. Most contracts involve payment for services rendered: customer pays, company provides services and/or goods. Services or goods are not due if payment is not received, and likewise, payment is not due if the provider fails to provide service/goods. It’s the latter part that companies like AT&T forget rather conveniently.

According to the comments on the post, Mark’s not the only one with trouble with AT&T’s advertising department; others recorded their tales of woe alongside his. This doesn’t bode well for the undoubtedly busy public relations department at AT&T. It also looks bad when Mark’s account representative is difficult to contact, which I will concede may be unintentional. But under the circumstances, it’s still damned suspicious.