09 March 2013

Response to the claim "More black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850"

The demography of the US prison population is an atrocity, and there are many statistics that illustrate the fact. But, I've always found this one problematic and misleading because it compares the absolute number, without adjusting for total population growth. (http://www.npg.org/Assets/Images/usprojgrowth.jpg)

Also, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and The 1860 Census results : In 2009 there were about 2,100,000 inmates incarcerated, 840,000 of which were black (non-hispanic) men. On the other hand in 1850 the slave population was about 4,000,000. Now, if we include probation and parole, in 2009 there were around 7.25 million Americans under "correctional supervision"(probation, parole, jail, & prison). I imagine this is closer to 8 million by now. Given that black men make up roughly half of the incarcerated population, I imagine there are somewhere around 4 million black men under "correctional supervision." That must be where the above stat comes from? (If we recognize that they don't really mean "prison".)

The statement suggests that we are more unjust than we were during slavery. I think the key problem there is "more unjust." We ought to strive to view the our present reality through an objective, historically well informed, and fact-based lens. We certainly have many short-comings as a society, and the demographics of our prison population is foremost among them. But, in an age when opinion, hearsay, and fallacious presentation of statistics are paraded as fact, particularly by the political right, I think we on the left are tempted, and should resist, falling into the same pattern of misrepresenting facts.

The reason I find myself so outspoken about the above claim is that, 1) I have heard it floating around in several contexts over the last few months, 2) from what I can tell it is objectively false, which only serves to weaken the argument for prison reform, and 3) I think it demonstrated a inaccurate reading of our history. We ought to be able to advocate for the eradication of present racism, without denigrating the progress that has been made. I find this especially personal having spent years in Southern Africa seeing first hand race relationships in contemporary South Africa. That experience by no means make me an expert on the subject and I am able to speak from a place of white-privilege, but in my opinion the above claim/meme does not accurately present our current place in history.

17 November 2011

A Critique of Tumblr, et al.

"You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved’, engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded." Alan Kirby, 2006, Philosophy Now

There are a plethora of social media forums where individuals can package and brand themselves, presenting their virtual avatar as a product for the world to see, hear, read, watch, respond to, "like", "poke", reblog, etc. This has greatly fueled what Alan Kirby calls the age of "pseudo-modernism" in which "pseudo-modern cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes physically in them." Kirby notes, "somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the emergence of new technologies re-structured, violently and forever, the nature of the author, the reader and the text, and the relationships between them."

What follows is a discussion of a few social media forums that I have started to use and my take on them.


Late night I discovered Instagram, a photo editing and sharing app for the iPhone. Instagram allows you to edit photos within the app and post them to Instagram's own forum, and/or directly to other forums such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. I have started to edit my photographs and post them on Instagram, as well as follow a few friends. Instagram places the consumer behind the lens of those they follow with minimal text and no other distractions. You see what they see, albeit an impressionistic version due to editing and filtering.


I also discovered Tumblr last night. Tumblr is a microblog that allows you to share media as well as "reblog" media you enjoy and want to pass on. Reblogging takes away the onus of media creation and places the author in more of a curatorial role; collecting social text and compiling the pieces based on (hopefully) common aesthetic quality. The consumer can follow bloggers who might not create or post original media but who have a desirable aesthetic taste.

While Instagram is exclusively a forum for photographs, Tumblr lends itself best to image sharing but additionally has the capacity for text, video, quotes, links, and audio.


Blogger, a more traditional blog forum (amazing the blog has become "traditional"), is most conducive to text, with the advantage of having a far greater capacity for customizing the layout, composition, and presentation of the webpage itself. Blogger allows for a more thought out, curated, and enclosed presentation, in the sense that there are few interlinking media streams where posts are pulled away from the framed context of the page and exhibited in isolation of the original author's lens. While the audience can comment, the original author still has near total control of the content.


All the meanwhile Facebook is a torrential media melange allowing for little to no compositional control or curated presentation, yet with the most exposure and highest frequency of feedback from "friends." Media posted to Facebook has the highest chance of being seen within minutes and eliciting feedback. Upon logging in, before a user can reach his own profile he is required to pass by a stream of his "friends'" media, in the form of the newsfeed. The volume of content in the newsfeed is overwhelming, yet I still find myself trying to pay attention to all of the disparate media nuggets like a dog chasing squirrels in the park.

So I will plan on using Facebook to see what people I know are doing with themselves and when I really want a comment on something I've created; Instagram to quickly edit and post photos; Tumblr to browse, collect, and mix images; Blogger for longer, more carefully composed, articles. 

Here are a few Instagram edited photos:

Clark Park, West Philly
 Carroll Gardens, N.Y.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

15 May 2011

Quote: On Writing

From the editors of Tin House Magazine:

". . . a really good piece of writing -- a well-organized, coherent piece with depth, with sentences that show a good understanding of the power of language yet are tightly woven, with no flowery extras -- has a great chance of getting in the magazine." 

And later in the article,

"For such a small insect, cicadas sure show up a lot in poetry and fiction. It sounds silly to take issue with it, but the point is that it smacks of device, which in turn interrupts the dream."

So there you have it -- how to, and how to not, get published in Tin House Magazine.

Retiring the Lesotho Map


If you have read Utterances before then you know that it now has a new look - a makeover, if you will. 

This new design is the visual manifestation of a shunt to the theme of the blog. For the last two and a half years (Nov. 2008 - Dec. 2011) I was living and working in Lesotho, Southern Africa, as a Peace Corps Education Volunteer. During that time the blog primarily served to document my experiences "on top of the mountain."

I am fortunate to have made a safe return to the States where I am now faced with the daunting and dubious task of finding my place within American society -- a society of the short attention span and personalised technology, of American Idol and Donald Trump, of rest stops and four dollar per gallon gasoline. But also a nation of neighbourhoods and parks. Of coffee and bagels. Of National Public Radio and The New Yorker. Of Obama. Of the Naked Cowboy.

As I undergo this process of re-entry, a foreigner in my own land, the strongest desire I have is to write. I want to express, as the late David Foster Wallace expressed, "What it is to be a fucking human being today."

Let's see . . .

19 April 2011

Amazing Street Art

Here is an amazing piece in Berlin . . .

08 September 2010

Thank you for the messages. I can't write much now. But, thank you.
The memorial here was very healing... We celebrated Tom's life. He
REALLY loved his site, LOVED the kids, and was such a good volunteer.
After someone dies you always say good things about them, but Tom
REALLY was one of the best volunteers this country has seen - he gave
so much in the time he was here and will be deeply missed, but always
remembered; always a part of each of us, his students, and this country.
With Love

06 September 2010

This is extremely hard to even write, but I want to inform you of a
tragedy in my life and the lives of every member of the PC/Lesotho
Community: On Friday night my close friend and district-mate here in
Lesotho (there are about 8 PC volunteers in each district) was shot
and killed while in Maseru while he was attending my PC group's Close
of Service event. He was walking with another close friend and
district-mate when this happened - she is safe. WE ARE ALL SAFE and
most of the volunteers and staff are together now. We are experiencing
extreme grief and shock. There will be a memorial service here
tomorrow, Monday, at 4 PM (10 am EST). I simply ask that at that time,
if possible, you take a moment of silence to hold Tom, his family, the
members of the PC/Lesotho community, and all who knew Tom in you
thoughts and prayers.

Below is a link to the Peace Corps press release, with photos of Tom.
IF you inform anyone else of this please refer them to this link and
please be respectful to not add any details that are not explicitly in
this press release to avoid the spread of misinformation.

It is not neccessary for you to send me a message unless you feel you
must. I know that you support us and I thank you for that.

Tom is and will be deeply missed and he lives on in our hearts.


11 August 2010

On Chinese Shop Owners in Lesotho

Economist.com Piece about Chinese in Lesotho

An excerpt from my comments on Economist.com:

I'm an American who has been living and working as a volunteer teacher in a rural village not far from Mokhotlong for the last two years. 

Unfortunetly, there are two distinct phenomena being conflated here: the noteworthy presence of a Chinese shopowners throughout Lesotho and the Chinese governments foreign policy in Africa. The shop owners are in most cases immigrant who came to Lesotho with little, and are building new lives and raising families here. They are here for the long run and are not exporting resources nor by any stretch of the imagination subjugating Basotho. As the article mentions, the shopmowners "seem entirely divorced from geopolitics." These small business owners are trying to make a livelihood in an open market and in doing so are employing local Basotho and providing goods and services (including building supplies for infrastructural development) to rural areas where such supplies were previously unavailable. Further, they often practice an efficient business model, strong work ethic, regular and predictable service, and a wide variety of supply. This puts the economic force on other local shop owners to improve their practices and ultimately the whole community benefits from the improved efficiency and supply. I know this sounds like a lesson from Econ 101, but I watch this process unfold daily. My best friend is a Basotho shop owner. We often discuss how he can gain a competative edge over the Chinese shop. By improving customer service and supply, he has done quite well. We are now making plans to build a bigger shop! 

Clearly adding the economic force of these new shops is not pleasant at first, as it forces other shop owners to improve their practices and can at first be perceived as 'outsiders' stealing business - such frustrations were partly the cause of the violence of 1998 - but ultimately the improved business practices and wider supply that results really is what is needed for the development of these rural areas.
I'm not going to comment on China's foreign policy; it's another, seperate, story - but that's my point. Emigre shop owners in Lesotho should not be conflated with the foreign policies of the country they left any more than emigre shop owners in Queens, New York.