Sunday, October 23, 2011

you feel me, siri?

It turns out that Siri, the imaginary personal assistant built into the new version of Apple's Iphone, the Iphone 4S, only really understands unaccented English. My Taiwanese immigrant friend tried her luck Friday night, and ended up speaking loudly, and slowly. When I tried out the speak-and-she'll-type-your-email-function I spoke the same way. Why? Because I know voice recognition software usually doesn't get my slight European accent.

This reminds me of a comment an African American student made in class once. We were talking about auto-correct functions on smart devices, and she said that when she and her friends see the suggestions for corrections made by their phones they think "I would never say that". I asked her what she meant, and she said "the phones make us text white". Meaning that their social dialect is turned into standard English by the auto correct function.

Does this matter? I think it does. What happens is that software that is marketed as decreasing the distance between human thought and technological representation is creating not less but more distance for some people. It can't be good for the companies, because it of course reinforces the alienation experienced by underrepresented groups.

I don't know a lot of black slang, but in a small experiment I just asked Siri one question that I do know: "You feel me, Siri?". I asked her three times. She responded, "I don't really like these arbitrary categories", "OK", and "If you insist".

"You feel me?" is a tag-question, much like "You know?", that establishes rapport between speakers. Appropriate answers are "Uh-hu", "Yeah", or anything else that shows that you understand, agree, and want to hear more. A metallic "Go ahead!" from Siri would have been fine.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

president obama dedicates the martin luther king jr. memorial in washington dc today

I was in Atlanta last weekend. There was a show opening on Friday night, and then I stayed on for a couple of more days.

On Saturday I first spent a frustrating hour trying to find parking downtown. I gave up, and drove over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. It's an area where within two blocks you'll find a museum, Dr. King's and his wife's graves, his birth home, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King, his father, and maternal grandfather, all preached.

You can only visit Dr. King's birth home as part of a tour. And since US National Park Service run the place, everything is free, and tours are given by park rangers, uniforms and hats and all. Only 15 people are allowed in each tour. I had to come back on Sunday for an open spot.

Through his maternal grandfather Dr. King was born into a wealthy family, and a family that raised children with a lot of foresight. Our ranger told the group that every afternoon little Martin and his two younger siblings would learn a bible verse in addition to doing their homework. Then they dressed "as if they were going to church", and went downstairs to a family dinner that was shared with 20 or 30 poor students and others from the neighborhood.

During dinner the children would take turns standing up, recite their bible verse, tell the group about their day at school, and - and this is what really struck me - last they would speak about what oppression meant to them, what it looked like from their point of view. Every day. Instead of turning away, not wanting to "dwell on injustice" as people sometimes put it, the children were encouraged to see what was happening to them with open eyes, and name it. The ranger who gave the tour stressed how this daily practice helped shape Dr. King into the man he became.

I'm floored by the bravery and honesty of that daily ritual. You have to be able to see what is going on before you can do something about it. And you have to be completely honest about what is really going on, or else you will start believing what others are telling you instead of trusting your own eyes.

Often the Civil Rights era is described as an emotional time. Rosa Parks remained seated on that bus because she "had had enough". Dr. King was "angry". I don't think so. I think that's white society's rhetoric. In reality, a lot of analysis, planning, and organizing led up to what happened in the 1960s. And smart parents instilled habits in their children in the 1930s, that bore fruit in the 1960s.

Friday, October 14, 2011

hello starbucks

I had a bad day yesterday. Not overly bad, or completely bad, but there was a lot of traffic and that made me late, I had forgotten to take my allergy pills so my eyes itched, I picked the vegetarian sushi by mistake at the counter, and when I opened a can in the car the content overflowed and made a mess.

So I went to Starbucks for a well needed dose of caffein. I told the woman behind the counter that I wanted the largest regular coffee (I had a long afternoon, and evening, in front of me). She put her nose in the air and repeated "A large regular coffee?, with a HUGE question mark at the end. I repeated, "Yeah, the largest size, regular drip coffee, please." Now she got it.

What I should have said, and what she tried to bully me into saying, was "A venti drip, please", because that's Starbucks speak for large coffees.

Annika Norlin, who has two musical projects, 'Säkert!' where she sings in Swedish, and 'Hello Saferide' where she sings in English, has just taken it upon herself to translate her Swedish lyrics into English. She has a large international following, and she's gotten a lot of emails from fans who want to know what the words mean.

Norlin decided to do literal translations, so the English lyrics on her new album 'In English' are not idiomatic. The words are English, but the flavor is Swedish, and in interviews she has spoken of it as "a third language". She says it was an experiment, and that the end result could be flat and boring, or kind of charming.

Annika Norlin's "third language"? Charming, if you ask me. Starbucks' "third language"? Ridiculous. Dumb. Dumbe.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

why I don't like 'the help'

I was expecting to not like The Help (the movie about African American domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi) very much, but I liked it a little bit better than that. I came away with mixed feelings. As any review of the movie will tell you, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play the two main characters, are exceptional. Between them they carry the movie. The rest of the cast is pretty two-dimensional, with the exception of Allison Janney, who portrays a cancer stricken woman in her 50s, who admits to not having been a very courageous white person in 1950s and 1960s Mississippi.

To me that was refreshing to hear. Most people who live through difficult times are not courageous. I think we all like to think that had we been Germans during Hitler's time, things would have turned out differently because we would have stood up for our Jewish neighbors, and the Nazis wouldn't have been able to do what they did. We like to think that had we been white in the segregated South the civil rights movement would have had an easier time, because we would have stood up for the Blacks.

The truth is that we, most people, would have done exactly what most people always do: Nothing. We wouldn't have been brave, we wouldn't have wanted to risk our jobs, or our family's safety. We would have been more concerned with appearances than with politics.

What I dislike about movies like The Help is that they make it look easy. As white Americans we can watch that movie and imagine ourselves being the young writer, the young woman who takes it upon herself to tell the stories of the Black domestic workers. We don't imagine ourselves where most of us would have been: playing bridge in the front room, wearing pearls, heels, and fake smiles, while our Black maids raise our children for us.

If you don't agree with me, if you think that you are an exception, and that you would have been brave in the 1960s, let me ask you this: Who are you standing up for now? How do you show bravery today?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

why jose didn't want to go through arizona

I knew Jose Arreola for four years as a student at Santa Clara University. Here is a two-minute version of his story:

"I really, really didn't want to go through Arizona."

The website is called "My Life Is True" and the goal is to tell stories that otherwise would go unheard.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


I didn't like Bridesmaids, the movie. I realize I might be the odd woman out here, so I'll collect my thoughts and get back to everyone. But let me just say that multi facetted characters those women were not.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

art, exercise, and cancer

I saw my oncologist last week, and we were talking about exercise and weight. Cancer survivors need to exercise regularly.

Like most people I have a hard time fitting everything I want to do into the limited number of hours I have free everyday. I told my doctor I spend a lot of time on photography, and that it eats into my exercise time. She said it's great that I do photography: "It's good for you to be doing something that you really enjoy".

So there I was, with my cancer doctor. Who told me that to stay healthy, I should exercise. And do art.

Ironic, isn't it, that art, and physical education, are the two areas that public schools cut first when they need to cut somewhere.

If you want to create lifelong healthy habits, and healthy people, you need to let the kids learn how to enjoy art, and physical exercise. It won't matter if they know how to do math if they're dead.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

the IKEA embarrassment

I woke up this morning to Dan reading a story from The Los Angeles Times out aloud to me. It turns out that the mothership of Swedishness, IKEA, is in some trouble at its first US factory in Danville, Va. Workers are complaining of eliminated raises, a frenzied pace, and mandatory overtime. There are complaints about racial discrimination, and high turnover of workers. Here is a snippet from the story:

Some of the Virginia plant's 335 workers are trying to form a union. The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said a majority of eligible employees had signed cards expressing interest.
In response, the factory — part of Ikea's manufacturing subsidiary, Swedwood — hired the law firm Jackson Lewis, which has made its reputation keeping unions out of companies. Workers said Swedwood officials required employees to attend meetings at which management discouraged union membership.

IKEA has been known for relying on a certain "Swedishness" in employee benefits, offering generous packages compared to other companies in the US. The situation at the Virginia factory is embarrassing. Here is more:

Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.
What's more, as many as one-third of the workers at the Danville plant have been drawn from local temporary-staffing agencies. These workers receive even lower wages and no benefits, employees said.

Believe that? Twelve days of vacation a year, eight of them on days the company chooses for you?

I go to IKEA regularly, because it is my only slice of home away from home. The yellow and blue signs, and the familiar names of the products, make me feel good. I know the employees in the stores have decent contracts. I wish the same was true for those making the furniture.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

is this image funny to you?

I've been involved in a discussion around this image the last couple of days. Someone posted it on her blog, to illustrate a blog post aimed at explaining to Swedish people how you go about getting your driver's license in California. She found the image funny, and added it to her informational post as a light hearted ending. She said "This is not what a California license looks like, but, who knows, maybe soon it will, given all the illegal immigrants here".

When I saw it, I was shocked. To me the image is deeply racist, and I think posting it without comment is to perpetuate prejudice and stereotypes. I wrote a comment to the writer because I didn't want Swedish people reading the blog to think that this kind of "humor" is OK.

The writer of the blog was upset by my comment. She thought I had attacked her. Other readers (Swedish immigrants in the US, or Swedes living in Sweden), all, except for one, thought I was the bad guy. They said I was overly sensitive, and that you have to be able to joke about things. They said you can't be politically correct all the time. They said that since the writer is not racist, she didn't mean any harm.

The writer herself said it was unfortunate the image was misinterpreted, and that you can't please everybody. She took the image off her blog. Other readers continued to comment, urging her to put the image back up, repeating that she hadn't done anything wrong, and that she had been unfairly attacked.

I don't think saying "everyone interprets differently" is a good excuse. There isn't anything funny about the image. All it does is pile old stereotypes on top of each other: The Mexican immigrant is portrayed as short, fat, over sexualized, he can't write his name, doesn't know his date of birth, is entitled to services, wears a sombrero, and wears ammunition across his chest like a member of a guerilla. His status will never change, and he is referred to by the words 'illegal', and 'alien'.

The woman who posted this image lives in Siskiyou County in Northern California. Siskiyou County is 80% white. That's extreme, even on a national level. Here is a comparison:

Percentage of white people
Siskiyou County        80
Santa Clara County   37 (this is where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area)
California                   42
US                               65

source: US Census Bureau

It's possible that anyone living in a homogenous area actually does not know about the tension between different ethnicities in the US. It's also possible that people with no experience of their own take stereotypes present in news and other media stories for true. Because I am originally Swedish I have been especially saddened by what I perceive as ignorance among Swedes, and Swedish immigrants in the US. Here are a few facts that I think most of them don't know:

1. California's economy, such as it is, depends on the work of undocumented workers. Conservative writer Victor Davis Hansen has said something along the lines of "The difference between Michigan and California is that in Michigan people mow their own lawns." He is referring to the fact that middle class Californians in vast numbers employ undocumented workers to take care of their children, their yards, their pools, and their cleaning. And everyone in the state, and outside of it, enjoy cheap produce picked by underpaid farmworkers.

2. California became a state in 1850, after the Mexican-American war. Texas, to take another example, became a state in 1845. In both states there are people, families, who have lived there since before the land became part of the US. Being white does not grant you the right to determine or imply who belongs, and not. The face on the driver's license is that of an "illegal alien", but it looks just as much as the face of someone whose family may have been American citizens for six or seven generations.

3. President Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented workers in 1986. Over the past ten years when I have been teaching in California many of my students have been the children of parents who acquired residency through Reagan's amnesty.

4. The private university where I teach gives full scholarships to undocumented students, if they quality. (The same standards apply to them as to other applicants, obviously.)

5. Undocumented students, who have been brought to the US as children, are not entitled to loans, or any type of financial aid. If they aren't awarded scholarships to private universities they are on their own. Undocumented students can attend California State Universities and pay in-state tuition, but they have to pay all of it out of their own pockets. They work full-time, and save as much as they can to pay for school. They yearly costs for four-year California public universities range between $15 000 and $30 000.

6. When I see the image of the 'illegal immigrant' I see the face of some of my students, or the faces of some of my students' parents. I see hardworking immigrants, who do the best that they can for their children and their families. I see people who struggle against prejudice. I see people who work harder than I ever have in my life.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

more photography news

I am thrilled to have an image in the upcoming exhibit PIXELS: The Art of Iphone Photography, at the Orange County Center For Contemporary Art, March 31-April 30, 2011. All images in the show can be seen following this link. The show is put together by the folks behind the site Pixels - The Art of the Iphone.

Friday, March 18, 2011

it's coming, on april 4!

I'm excited to finally being able to tell you that I'm one of the contributors to Stephanie Roberts' new book The Art of Iphoneography: A Guide to Mobile Creativity. The book is a practical guide to using your mobile phone to make art, and it will be available in the US through Barnes&Noble, Amazon, and Urban Outfitters. The book will be published simultaneously in the United Kingdom. The companion website, with previews and other good stuff, is here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

impersonal exchanges, and using machines as shields

I was at Trader Joe's the other day, and when it became my turn the check-out guy said "hi". I said "hi" back, and then it was silent. After some seconds of this I started wondering why he didn't ask me how I was doing, or how my day was going, or any other of the generic impersonal questions check-out people ask. After a while it was obvious he wasn't going to talk to me at all. "OK", I thought, "I'll ask him how he's doing for a change."

So I did. And he didn't say that he was "good" like 99% of people will. Instead he told me that he was "pretty frustrated, tell you the truth." He said he didn't want to get into it too much, but that he was frustrated with how customers were treating him. He said they didn't respond to his greetings, look at him, or address him at all.

So we had a little conversation about that, and he bagged my stuff, and we said "bye". It was a pleasant enough exchange. As I was leaving, I looked over my shoulder to see what the person next in line would do. Would she look at him?

No, she wouldn't. She was on her phone, in the middle of a conversation. She didn't talk to the guy, didn't look at him, only talked on her phone and fiddled with her credit card, and the machine.

It made me sad.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

infrared film

I've taken darkroom photography classes lately, and jumped from iphoneography to something really old fashioned: using infrared film. It's fun, and very tricky. I like the dreamy effect a lot. More here: this is a link to a flickr set.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

the i.phonography book

I'm very happy to have one image in this book by Attilio Lauria. It's a collection of iphone photography from a contest and an exhibit held in Paola, Italy, in the fall of 2010. The book is published through, and it is available for purchase online. In addition to 100 images, the book also contains essays in which the curators discuss iphoneography from a theoretical point of view. The book is a great introduction to an emerging art form.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Someone I'm a little bit acquainted with online used the word 'foreigners' about people of color in California recently. The only thing she knew about them was that they were not white.

I'm not a very diplomatic person, and I was probably not too careful when I pointed out to her that her word choice could be perceived as hostile. Her friends told her that she hadn't done anything wrong.

I think it's amazing. Dan, my partner, is not white. But he is the second generation in his family to be born in California. Foreigner in the US? Not so much. Think about it. Should he be expected to travel to Mexico and demand a Mexican passport? He hasn't spent any time in the country.

In Mexico he'd be a foreigner. Where we live, he is in the majority: 70 percent are not white in Santa Clara County.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

what makes me nervous

What makes me nervous is when little old women out walking big dogs tense up when they meet another dog on the trail. They get scared and throw all of their non-existant weight on that leash. I sprint past them as fast as I can.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

pet peeve (and I do it myself)

When journalists, commentators, pundits, and teachers use the expressions "that being said", or "having said that" (followed by that swift breath in) it's just a sneaky way of not letting anyone else speak.

Sunday, January 23, 2011



"no one deserves to be treated like a black man"

Click here to see a piece of genius from The Onion.

cowgirl politicians

I remember reading a long time ago the theory that the Nordic countries have their farming history to thank for their gender equality. On a farm everyone has to work. That means men and women, husbands and wives, working alongside each other. And men learn fast what women can do, and to respect them.

I was reminded of this when I read a story about 'cowgirl politicians'  in the New York Times Magazine today. It's a comparison between Sarah Palin and Gabrielle Giffords, and it's interesting.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

yes, standing in line with seniors means getting trampled

Dan and I went to see Mike Leigh's new movie Another Year. And we lowered the average age of the audience by 15 years.

I liked the movie a lot (as did New York Times' reviewer), and Dan only fell asleep once. He started snoring, not very loudly, but audibly. I woke him up.

When we got back home he made me watch this:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

this is my country

When I became an American citizen in September Barbara, Kathy, and Steve gave me three mix CDs.  It's one of the nicest gifts I have ever received. The theme was, obviously, the music of my New Country, and this song was one of them. I think it fitting for celebrating MLK Day too. Happy Birthday, Dr. King.

Here is the Curtis Mayfield version, with a slideshow someone made:

Friday, January 14, 2011

walk a mile in his shoes

Top question asked of a UPS guy: "You have anything for me?"
Top question a UPS guy can't answer: "You have anything for me?"

Source: Mike, the UPS guy.

PS. Try telling him your address first.

the real karl-oskar

Where Vilhelm Moberg got his inspiration for the famous descriptions of Swedish immigrants to Minnesota in the 1860s.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

stutter, depression, and helena bonham carter as the queen mum

The King's Speech is a really good movie. 96 percent on the Tomatometer! I've forgiven Colin Firth for Love Actually. (Maybe I'm the only one hating that movie, but I hate it a lot to make up for it.)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

let the mystery be

Dan and I went to see True Grit the other day. It's a great movie, and I'll come back to it later. The movie ends with Iris DeMent singing an old hymn, 'Leaning On the Everlasting Arm'. I didn't find a youtube version that I liked (click here for a version I didn't like), but I found this instead: Let The Mystery Be (link for lyrics):