Library

It is years since I’ve spent much time in a library. Growing up, libraries were a weekly – or several times per week? – affair, and cross-town too, as my parents drove me far and wide, from my hometown to the next town over, and the next town over after that, in search of the next book in whatever series I was reading, or a new section of children’s or young adult books I hadn’t yet devoured. And ‘devour’ really is the right word. The quantity and variety of books I brought home was limited mainly by the length of my arms: I had learned early that the easiest way to deal with a precarious stack was to hold it carefully with both hands beneath, and then wedge it under my chin.

I don’t know when my frequencing of libraries changed. It wasn’t college; college was all libraries all the time. It wasn’t really post-college either. In Los Angeles and later the Bay Area, I made pilgrimages to UCLA librairies, Berkeley, Stanford, the local public libraries … but in recent years, it’s tapered off. I read just as much or more as I ever did, but the time I spend in public, at public desks, reading or writing or dreaming, has altered.

But a few weeks back, I took a class on essay writing. It took place on one of the upper floors of San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute. I’d never even been in the building previously; the library is membership only, I don’t exactly live nearby or spend much extra time in the city, and I’d never even seriously looked into it. But. That afternoon in the class, I felt the weight and age of the building around me; after the class, I peeked in the window of the reading room. Architectually it’s like Gold Rush meets City Beautiful, east coast done on a dime-sized budget in the west. The building feels solid, with high windows with single pane glass and wooden frames. From the view through the stairwell landing into the reading room I could see both comfortable lounge chairs and deep-set shelving stacks.

In college, I used to hide in the stacks to work. The ceilings were low, the lights were on a timer, and there were always student myths that either a serial killer or several stray couples having sex could be found back there, if only you went deep enough. The elevators were tiny, and creaked as if about to fall through the building. The stairs echoed with every footstep. The silence felt like a preservative, a moment or solution for statis. The air smelled comfortably of the heat of decaying paper, ancient ink, and glue. When I needed to procrastinate I’d read old back issues of fashion magazines from the 1920s; when I didn’t, I’d find an empty desk surrounded by books, no windows, and get down to work. I’ve missed those stacks for years.

And so today, here I am, new-minted membership to the Mechanics’ in hand (or, more literally, in handbag). I’m sitting in an old wooden chair at an old wooden desk. The stacks extend to my left and the lounge chairs lounge on the other side of the room. Light drifts in through those high ancient (by California standards) windows, extended and evened out by flourescents two stories overhead. I’m typing.

It feels strange and familiar, all at once.

Huh.

Have just discovered that Facebook requires cookies to log in. Contemplating next actions: enable cookies, log in, then delete account? enable cookies, log in, set computer to delete all cookies on logout? do not log in, move on with my evening?

Had been feeling very pleased about last week having blocked Facebook cookies, and hadn’t tried to log in since. Now thinking that blocking said cookies was clearly a good move, that requirement to have cookies pretty clearly indicates direction of Facebook’s business model (as if it weren’t clear enough already). and that accepting cookies is pretty clearly not in the cards as something I’m likely to do.

Well. At the least, I pretty clearly don’t feeling like dealing with this at the moment, so browsing whatever people-just-at-the-edges-of-my-social-circle are up to is clearly not going to happen. Net result is that avenue of procrastination is closed to me for the moment. Not all bad, I suppose.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Passwords

I work at Google. That said, this is a personal piece; the opinions & ideas here are my own, not those of my employer. 

It is just after six p.m. and I am home from work. The sky is still bright, a clear transparent blue behind fast moving fluffy clouds. The late afternoon or early evening light is clear and bright too after a rainshower that drenched the car just as I stopped at the gas station to refill the tank. I am upstairs sitting at my desk facing the window looking out, and wondering if there will be a rainbow. I open my laptop, log out of my work account, and log in to my personal account.

Some months ago I changed my password. This was in response to some generalized security breach or other; I don’t remember which. But as I was choosing my new password, I thought about what it should be.

Something I’d remember.

Something not like other passwords I’d used.

Something not easily guessable.

Every time we choose a password, we attempt to describe our own minds. Consciously or not, we attend not just to what am I thinking about today, but what will I think about tomorrow, what will help me remember this code I’m creating, what will I associate with this thing I’m trying to log in to. Even if we open up an app that generates a supposedly random sequence of letters and numbers and punctuation (and don’t you wonder about the security and privacy on an app like that?), the choice to do so still reflects something about us.

In choosing a password, I think we create a metaphorical thumbprint of the way we think, what matters to us.

In spy movies and thrillers, there’s so often a moment where the hero or villian needs to get information off of or onto someone else’s computer or phone. They do so by guessing a sequence, hands poised dramatically over the keyboard or screen: a moment, eyes closed, reflecting, considering. What matters to the person whose device they’re hacking? What is a significant birthday, a catchphrase, a city? The hacker’s fingers move, and the target’s life and secrets are spelled out in just eight to ten characters. Access granted.

Of course, real hacking attempts are rarely anything like that. They’re more often like the Target data breach: the target hacked isn’t an individual as such, but a much larger trove of much broader and more general information. Those attempts have little in common with the hacker in a movie, pausing to remember someone’s birthday in hopes of cracking the code.

Some of my own passwords are more complicated than others. Heresy though this may be, there are sites where I just don’t care if my so-called information gets stolen – those are the sites which don’t have much information to begin with. Some of my passwords follow intentional patterns. Some don’t. Some are legacies, leftovers from old thoughts, old ideas. Some are so clever I can’t remember them, and have to use the ‘forgot password’ link each and every time I log in.

But this time… when I was resetting the password on my computer, which is a pretty basic and fundamental thing, I thought harder about it. I wanted a password distinct from my own patterns, memorable to me, meaningless to anyone else.

And so I took a deep breath, and chose something in honor of my Dad, who first taught me about computers – and who these days may or may not remember that.

These Are the Cameras I Know Of

These are the cameras I know of:
in the City of London, throughout the alleys and courtyards and all of the streets –
so that on vacation, K asked, ‘do you think there are even five minutes of our day
that haven’t been recorded?’
and I said No,
while standing outside the house of Dr Johnson
admiring both the architecture and the statue of his cat
(there should be more statues of cats);
the camera in the satellite circling the globe that last photographed my house
sometime just before I bought it –
I can tell by the patio umbrella used in the purchase staging, a different color
from my own patio umbrella;
the cameras at traffic intersections
in my small suburban town;
the professional camera taking professional photos at the literary talk I went to last night;
the cellphone cameras of the audience members at the literary talk I went to last night;
the camera in the taxi in New York;
the cameras in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv;
the immigration camera I looked into at customs
upon returning to California;
the camera on a neighbor’s drone
that last flew over my yard and others’ yards two summers ago
until another neighbor threatened to call the cops (or maybe until the grandson flying the drone got bored);
the cameras on the dashboards of cars on the freeway;
the cameras at what used to be the Golden Gate Bridge tollbooth but is now stand used for cameras taking pictures of license plates;
the cameras in the hands of many of the people I saw at the beach;
the cameras of the instructors at the standup paddleboard yoga class, because you never know which image will attract a new customer;
the camera in the sea otter exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium, because who doesn’t love sea otters;
the camera in the penguin exhibit also, because who doesn’t love penguins;
the camera sent down a volcano;
the cameras that recorded everything on YouTube;
the camera used by a surgeon
to diagnose a friend’s illness; the camera my colleague used to take a selfie of all four of us
because we achieved a day off sightseeing
at the end of a business trip far away from home;
the cameras used to record and document violence
and the aftermath of violence
and the discussion of violence;
the camera I used to take a picture of cherry blossoms
in a country not known for cherry blossoms;
the cameras in the conference rooms at work
used for videoconferences;
the cameras we see
and the cameras we don’t.