Don't Poop Here 

Tales of obsession and technology.

Today at 1:23 p.m. on Montclair Ave ... a lady was walking two medium-large size dogs: yellow and black, and did not clean up the poop left by the black dog on our front yard. The lady is short, wearing short denim skirt and similar type jacket, and baseball cap, appears to be Asian or Caucasian. The scene is caught on camera."

So went a post on the Yahoo group for the China/Haddon Hills Neighborhood Network, written by Mikhail — who resisted further identification for fear of retaliation from the poop sniper. Mikhail had first noticed the collateral damage on April 3 (the date he started the Yahoo poop thread) in the form of, well, a giant poop sitting on his front lawn. "When I saw that the poop was just too large," he said. "It was sitting right in the middle of the lawn right in the middle of the day. It was rather obnoxious."

Luckily, Mikhail's high-tech home surveillance camera had documented the evidence. In three consecutive panels, Mikhail saw: 1) a woman passing his house with a yellow dog and a black dog. 2) The black dog copping a squat on his lawn. 3) The woman turning around, as though to walk the dogs back the other way. "The lady came to our block, turned around, and left from where she came," said Mikhail, deducing that she was only walking as far as necessary for the dog to do its business. He thought, because of the time of day, that she may have been a dog-walker-for-hire. (He had in fact noticed dog-walker ads on neighborhood telephone poles in the prior weeks.) He blamed laziness and a lack of personal responsibility for the woman's refusal to clean up after her dogs, though it's also possible she had an animus against the China/Haddon Hills neighborhood (a well-kept suburban pocket near Lake Merritt). Or perhaps the black dog had it out for Mikhail.

Whatever the case, Mikhail decided that a public shaming was in order. He printed out pictures of the crime scene and posted them on telephone poles in the neighborhood, in true Big Brother fashion. (Headline: "WE KNOW YOU and YOUR DOGS.") Then he started the Yahoo group thread, and shared the images on a message board that reaches about four hundred people. "I just publicized it," he said. "I think in this situation public humiliation with evidence is probably the best thing you can do. I'm not saying somebody is bad, I'm just saying we should clean up after ourselves." Mikhail's neighbors were impressed with his industriousness, and even more impressed with his camera, which group member "jeemailast" said was good enough "to focus in on a good doggy with a bad human!"

Mikhail had purchased the surveillance camera from Costco the previous summer, after a burglar came into his house while his teenage daughter was asleep. (He said the culprit ran away after the daughter heard noises and yelled "Mom, is that you?" but made off with his wife's notebook computer.) It is, indeed, a pretty cool piece of gadgetry, he told his neighbors in a subsequent post. It has multiple panels that capture any movement that happens around the perimeter of the house 24/7, thanks to its infrared night-vision capability. It automatically records any movement and connects to local computers so you can view the footage from anywhere in the house, or leave a firewall open to log in remotely.

In this case, the footage helped. It didn't solve the crime, but it appeared to serve as a deterrent, noted group moderator Beverly Hoh, who posted to the thread a week later. "As I was coming from the bus stop on Thursday afternoon, I saw a woman walking a dog (looked like it might be one of the dogs in your picture, but not the same woman in the picture) and the dog stopped on your front lawn. I was half a block away, and I saw the woman put a plastic bag over her hand ready to pick up anything, but I guess there was nothing to pick up then. I also saw another man who was on the same bus, but walking much faster than I, stop to talk to the woman a bit — possibly about her dogs."

For now, Mikhail is satisfied. "We didn't hear any direct confession or reaction, he said, "but we haven't seen dog poop since then."

Sex ... and More of It

Local author Mary Roach also found inspiration in cameras — not the home-surveillance kind, but the penis camera ("artificial-coition machine") built by sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the late 1950s to study female orgasms. Roach said she read about the cameras in a Film Quarterly article and was instantly inspired to write Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, a quick-witted history of sex research and weird phenomena. (Roach's curiosity led her to a penis surgeon in Taiwan, a sex-toy manufacturer in Chatsworth, California, and a woman who can think herself into orgasm, among other things.) A former psych major who spent two decades freelancing for popular magazines, Roach has a knack for distilling complex information and repackaging it with a gossipy, bloggy tone. Not to mention her ribald sense of humor. Last week she read at Mrs. Dalloway's Literary & Garden Arts in Berkeley to celebrate the release of Bonk in paperback. She offered readers a "toothbrush incentive program" in honor of Dr. Philippe-Guy Woog, inventor of both the electric toothbrush and a vibrator that resembles an electric toothbrush. Readers who bought two books would get a special pink toothbrush with the slogan "Keep your cavities filled."

In all, Roach has published three books that deal with the intersection of science and pop culture: Stiff, about cadavers; Spook, about the afterlife; and Bonk, her best-selling sex book. Next on the agenda is a book about humans in space, which is roughly five chapters away from completion and slated for publication in 2010. Roach keeps mum about the details, only saying that it's given her as many problems with access as all the previous ventures. In fact, each of her books came with its own particular set of challenges: Interviewees for the death and afterlife books were canny around journalists. Sex researchers were often happy to talk, but made Roach sit in the other room while conducting their experiments. (At a couple points, it was more convenient for Roach to just be the research subject herself.) In the case of the space book, she butted heads with government agencies that didn't want a snoopy investigator in their midst. Despite such frustrations, she's apparently consolidated enough material to see another best-seller on the horizon. At the Mrs. Dalloway's reading, someone asked if sex will factor into the space book in any way. Roach grinned: "You bet!"


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