Category Archives: This & that

A limited view of ‘unlimited’

And just a little update on my problems with my ‘unlimited’ host (that would be greengeeks). Since my site was taken off line for the better part of an afternoon with no previous warning whatsoever for using too many resources last week I have been keeping a closer eye on things (I had assumed that ‘unlimited’ meant that I could relax, or that they would let me know if there was a problem…I learned the hard way that that wasn’t anywhere near the case).

So far I have managed to get the number of spam comments being posted down to zero (the problem was caused largely by excessive spammer activity), but given that the site is already in those spammers’ databases, the fact that they can no longer post hasn’t really had much of an impact on my resource usage yet (and I don’t know if it ever will, as getting deleted from those databases is likely to be all but impossible). Still, the most interesting thing was a little tidbit I came across as I checked my resources usage statistics, as it made crystal clear just how ‘unlimited’ is defined: 256 MB per day.  I am including a series of screengrabs showing not just the limitation notice, but also some additional details about my data usage for the month (the site was restricted on the 12th).

Resource usage restrictions

Daily usage statsDecember stats

That means that, at least as far as greengeeks is concerned, ‘unlimited’ translates into between seven and eight gigabytes per month tops (as traffic varies from day to day, that would be if you reach the resource limit on a daily basis without ever going over it, and that’s not likely to be the case). Assuming that these restrictions are close to the industry standard, I have to say that it is a pretty rotten deal. In fact, with the exception of the most limited of starter plans, few metered packages restrict you to less than 10 GB per month… the problem is that most of the hosts that used to offer rollover bandwidth have either gone out of business, or they have converted to an ‘unlimited’ service… and yes, I am incredibly frustrated by this whole mess (and by the fact that while greengeeks  offers free migrations to entice new customers, it disables the ‘Backup Wizard’, making it that much harder for existing customers to move away, or even take the most basic precautions to ensure their data’s safety).

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The problem with Spanish

Lately I have taken to translating my shorter books into Spanish… and that in turn has gotten me thinking about the blasted thing.

As is the case with all languages, it has some things I like, and some I don’t. I love the fact that it makes sense from a phonetic perspective and that it doesn’t share English’s well known allergy to anything remotely resembling a subordinate clause, but verbs and accents drive me crazy, as does the rampant abuse of innocent adjectives. Still, my main objection is not so much to the language itself as to the way in which the powers that be have allowed a bunch of snobs not just to hijack it, but also to try and fossilize it. I am talking here about that hallowed institution known as the ‘Real Academia de la Lengua Española’  (Royal Academy of the Spanish Tongue).

Sure, all languages have their snobs who seem to be determined to tell others how to speak. As far as they are concerned just being able to communicate is nowhere near enough, in fact it doesn’t even seem to be  a major consideration, but even though those snobs seem to be required by law,  in the case of Spanish -and French- there is actually a centralized power that controls which words are worthy of being added to The Dictionary, and which words are not… and that power seems to be not just allergic to borrowing from other languages, but also to anything remotely resembling modernity. The purity of the blood may have gone out of fashion, but you are going to have to pry the purity of the tongue out of those particular PTB’s  cold, dead hands.

The way they see it, language worked just fine in the good old days, and there’s no reason why they should have to keep up with the times, or put up with the demands of this newfangled century, goddamnit. As for the fact that some words they look down on are an integral part of the everyday language of hundreds of millions of speakers, well, there’s no reason the speakers should be taken into account, whose language do those ordinary folks think it is anyway?

Okay, so maybe I am over-dramatizing a little, and there are other aspects that have to be taken into account, like the fact that, given the complexities it entails, editing a dictionary takes time… an awful lot of time. In fact a quick trip to the rae.es site will reveal that The Dictionary was last updated in 2001, which given the impact of technology on language since is pretty close to the dark ages (and that particular problem is then compounded by the fact that that 2001 date is in itself misleading, as words that had recently come into use in 2001 are not included). That means that anything remotely related to the internet is listed as a proposed addition to a future edition, and that’s only if you are lucky.

Of course, out in the real world people are not exactly waiting for the academy to make up its collective mind or to catch up with the times. In fact Spanish speakers demonstrate the same ability everyone else does to keep up on their own, so that the only thing the ‘proper forms’ do is separate the educated from the uneducated by providing snobs with a yardstick they can use to beat everyone else on the head with. It is only publishers, editors and teachers insist on going by their dictums (or dicta, if you insist on the proper latinate form)… the question is, should they? Personally I believe it’s time for speakers to start thinking about a revolution, and tell their snobbish overlords what they can do with themselves.

No, language does not belong to the snobs… in fact the snobs are the ones who insist on holding language back, and the bottom line is that, as long as we understand each other, we should be just fine.

When it comes to English the situation is nowhere near that dire, as there is no such centralized authority, and there is a greater respect for the different local varieties, but that doesn’t mean that there is much interest in  the upper echelons of the literate world to question the power of the almighty dictionary, and while I will be the first to admit that dictionaries can be extremely useful, the use we make of them, and the power we grant them, is part of the problem.

Long before the advent of dictionaries Shakespeare coined hundreds if not well over a thousand words (the official count stands at around 1,700, but some of those have been called into question). That is one of the things he is revered for, but the thing is that, if dictionaries had been around in those days, they would have denied him that freedom.

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The problem with akismet

When it comes to fighting comment spam, akismet is the default, goto option… the problem is that, as I learned the hard way a few days ago when my host took my site off line for using up too many resources, it is an option that has a pretty major downside. Still, let’s focus on what akismet gets right first: it is extremely effective when it comes to identifying spam, quarantining it, and keeping it from showing up in your blog, that is most definitely a good thing. The problem is that this approach allows those comments to be added to your database before blocking them and keeping them from showing, and that means that it does nothing to keep spambots from using most of your bandwidth. In other words, what you need is something that can keep those comments from being posted in the first place, and that is where adding some sort of CAPTCHA can help you and/or an automated system that can tell bots from real users is bound to come in handy.

Now, I’m not saying that akismet is a bad idea, in fact I find it downright invaluable and it is definitely not going anywhere, but chances are that you’ll be better off making it your last resort for the odd spam comment that manages to get through, rather than your first line of defense.

And a word of caution, if you have a major spam problem already it may take a while to get the spam-bots off your case, as chances are that your site is already in their databases, and that means that they are going to keep on trying (if this remains a problem you may want to give blocking them via the .htaccess file a shot.. you can find the information on how to do that here, but the process is not for the faint of heart).

Okay, that’s it for now. Hopefully I will soon be able to go back to focusing on the things I actually care for, and I’ll finally be able to put spam and spam-bots off my mind.

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Will your host penalize your success?

Up until a few years ago when you purchased a hosting package you got a fixed amount of storage and bandwidth. If you went over your monthly quota, you could purchase some additional bandwidth. In fact you could even have a couple of days grace period in which the cost of that additional bandwidth was deducted from what you had paid in advance for your existing hosting package (usually up to 50% of your remaining credit) … not to mention that, if you were lucky that bandwidth was a ‘rollover bandwidth’, meaning that whatever you didn’t use in a given month, was added to your tally for the next one, giving you a nice cushion that enabled you to absorb a spike in traffic, and basically served to ensure that your site would remain online under most circumstances. In recent years, however, webhosts have hit on something that borders on a scam: they offer unlimited bandwidth in big bold letters in their homepages, and then tuck some very strict restrictions in their TOS, things like twenty simultaneous connections (or other even more obscure measurements). This means that rather than a monthly lump that can be allocated any which way, now your bandwidth is restricted on a minute by minute basis and you have no flexibility at all. If you exceed the limit, or have spammers get a little too active, or suffer a DDoS attack, tough luck… and this situation is then compounded by the fact that limited bandwidth hosts have been forced to switch to an ‘unlimited’ scheme or they have been driven out of business. After all, common sense would seem to suggest that ‘unlimited’ is a more generous option.

So what are the real world consequences of this arrangement? Basically that,  if you are lucky and one of your posts happens to go viral, your host will immediately take your site off-line, effectively robbing you of your success… and given that it may take a while for you to sort the situation out (usually by purchasing an upgrade to a more expensive unlimited package that is a tad more unlimited than the unlimited package you had purchased in the first place thinking that it was, you know… unlimited), all that potential traffic will be lost.

This is, as you can probably imagine, not a position you want to find yourself in… and the situation is further complicated by the fact that some hosts have made it needlessly complicated for you to migrate away from their servers by disabling the ‘Backup Wizard’ from their cPanel. Yes, you can still create a backup the old fashioned way, but especially when it comes to databases, the lack of a one-click solution is a pretty major pain.

In other words, if you are looking for a host, beware of the fact that chances are that the words ‘Unlimited bandwidth’ you see prominently displayed in their homepage don’t mean what you think they do, and -especially if you are not a pro- contact them to ask about the status of the ‘Backup Wizard’ before you sign on the dotted line.

After all, even though you are looking for a host,  you don’t want end up being taken hostage.

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QWERTY & shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are a wonderful invention. They allow us to integrate common tasks into our typing without really disrupting its flow, and for the most part they follow rules that are more or less consistent. We have that ‘i’ is for ‘italics’, ‘b’ is for ‘bold’ and ‘o’ is for ‘open’ all of which seem reasonable enough, but then we have that ‘x’ is for ‘cut’ and ‘v’ is for paste, simply because no one else would have them, and because they are stuck on either side of ‘c’, which is for ‘copy’ (that, and because ‘p’ is for print and because, with copy already hogging the ‘c’, cut is out of luck). So far, so good… well, more or less.

The problem is that we are just as likely to make mistake when typing a shortcut as when typing anything else, and our keyboard layouts can give rise to some rather dangerous clusters, such as (U)-I-O-P and B-N. While underline is not much of an issue, this means that all of a sudden you may find yourself being presented with a dialog window helpfully asking you which file it is that you would like to open when what you all you are trying to do is italicize some text, or with a print dialog when you are trying to open a file (though that is nowhere near as annoying, as in both instances you are expecting a dialog window to pop-up and ask for your input)… and that is only if you don’t find yourself suddenly in front of a brand new file when all you are trying to do is add a little emphasis.

No, these shortcut typos that bring up an unwanted dialog window don’t happen often enough to be a major issue, but I admit that, when they do, they tend to get on my nerves (especially because, at least in my case, they become more frequent  when the juices are flowing, and I’m typing a little faster than I should). The good news is that this is a situation can be addressed by remapping or disabling some shortcuts either throughout your system, or for any given app. The bad news is that, if you go that route, you are likely to have to make some compromises.

If you want to shift a shortcut on a system wide basis you have to make sure you are not going to be creating a conflict with some obscure shortcut used by some app, meaning that the alternative shortcuts are likely to be less than intuitive. If you want to modify your shortcuts on an app by app basis you can avoid this problem, but then you’ll have to remember which shortcut goes with which app. As far as I’m concerned, neither one of these options is worth the hassle.

A more realistic solution that can be applied on a system wide basis -but one that does take some getting used to, and will drive anyone who happens to borrow your computer crazy- is to have bold and open switch places. That way you get one cluster with underline, italics and bold, and a second cluster with new and open. Of course, if you do this, then print becomes more of an issue, as -just like open-it brings up an unwanted dialog window.

The easy alternative is simply to get rid of ‘open’ and ‘new’ in your main writing apps. That way you don’t have to worry when trying to use bold or italics. Unfortunately that means that you are giving up some functionality, as you are then stuck selecting those options by hand.

Anyway, if you want to remap your shortcuts you can do it from from the system preferences on a mac (go to ‘keyboard’, select ‘keyboard shortcuts’, and then click on the plus sign to bring up a window where you can remap your shortcut). If you are running windows I think you need a specialized program to do this, but there seem to be a few of those out there.

As for me, for the time being I am still trying to implement the other choice I have when it comes to this particular issue, but I admit hasn’t been easy: I’m trying to learn to own up to my mistakes, quit whining, and become a better -or at least a more careful- typist.

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Modern ratings and the classics

I was reading an article about a new kind of film rating that is being introduced in Sweden: one that is meant to address the problem of sexism. It is one of those things that sound like a good idea until you start thinking about them. I mean, encouraging writers to include more female characters, and to have them talk about something other than men is a great idea (sorry guys, you are not that central to our lives), but the problem is that that places a number of artificial restrictions that can be downright ridiculous under certain circumstances.

After all, if a movie has to feature at least two female characters, talking to each other about something other than men to get a passing grade, what would the rating for a classic such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) be? Well, on the positive side we can safely say that the movie got part of it right, as none of its female characters can be accused of wasting their breath talking about men. In fact, in three and a half hours (or more, depending on the version), there is not one single word that is actually uttered by a female character (come to think about it, I don’t think there are any female extras either), and the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The reason: given the nature of the plot -and when and where the story is supposed to take place- their absence felt appropriate. That in turn brings me to the reason why a rating that is meant to police a ratio of male to female characters, and dictate how those characters are supposed to interact with each other is a bad idea: the fact that different plots call for different things, and I’d like to see writers and directors retain the right to tell their stories as they see fit without being penalized for it… even if that calls for a movie that is well north of the three hours mark, and in which women are nowhere to be seen.

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So much spin it makes me dizzy

Yesterday Amnesty International released a report on the dismal conditions experienced by migrant workers in Qatar, where preparations are underway for the 2022 World Cup, and something that seems to amount almost to modern day slavery is legal (that would be the Kafala system).

Anyway, the BBC’s headline reads: Qatar migrant workers ‘treated like animals’ – Amnesty

CNN’s headline is: Amnesty International: Qatar rife with abuse of migrant workers

Reuters’s reads: “Alarming exploitation” of workers in Qatar: Amnesty

The Guardian’s is:  Amnesty Report on Qatar exposes ‘grim’ abuse of migrant workers (BTW, The Guardian also features a piece on the rather amusing design of one of the stadiums, you can find that one here)

I think you get the general idea as to what the content of the Amnesty report happens to be, but then -if you dig a little deeper- you come up with the following gem from The Gulf Times, a Qatar-based, English language newspaper: Amnesty commends ‘accessible, open’ Qatar

Say WHAT? Are these guys even reading from the same freaking report? Well, the truth is that they probably are… with a magnifying glass, and looking for the one or two favorable sentences that were inserted out of politeness.

Of course, while this example is more transparent than most (in fact it is so transparent as to be downright pathetic), the fact that Qatar is a tiny country that is not English speaking serves to make the discrepancy even more glaring by providing us with a single headline from the one local source that is trying desperately to put a favorable spin on a train wreck. If Qatar were a large, English speaking country, the general picture would be more balanced, and the truth is that there is always some bias when it comes to the local news. In other words, while this is an extreme example, it probably reflects a reality that is far more common than we’d like to believe… so, how aware are you of what your country looks like through the lenses of foreign, and preferably foreign language, news organizations?

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The problem with ‘EVERYTHING’

Like too many people, I spend hours a day sitting in front of my computer. For the most part I do what I’m supposed to be doing, but being a writer I freely admit that at times the line between work and play can get more than a little blurry. I may be writing a story, and all of a sudden I realize that, to keep myself from looking like a fool, or like more of a fool than I usually do, I need to do a little research. Having the ability to do that almost without giving it a second thought is awesome. I type a few characters and, more often than not, the answer is there, before my eyes. The problem is that once I’m done I often find myself going off on some sort of tangent, rather than getting back to whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing, and to be honest most of those things are a waste of time… the kind of lumber that accumulates in our minds, and winds up clogging everything. That’s the downside of having the world at our fingertips.

In the ‘old days’ if I wanted to do some research I had to reach for a book (if I was lucky… otherwise I had to go to that daunting place called ‘the library’); if I wanted to catch up with the news I’d have to either buy a newspaper or turn to my trusty old TV (either way I was stuck with one, or maybe two, points of view); if I wanted to watch a movie chances were that I’d have to leave my house altogether, either to go to a theater or to a video store. Today I don’t even own a TV, and books, music, news and movies are all a click away (as for games, I refuse to install any, not because I’m not interested, but rather because I know I’m too easily distracted, and I know that if I happened to get hooked on a game I’d never get anything done). In other words, as our gadgets converge our activities too become intertwined. For the most part that is a good thing, as many of the divisions that are being torn down were artificial (research may involve a news-former-paper article, a book, a documentary or a lecture, and being able to jump from one of those to the next, to say nothing of having them immediately accessible, is most definitely an advantage), but then there is the problem of our ever shrinking attention spans… or maybe I should say ‘my’ (hence my reluctance to install a single game).

I freely admit that, while I shake my head at my own inability to concentrate, the idea of doing research the old fashioned way terrifies me. I have gotten used to the convenience of having everything at my fingertips, but at the same time there is a problem with the fact that, as walls are torn down, and everything is at my fingertips, that is bound to include, well, everything, and that is where I tend to get in trouble. Put a kitten or a puppy on my path and all thoughts of doing what I’m supposed to be doing fly out the window.

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The scent of the past

Yesterday I stumbled upon one of my very old books… and by that I mean one of those my mom used to read to me when I was only a couple of years old, long before I could read them myself. The thing was falling apart, and there was some evidence that it had been patched up more than once. In other words, it showed all the signs of a children’s book that has been ‘well-loved’ (read ‘thoroughly chewed’). When I saw it, I was overjoyed. It was such a seemingly insignificant  thing, but it brought back so many memories. I spent a couple of hours getting reacquainted with some I hadn’t really forgotten (though I admit I was surprised to realize that that little book included The Three Astronauts, a very short story by Umberto Eco) and getting a little teary eyed.

It was, in other words, a wonderful experience… and then I started thinking about kids today, who are learning to read on a tablet, that will get replaced and discarded in a couple of years, kids  who will never have a chance to stumble upon an old friend as I did yesterday, and I couldn’t help but to think that they will be missing something… and the worst part is that they’ll never even notice.

Oh, I’m not denying that there are plenty of advantages to technology, but it is a trade-off, and the kids that are growing up glued to their tablets will never know what they are missing. They will never know the joy of stumbling upon an unexpected treasure in a pile of old books, they will never wonder about the hands that held the book they are currently reading a hundred years ago. In short, we are heading into a world in which there are no first editions, and in which getting your favorite book autographed by its author is no longer an option. Granted, moving half a world away with a library comprising thousands of volumes is bound to be easier with a tablet or an ereader than with thousands upon thousands of pounds of dead trees (I’ve done it, and I’ll be the first  to admit that it is not much fun), but there is a certain kind of magic to the printed page. Cracking open an old book brings back a scent of the past… and that is a scent that is on the brink of being lost for good.

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The price of free (or why I won’t be upgrading to Mavericks any time soon)

So Apple’s new OS is out and it is free. Users should be delighted, right? Um… maybe not so much. The problem is that, very quietly, Apple has gotten rid of a tiny little feature: the ability to sync locally. In fact you are now forced to use iCloud… whether you want to, or not.

Well, I hear you say, the cloud is the way of the future. Who syncs at the local level anyway? What decade do you think this is? The answer is that I know what decade it is, but I also know Apple cannot be trusted with my private data, what did you do? Sleep through the revelations that came out this past summer? Does the name Snowden ring a bell? And before you tell me that I shouldn’t worry if I don’t have anything to hide, let me tell you that the fact that I don’t have anything to hide doesn’t mean that I’m going to be volunteering to be strip searched any time soon either.

Oh, and before you decided that I’m a tinfoil hat nut, let me reassure you that I do use cloud storage on a daily basis, and I find it extremely convenient… I just refuse to use Apple’s version of the blasted thing. They can choose to collaborate with the NSA, but if they do I want to retain the right to store my information elsewhere.

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Maria and the Golden Dawn

In these past few days we have seen the innocent, and terrified, face of a cute, blonde, little girl plastered over the news as Greek authorities try to figure out who she is. That all efforts should be made to find her family is undeniable, but I can’t help but to find the emphasis on her blondness and the assumptions surrounding her being discovered in a Roma camp in Greece to be deeply disturbing.

That she was found with a family that was not her own, and in the company of adults who haven’t exactly provided a consistent account as to how it was that she came to be with them in the first place, is undeniable. This means that it is possible that she is a victim of child trafficking, but in light of the racist attitudes that have historically tainted the perception of all things Roma (aka gypsy), and the way in which not too long ago children were routinely told that, if they didn’t behave, the gypsies would take them, I am deeply disturbed by the way in which the story is being presented.

The charity currently caring for her said that when she arrived the girl was filthy (something that tends to happen when poverty forces your family to live in squalor), and traumatized (to be expected when a child is torn from everything that is familiar to her, and tossed into a completely alien environment, with no explanation whatsoever). This doesn’t mean she was loved or properly cared for, but at the same time it doesn’t necessarily follow that she wasn’t… and then we have the fact that the story originates in Greece, a country with a resurgent neo-nazi movement embodied by the Golden Dawn.

Considering the fact that in quite a few countries Hitler and his followers killed a higher percentage of the Roma than of the Jewish population (though coming up with an exact figure is much harder), the role of such an ideology should probably be taken into account. Add to that the fact that the gypsies have long been one of Europe’s favorite escape goats (while Greece is a country in the throes of a devastating crisis, where escape goats are desperately needed), and what we have is a rather disturbing picture of the biases that may be fueling this story.

Yes, all efforts should be made to locate this little girl’s family (though the fact that brown-skinned girls attract no such attention is in itself telling), and if she was kidnapped, or if she is a victim of human trafficking, she should be allowed to go home, but at the same time there is something to that old ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing that seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. This is not unique to this case, a rush to judge is part and parcel of what the media usually does, but even though the evidence seems to be compelling, this is one case in which I wish they would exercise more restraint.

After centuries of discrimination the Roma have no reason to trust the authorities, and they tend to live on the the edges of society, where the proper paperwork is not exactly the norm. This means that the possibility that the adults that were with that little girl when she was found, adults who insist that what we have here is an unofficial adoption, has to be considered (though, unless the girl’s birth mother comes forward to confirm their account, chances are that they will never be able to prove that they are telling the truth either, that’s precisely why it is so important for the legal standard to be ‘innocent until proven guilty’)… and, sensational as the story may be, I wish the media would reserve judgement before fueling the fires of a hatred that has been with us for hundreds of years.

UPDATE: So Maria’s mother has been identified. She is a Roma woman from Bulgaria who has corroborated the story  the adoptive parents have been telling all along, namely that she gave her away because she could not afford to care for her. She insists that no money changed hands, though efforts seem to be under way to charge someone with something… whether anyone is guilty or not. As to the question of what’s in store for Maria, that is unclear. Will the authorities that now hold her fate in their hands acknowledge their mistake, and return her to her own community, or will they place her in what they deem to be a ‘good family’…  with ‘a good family’ being defined as ‘one that is not Roma’?

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Oreos are as addictive as cocaine

Yesterday I went grocery shopping, and as I was walking down the cookie aisle -salivating like a good Pavlovian dog- I heard someone mention a recent study that found that ‘oreos are as addictive as cocaine’. I had seen the headlines, of course, and I had found them amusing and bordering on the absurd, but at the same time I was worried about what those headlines seemed to suggest: ‘oreos are as bad as cocaine’, and that’s where the difference kicks in… not that the similarities along the addiction line can be stretched as far as that headline would seem to suggest.

Yes, sugar tickles the same pleasure centers of the brain as drugs do, that has been known for a while (hence the ‘salivating like a good Pavlovian dog’ bit), but while we can be said to crave both substances to a certain extent, there is a difference both in term to how we are likely to respond to being unable to get a ‘fix’ are, and in terms of the damage the substance in question does to our bodies.

Simply put, most people I know can skip their daily cookie fix without displaying any obvious withdrawal symptoms, and -diabetics not withstanding- the likelihood that you will eat enough oreos in one sitting to kill yourself are… well, they are pretty much nil.

And if you are wondering if my passionate defense of the blasted things means I’m secretly in the employ of the food industry, let me reassure you that that is not the case. My defense of the cookie industry has to do with something more fundamental than that: even though I am not particularly keen on oreos, I do have a massive sweet tooth, and I am not to happy about the growing criminalization of sugar I see all around me. Yes, I realize that we should try to exercise some self-control in that regard (or maybe that we should try to exercise, period), but while I am aware that sugar is not the healthiest of foods, putting it on the same level as cocaine -or even nicotine- is downright absurd, and I am not particularly fond of the fact that sweets have somehow been turned into a guilty pleasure… so excuse me while I go grab a cookie.

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Like a broken record

Isn’t it funny how language can serve to keep discarded tech going? That’s one of the things I caught myself thinking when I heard someone say ‘you sound like a broken record’. It’s like kids clicking on an image of a floppy disk to save their work without having a clue as to what that icon is supposed to represent (of course, this is one that is beginning to look like it will solve itself, as saving too is a process that seems to be about to go the way of the dodo, which is itself a creature too many of us are only barely aware of, one we would be hard pressed to identify even as a taxidermy exhibit).

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Keeping school out of the kids’ hair

Is it just me, or are schools getting completely out of hand, becoming more and more intrusive with each and every passing day?

There are a couple of stories floating around that have caused me to start wondering about that.

In the most disturbing one of those a California district has apparently hired a firm to monitor their students’ use of social media, nominally in an attempt to keep an eye for a series of problems and behavioral issues (after all, they have to make it sound like they are acting on their students’ best interest), but in practice intruding on their students lives beyond the classroom. The thing is that while keeping kids safe is a worthy goal (bullying and suicide are pressing issues), I don’t like the way schools are intruding on the kids’ lives outside of school. Call me old-fashioned, but as far as I’m concerned that’s what parents are supposed to be for, though at the same time I do realize that too many parents are too busy to care, and more than happy to have the schools step in. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a way for parents (or students) to opt out of that kind of monitoring (not that I would trust a school to respect such a decision to opt out).

The second story is more circumscribed. It is about a little girl who was told by her school that her dreads were unacceptable, and whose father decided to yank her out of that particular school instead (good for him). Setting aside the racism such a policy entails (afros were also explicitly forbidden), there is the fact that some of these policies focusing on the kids hairstyles that are written into many schools’ dress codes fail to take into account that, unlike clothes, hairstyles cannot necessarily be done and undone on a whim. Children may be able to change their clothes as soon as they get home, but they can neither uncut nor redye their hair in a similar fashion, and dreads are not exactly a hairstyle that can be changed in a matter of minutes. That means that by regulating hairstyles in the classroom schools are intruding in their students’ lives long after they’ve left the premises, and it is there that I feel that they have crossed the line.

Yes, a dress code can be a good idea, at least up to a point, but there is a problem when it comes to their definition of dress. Regulate clothes? Sure, kids can change those as soon as they get home. Require some standards of hygiene? Fair enough (as long as you make some accommodations for those students whose situation does not allow them to comply, and do it in a way that does not stigmatize those students), but leave the kids’ hairstyles out of it.

After all, as important as school may be in a child’s life, it is the parents job to parent that child, and schools should really learn when to get out of their students’ hair.

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The endless lives of the dead

I have an aunt who is in her late eighties, and often when I talk to her she will tell me about some of her old acquaintances, or she keeps reminiscing of people who were famous in her youth, people she used to admire and respect. These comments usually include something along the lines of ‘if s/he hadn’t died when s/he did, then s/he would have…’ and with these comments she keeps bringing those idealized dead to life in her mind, putting them in a context that is not their own. The one thing that never seems to occur to her is that if those people hadn’t died when they did… chances are that by now they would have died of something else. I mean, most of those people would be over a hundred years old by now, some would have been something like a hundred and fifty. And yet she keeps saying of every new development ‘If s/he hadn’t died, s/he would have…’

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