This Doesn't Matter

Politeness is the first course of any meal.

The Transmogrification of the Truth

Today, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to an article entitled “Government ‘Anti-Bullying’ Overreach Hits Facebook” that appeared on The New American. What caught my attention was that the snippet of the article that appeared on Facebook claimed that the Department of Education is demanding that schools and teachers monitor students’ Facebook conversations and threatening lawsuits if they don’t. This smelled funny to me, so I went digging around to see what I could find to either substantiate or refute the claim. It struck me as odd that at a time when public schools are overburdened and short of cash that the DoE would run around both adding to the burden and threatening to lighten the wallets of school districts even further, but then we’re talking about federal government here; just because something sounds screwy doesn’t make it untrue.

So, I clicked over to the New American article, and saw this:

NewAmericanantibullyingparagaph1

What’s wrong with this picture?  There’s a clear statement that the Department of Education is demanding that high school teachers monitor Facebook behavior, and a link to what I would reasonably expect be a statement, press release, or something from the Department of Education. Except that the link doesn’t go anywhere but to this article on The Blaze. Where does the New American mention The Blaze? Nowhere near the link and in fact, not until the opening of the second paragraph. The first paragraph mentions an article in The Daily Caller, but provides no link to the Daily Caller article until 6 paragraphs later, nearly halfway through the text.

NewAmericanantibullyingparagaph2

So, within the first paragraph of the New American article, I wasn’t exactly sure who was saying what: the Department of Education, The Blaze, or The Daily Caller. If the article starts out saying “…the Department of Education is now demanding…” without a preceding attribution, I expect the link to go directly to a DoE source, not some arbitrary Internet post. After all, the New American article begins by claiming that the DoE is demanding something, not that some other person asserts that the DoE is demanding something. It’s one of those small things that makes a big difference.

Following the first, and presumably most important, link in the New American article, I clicked over to the article at The Blaze. The article there is titled “Big Brother? Feds Order Schools To Monitor Kids Facebook Posts & Lunchtime Chatter”.  The title of this article contains new information that wasn’t present in the New American article, namely the including of the monitoring of “lunchtime chatter” (no word on whether this is somehow related to “terrorist chatter”). The Blaze article is at least clear that the original source is The Daily Caller, and in fact, appears to be just a paraphrase of it. I’d hoped for a link to something authoritative from the Department of Education, but instead, I found only a link to the Daily Caller article.

The Daily Caller article opens with:

Education Department officials are threatening school principals with lawsuits if they fail to monitor and curb students’ lunchtime chat and evening Facebook time for expressing ideas and words that are deemed by Washington special-interest groups to be harassment of some students.

After noting that there has been “muted opposition” to the threats, the article goes on to state explicitly that the “threats…are delivered in a so-called ‘Dear Colleague’ letter” and that the “letter says federal officials have reinterpreted the civil-rights laws” in regard to bully, and adds:

Under the new interpretation, principals and their schools are legally liable if they fail to curb “harassment” of students, even if it takes place outside the school, on Facebook or in private conversation among a few youths.

The author draws a direct line between the Department of Education letter, re-interpretation of civil rights laws, and liability for the actions of students’ outside schools. That’s great, but while I expected to find a link to the full text of the letter so that I could see for myself this outlandish behavior from the Department of Education, no such link was in the article. There were a couple of quotes, and the author of the letter was noted as Russlyn Ali, and the article said the letter was dated October 26.

I didn’t remember any sort of uproar occurring in October of last year. Given the uproar over the widespread wiretapping allowed by the PATRIOT Act when it came out, I figured a federal mandate requiring schools public and private to eavesdrop on the entire US student body (presumably from pre-K onward), would have been all over the news at the time. Since the author of the Daily Caller article declined to provide a link to the letter, I went looking for it and found it quickly. You can read it here, on the Department of Education’s site.

Ms. Ali’s letter essentially clarifies that some school bullying behavior may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments, and some other federal laws including the ADA. If bullying behavior is based on ethnicity, gender, disability, or whatnot, the school may have some additional responsibilities to comply with federal civil rights laws. There’s not a single mention of social media, eavesdropping, monitoring conversations, or off-campus actions of students.

The gist of the letter seems to be that schools, when implementing anti-bullying policies, need to make sure that these policies comply with existing federal laws, and that if teachers or administrators know that bullying is taking place, or should reasonably know that it is (no, they’re not expected to be mind-readers now), the actions they take to remedy the situation may have to take federal laws into account, and several specific scenarios are given. Someone bullying a kid because of their gender, disability, or ethnicity will result in the school having to make sure that the remedy takes into account the corresponding federal laws; someone bullying a kid just because he doesn’t like the kid’s haircut doesn’t entail a remedy that has to take federal civil rights laws into account. So, essentially, Ms Ali’s letter serves as a reminder to schools that they have to comply with federal laws. It’s not much different than the sign in the bathroom that reminds you that you have to wash your hands before returning to work; that rule was already in place, but you might need a reminder.

So, where did the Daily Caller author get this screwy idea that the Department of Education was forcing schools to monitor Facebook activity, since there was no mention of this in the letter? He just lobbed that in from a recent announcement (you can read it on CNN here) that Facebook is rolling out tools, including the Facebook Safety Center, that allows people to report anti-bullying behavior to someone in their friend network: a friend, teacher, family member, or just some random person whose friend request they accepted because they had a cute picture. The move, which Facebook made on its own, was supported by the White House and garnered a photo op for the President, but was in no way mandated by the Department of Education, the White House, Congress, or anyone else. I can imagine that after the spate of news last year about cyber-bullying that Facebook and others got some calls from government representatives from both parties, but there was no legislation involved here.

The author of the Daily Caller takes two basic facts:

  • Ms. Ali’s letter reminds schools that anti-bullying policies must comply with existing federal civil rights laws.
  • Facebook rolls out tools to help report bullying behavior online.

and comes up with the idea that “Facebook is developing new features that will make it harder for principals to miss episodes of online “harassment,” and so will increase the likelihood of government action against the teenage users of Facebook and other social-media.” And he also claims that Ms. Ali’s letter constitutes a re-interpretation of the laws, which is just not so. Using his logic, putting the employee hand-washing reminder sign up in the bathroom is a re-interpretation of existing health laws that will increase the likelihood that the government is going to force you to take a shower before you can return to work because you’re teeming with disease, you filthy person.

Not one of the three articles I read in search of the source of this claim ever linked to the original letter by Ms. Ali or to a news article or press release explaining Facebook’s rollout of anti-bullying tools. Once the Daily Caller author cooked the whole thing up, the others just ran with it. It’s like the whisper game, only less funny.

Movie Stunts vs. Real Life

Here’s an old one from 2005:

I’m being tacitly evicted from my Salem apartment because my landlord hates me; she’s refused to renew my lease because, among other things,I’ve continually denied the presence of a cat she knows lives here. So,I’m busily packing up my stuff and getting ready to move back to Portland, after spending a year sort of recuperating here in our state capital.
Today, I discovered that TV and movies lie. In any action movie,there’s almost inevitably a scene where someone or something starts a rapid slide or fall from the top of a building, the side of a mountain,or a chasm that’s suddenly opened up in the surface of the earth. The action hero reaches out a hand, and somehow manages to save the person or object from a terrible fate, single-handedly (literally) pulling them back to safety.

I can tell you, though, that in real life if the doomed object is an air conditioner that’s started to plummet from a 2nd story window, when the protagonist of the story reaches out to save the air conditioner from smashing onto the pavement below by grabbing hold of the device’s power cord, the story does not have a happy Hollywood ending.

Originally, I’d intended to pull the little 40 pound unit back inside the apartment to carry to a new home in Portland, but couldn’t quite get a grip on it. I meant to lift the window just a fraction of an inch to get a better grip, but it stuck, and when I exerted a little more pressure, it lurched a full inch. This was just enough to free the air conditioner from the window frame that had been holding it safely in place since May, and my little white air conditioner succumbed to gravity’s grip, immediately disappearing out of my sight.

I had enough time to have a feeling of horror; it was that same horror I felt as a child when a helium balloon would somehow escape my grasp and begin its ascent, rapidly rising just beyond my reach and up farther than any grown-up could reach. If only I’d held on better to that balloon….and the air conditioner.

Like the action hero, I wanted to save my little air conditioner from becoming just another broken pile of twisted metal and plastic debris on the pavement below, and I also had a brief mental image of it landing squarely on the hood of one of the cars parked in the lot below my window…the puzzlement of the owner of a 97 VW Jetta who, leaving work expecting a quiet drive home, would approach from afar wondering why someone had left something sitting on her car, realizing as she walked closer that the heavens had opened up and spewed forth a torrent of Hampton Bay room-sized air conditioners on her car (one air conditioner being sufficient to constitute a torrent).

Acting faster than I could have imagined, I grabbed the power cable of the rapidly descending air conditioner with my right hand, intent on stopping it and carefully hauling it back up to safety.

Instead of being heroic and saving the day, I discovered that I was more like Wile E. Coyote suddenly finding that the anvil he thought he managed to tie to the RoadRunner’s foot is instead attached to his own just as the slack from the rope is about to run out, pulling him off the edge of the desert cliff ending with his head and body flattened on the top of the anvil. Rather than stopping the air conditioner, the air conditioner started me. I pitched forward, and was probably only saved by my forehead solidly striking the window frame. I had another fleeting to moment to realize that the end of the cord was approaching my hand just as the 3-prong plug burst through my grip like an Alien baby bursting through the chest cavity of some poor sod; soon, I heard the inevitable conclusion of my air conditioner’s short flirtation with flight. It sounded crunchy.

My forehead was bleeding and when I looked at my right hand, I noticed that my ring finger had a couple of large craters in it and the top few layers of skin were flapping about like jagged translucent surrender flags. And though I couldn’t see any flames, I was quite sure my entire hand was on fire. It took a couple of seconds for me to appreciate the gravity of what had just happened, and for a full 5 seconds I couldn’t do anything but look at my mangled hand in wonderment that my straight-out-of-the-movies plan to save my air conditioner had gone so far awry. It was a couple of more seconds before I could bear to look out the window and see the mangled mess of metal that used to keep my apartment cool and comfortable. Fortunately, there were no cars in the space below, so I managed to avoid having to explain the situation tosome angry mall employee who just wanted to go home without finding their car besieged by falling appliances.

Now that I’ve put my hand back together, I want to express my disappointment with the movie industry for convincing me I could be a hero to falling appliances everywhere. In memory, attached is a photograph that shows what can happen when you Try This At Home.

The Victory of Gravity over Appliances

Rebuffed by the Tunisian Government

In 2000 and 2001, I spent some time in Tunisia; the stories I have from there could make up a series of articles on their own, and maybe sometime I’ll get around to writing them. Even 10 years ago, I was struck by a couple of things about the country.

First, unemployment seemed very high. I read at the time that unemployment was about 14% in Tunisia, and that seemed low to me. I spent a lot of time in Sfax, and the unemployment rate really struck me when I walked to a café in the middle of the day, and it seemed like there were 40 or 50 young men just hanging around the café every day. As I got to meet some of the people, I learned that they generally were unemployed and had been unemployed for quite some time. Prospects were not good, and these people just didn’t have much else to do but socialize.

Second, many of these unemployed people were highly educated. One fellow I became friends with, Abbes, had a degree in philosophy. An unemployed philosophy graduate isn’t unheard of in America either (my undergraduate degree is in philosophy, as well, but I’ve always worked for software companies), but I learned that many people were college graduates in law, science, and engineering, and yet were not employed, or were employed in tourism, manufacturing, or fields like that where the pay was low, and the job did not reflect their level of education and skill.

Further, all the Tunisians I met were at least bi-lingual in French and Arabic. English was not in wide use at the time, but I still met a number of people there who spoke 3 or 4 languages, often adding English, Italian, or German to their language skills.

These factors, as well as some others from my personal experience there, convinced me that while Tunisia at the time was largely treated as a tourist destination by Europeans, tourism and manufacturing were possibly not the best industries for the country. From my own perspective, I felt like Tunisia had a really strong future in high tech; the high tech industry could provide sustainable economic growth and employ Tunisians in higher paying careers than tourism and manufacturing, where the majority of the jobs are low paying.

After returning to the US, I continued to think about this. In late 2001, the software startup I was working for went out of business like so many other startups at the time, and I started thinking about Tunisia again, and partnering with someone in Tunisia to form a startup software company.

In 2002 or 2003, after doing some research, I contacted the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) in Tunisia. During my research, I’d noticed that most of the materials and data published by FIPA related to manufacturing or agriculture. There was virtually no mention of a technology sector at that time.

After some discussions with a gentleman at FIPA regarding the idea, I registered for a conference that FIPA was holding for potential investors. Before I bought my airline ticket, though, FIPA contacted me and told me the conference would focus on manufacturing and suggested that a technology startup was not something FIPA wanted to deal with. I asked them if they might put me in touch with other technology companies or business owners in the country who might be more interested or more well-suited to working in the tech sector, but I received no further replies. I was irritated about this, but couldn’t do much at the time. I was in the US and my contacts over there were mostly unemployed and not in the business community. So, I gave up.

A few months ago, I began to wonder if things were any different now. The FIPA website is not much different. It still focuses on manufacturing and agriculture. The only real acknowledgement of technology is a mention new technology parks. I was discouraged that things didn’t appear to have changed much.

I was wrong about that. They had changed, but the changes weren’t appearing on the government-sponsored website. In late December, I started reading about riots in Tunisia and Algeria, and started reading more. I found a vast group of Tunisians on Twitter and Facebook, writing about government censorship, net neutrality, open software, and more.

The Tunisian people disseminated information, coordinated with each other, and supported one another in documenting and bringing about the downfall of President Ben Ali in a matter of weeks. It was, in my mind, the first instance of a revolution that was streamed live (or nearly live) on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Tunisia is a high tech country, and it happened despite the best efforts of the Ben Ali regime.  This, I think, embodies the promise of technology: enabling people to do things that might otherwise be nearly impossible. I congratulate them on their hard work, and the achievements that their efforts and sacrifices have brought.

And I wonder if now is the time to re-visit my plan. I believed 10 years ago that Tunisia would make an outstanding high tech center because of its people and geography, and I believe that more strongly today. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to participate in the further spread of the tech sector there…who knows? But I love technology and people, and I think there is a real opportunity to help build something new there.

Beverly Hills Kardashians

I saw a commercial the other night for the direct-to-DVD Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2. The movie, like the first one, involves a bunch of wealthy, overly made-up, overdressed dogs running around and doing stupid shit. As far as I can tell, this make it identical to Keeping up with the Kardashians.

EA Sports Active 2 for Kinect – Avoiding the Pause

I’ve been working a little more on EA Sports Active 2 for Kinect and the whole “pause” problem. It seems like there’s probably a pretty good chance that most users have experienced this problem on Xbox 360/Kinect platform. If you have, you know how frustrating it is. You just finished one exercise and are ready to move on to the next one (or you’re laying in a pile on the floor, sorry you ever started this program, and at the same time slightly ashamed that anything not involving sexual activity could wear you out so much in your own living room), and the game just stops.

The best case scenario is that you’ve been told you paused the game, and you can just continue the routine when you’re ready. This is mildly annoying, but not horrible; I could always use a couple of extra seconds to catch my breath.

The worst case scenario is that from the point of view of EA Sports Active 2, you said “screw this” and just walked off; you have to re-register yourself by facing the sensor and letting it recognize you again. Oh, after that, you’re still paused. This can be downright maddening.

I’ve spent some time playing around with this to see if I could make the routine pause only when I wanted it to, and have had moderate success with the following steps.

  1. Make sure you’re working out in a well-lit room. Kinect is supposed to work pretty well in low-light situations, but I’m not willing to test that theory during a workout.
  2. Stand up, center yourself in front of the Kinect sensor, and face the camera between exercises, even if you’re doing consecutive floor-based exercises.
  3. If you’ve moved closer to or farther away from the Kinect sensor during the exercise, try to get back to the original spot where you were standing when you started the workout.
  4. Stay standing still and facing the camera until the trainer tells you to start the exercise and/or you get the “Follow Me!” cue on screen.
  5. If you need a break, don’t pause the workout until you get the “Follow Me!” cue on the screen.

I’m not 100% certain that any one of these steps, or a combination of them, really improved the situation, or if I’ve just been lucky so far, but I’ve noticed that since I’ve paid a little more attention to what I’m doing between exercises that I’ve gotten fewer pauses. As always, your experience may differ.

The Cake That Should Not Be

As many of my friends know, I’ll periodically eat something I’m not supposed to. This isn’t out of any compulsion like pica, but more out of curiosity. I wonder about dry cat food that says it now has “20% more fish flavor”, and how exactly they determine that, so I’ll do a taste comparison. In specific regard to the dry cat food, I can’t say that one tastes 20% fishier than the other; all I can really say is that they are both 100% disgusting, and I won’t let my cat lick me on the face any more after that.

Recently, while in Oregon, I was at an awesome Japanese grocery store called Uwajimaya. Among the unusual array of Japanese snacks like shrimp chips, Pokemon soda, and mint candy for men, I saw a durian hanging in the produce section. In the last couple of years, I’ve heard off and on about durian showing up on bizarre food shows, such as Bizarre Foods. Everything, I’ve heard about this fruit is that it smells awful. So awful, in fact, that in some places in Southeast Asia, you can’t bring them on public transportation or into restaurants and bars.

 

No Durian Allowed

Durian is just as punishable as napalm, if that gives you an idea.

I figured anything that smells so amazingly foul that it’s reviled throughout Southeast Asia is something I need to eat at least once. However, the damn things are heavy, expensive, and I’m not at all sure how you’re supposed to hack into the the thing to get the edible part out. Worse, I’m not even sure which parts are edible.

Durian Fruit

And it looks so tasty and inviting from the outside.

It looks like what I imagine you’d be left with if you managed to corner a dragon or triceratops and castrated it. They’re fucking Indonesian mountain oysters. There’s only a certain amount of work I’m willing to put in to carve up something that as far as I know is going to leave the whole house smelling like a hobo for days on end, and durian fruit was too much work.

Luckily, in the bread section, I found the perfect combination of cost and convenience: durian cake.

durian cake

That baker guy is so happy, it must be awesome!

At a buck and a quarter, this was the kind of investment I was looking for. I’ve certainly spent more money on dumber stuff in my life, so I wouldn’t feel bad if durian cake didn’t prove to be the taste sensation I was hoping for from a snack cake made with a fruit that’ll get you a $5000 fine in Singapore.

Nervously, as if I expected a toxic cloud of stink gas to come rolling out of the clear wrapper, I opened it up and took a bit out. To my surprise, I wasn’t knocked unconscious or left vomiting, (in fact, I didn’t smell anything just opening the cake) so moved along got into the durian cake experience.

Appearance and texture

This is a nice looking little moist snack cake. For everything horrible I’d heard about durian fruit, I was expecting something really unpleasant. Pretty golden color, moist and a little bit spongy. Based on the appearance and texture, I was now actually anticipating a pleasant and tasty little cake. After all, I’d read that durian could have a good flavor if you could overlook the smell. Speaking of which….

durian cake

The cake is a lie.

Aroma

Before taking a bite of it, I inhaled deeply to get a good whiff of the cake. And this is where I first started to understand how deceptive the cake was in it’s appearance. It smelled faintly of a locker room. Not a freshly painted locker room, but one at a public school that long ago ran out of funds for extravagant projects such as making the boys’ locker room not smell like Yog Sothoth’s asshole and ball sweat. Someone with a more sensitive stomach than me (see “dry cat food” above) might well gag at this smell, as their body realized this cake is just wrong, and tries to make sure not a single molecule of it is ingested.

Still, even though I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to end well, I didn’t inhale a noseful of footsweat and sugar to chicken out at this point. So I moved on to the final step, and popped it in my mouth.

Taste

At first, durian cake tastes like a pretty moist snack cake should. Sugary and light. Remember my mention of Yog Sothoth up there? That wasn’t accidental. The best adjective I can think of to describe this cake is Lovecraftian. It is the cake that should not be. When the protagonists in some of Lovecraft’s stories see into strange places with angles and colors that are just wrong and evil, at once familiar and utterly alien…that’s what durian cake is like. It lies to you with its snack cake flavor on the front end, only to turn out to be utterly wrong when the flavor of an Elder God’s thousand year old used Odor Eaters hits your tongue. Worse, because the foul flavor didn’t kick in immediately, I couldn’t just spit it out upon contact and have a quick shot of bourbon to get the taste out of my mouth. I had to finish the deal, choke down this vile confection, and then live with the taste and odor haunting my mouth for the next half hour, no matter what I ate or drank to try and get rid of it. It stained my palate.

Given the choice between eating durian cake and dry cat food again….I think I’d probably opt for the durian cake, but the whole time, I’d probably wonder if I’d really made the right choice.

G.I. Joe Internal Memo

GI Joe Logo

Date: 1 October 2011

From: G.I. Joe Executive Management Team

To: All Joe Staff

Joe Team:

As you know, fiscal year 2011 has been difficult for the organization. The economic rebound we had hoped for failed to materialize, and we have been forced to make some difficult decisions in order to cut costs and keep G. I. Joe vital and operating at maximum efficiency.

Firstly, we are announcing the departure of Harlan Moore, whom most of you know as “Snow Job.” Sergeant Moore has accepted a management position at Columbia Sportswear. His last day with Joe will be October 31, 2011. We wish him well in his future endeavors.

At the same time, we have decided to eliminate the Arctic Operations Group (AOG), because of the continued lull in missions requiring cold weather operations skills. As such, Frostbite, Avalanche, and their support staff will be laid off as of October 31, 2011. We wish them well in their future endeavors.

Secondly, Joe’s Legal Department has reached a settlement in King v. G. I. Joe with the family of Owen King (“Sneak Peek”) who was killed during the battle of Benzheen. While we cannot disclose most of the terms of the settlement, one of the settlement terms will have a significant impact on G. I. Joe’s organizational culture. Before discussing the specific change, let’s look at the rationale behind it.

Over the last several years, our average per-battle costs have skyrocketed. One of the key reasons for the increase in costs is demand-driven. The market for the rare earth metals needed to build the batteries that power our laser weapons has grown immensely, while extraction of the metals has become more expensive. Simply put, we’re paying much higher prices for batteries for our laser weapons than we were in 2005 because of competition from automakers and consumer electronics manufacturers. Fuel costs for air, land, and sea transport have increased greatly, and we have seen increases in the cost of basic utilities such as electricity, sewer, and water service to Joe’s bases around the world.

On the personnel side, Joe has worked to provide consistent cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) each year, as well as merit-based salary adjustments for personnel. We have also worked very closely with our insurers to continue to provide excellent benefits for Joes and their families. Through our diligence and hard work, you enjoy somewhat more comprehensive health benefits than we were able to provide in the 1980’s, with only a slight increase in co-pays. However, this has come at a high cost to the Joe organization. With ongoing battles in a number of areas around the world, our insurance costs have also risen greatly. All these factors have combined to effectively reduce the value of intelligence (commonly referred to as “knowing” internally) for a given battle, as shown in the chart below.

Average Battle Values

Fig. 1 - Average Value per Battle

As you can see, while knowing was half the battle in 1985, even by 1995, it was just about a third of the battle; by the end of FY 2010, knowing has been reduced to only about a fifth of the battle.

Attorneys for the King family claimed that Sneak Peek’s death was the result of: 1) Joe’s ongoing assertion that knowing was half the battle, and 2) executive management’s failure to communicate the decreased value of knowing prior to the battle of Benzheen. While Joe’s executive management admits no wrongdoing, we have been forced to make some changes in one of our key slogans as part of the settlement.

Per the recommendations of Joe’s Legal Department, existing printed materials that bear the slogan “Knowing is half the battle” will still carry the phrase, but will be labeled with an asterisked disclaimer reading, “Does not constitute battle advice and is not meant to reflect actual battle conditions. Please consult your commander before entering battle.” Effective immediately, Joe staff are no longer permitted say “Knowing is half the battle,” since we cannot include the disclaimer during verbal communications. The approved slogan is:

Knowing is an important part of the battle.

New orders for printed materials must contain the approved phrase, but will still retain the disclaimer to help prevent confusion. Joe IT must implement the approved phrase as soon as possible on all internal and external websites, systems, and applications where appropriate.

Your understanding and compliance with the new requirements is appreciated. We look forward to a more prosperous FY 2012. Go Joes!

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