January 31, 2004
January 29, 2004
What I Want
In the ever-present political bickering, I often lose sight of the long-term goals I think the nation needs to brings its resources to bear on. In no particular order and with no timeline offered, here's where I think we should be heading:
1. Universal Health Care: Turning the industry from one driven by profit and fixated on erectile-dysfunction research into one that serves humanity no matter what a person's financial status seems a noble and achievable goal to me. The Clintons of course were shot down in the early 90's, but this needs to eventually happen. Truth be told, we pay for everyone anyway, whether it be through emergency room visits by the uninsured or long-term disability caused by medical neglect.
2. Populate Space: It's a question of "when" not "if" the world will suffer a global catastrophe or not be able to support the current population. Let's look hundreds of years into the future now and work toward getting humans colonizing planets and traveling to the closest stars. Why not take a huge slice of the defense budget, which funds nothing but death and destruction, and finance research and missions into space that benefit all? Plus, this endeavor has the natural result of uniting the world in a common goal.
3. End Unqualified Support for Israel: I'm tired of the tail wagging the dog on this one. For too long we've given our support to a tiny group of uncompromising zealots whose entire claim to legitimacy is supernatural. If I had my way, Israel does what we say or financial and military support goes away. The blood in the Middle East is largely on our hands, and, until we address Israel's control over our foreign policy, it'll just keep building until somebody nukes somebody else. What then?
4. Truly Reform the Education System: Small schools, small classes, vocational opportunities, reformed learning disability support, flexible school hours, single-gender schools. The solutions are obvious, but are we willing to fund it? While we're at it, move athletics out of the school day. And computers. Gone.
5. Sustainable Energy: We have a fossil fuel crisis, not an energy crisis. Pour on the incentives for businesses to deploy renewable energy technology, which already exists, but is cost-prohibitive. Don't depend on GM and ExxonMobil to be innovative and offer products that undermine the most profitable companies in the world; create the supply by subsidizing, like we did with the railroad, telephone, and electricity industries, what will eventually be a multi-billion dollar industry. Do it. Now.
6. End Binary Party System: This will take a grassroots effort, but there's got to be a better way than choosing from basically identical parties. The instant runoff voting system is my solution. Force coalitions; discourage mindless idealogy; emasculate big money.
7. Legalize Drugs: The "War on Drugs" has not been successful. Let's quit fooling ourselves that those drug users are the "other" people and admit they are us. Legalization will allow people who need help with addiction to get help rather than condemnation. The thousands of young minority men in prison because of draconian and racially-biased drug laws can be gainfully employed by a newly created industry. Otherwise law-abiding people who want to smoke a doobie on the weekends, just like millions of people drink liver-killing alcohol, won't risk jail or worse. Bill Hicks said it best: "It's not about the want of drugs; it's about the want of personal freedom." It's hypocrisy at its worst and needs to end now.
8. Freedom From Religion as well as Of Religion: Although well-meaning, groups like the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family have long sought to exert more than their proportional power on political and civil activities. They target political offices not to represent the will of the people, but to impose their fundamentalist views through government, which they usually ironically rail against. I don't want to impose restrictions on their freedoms, but I do want the citizens they purportedly represent to wake up to the stealth tactics of these guys.
9. Firearms: There's got to be a compromise here somewhere. I love shooting guns as much as the next Texan, but it seems blindingly obvious to me handguns make murder way too easy. Besides, if we force people to come up with innovative and creative ways to murder each other, we'll have more interesting headlines like "death by blender" or "semi-automatic feral hampster." Let's keep our other guns, but move toward civilization and dump the handguns, shall we?
Are these gonna happen? Probably not anytime soon. But if we lose sight of the long-term goals, we become consumed by the pettiness. And that's no way to dream.
January 26, 2004
It's always satisfying, in a manly sort of way, to know you own more computing power than NASA used to put men on the moon. But if you have to turn down your thermostat when you turn on your computers, you've got too many.
Some guys buy trucks; some guys play with machinery; some guys collect computer stuff; some guys do it all.
I'm paring my computers down so my room doesn't look like the poor soul's in the picture (click for larger).
Ya know, sometimes big institutions, like schools, find themselves working at cross purposes. For instance, school rules don't allow drinks in the classroom, and common sense says teenagers don't need caffeine and sugar all day. Technically, the only time a student could imbibe is lunch and before/after school. Yet, today, Coca-Cola employees set up a machine in the stairwell 50 feet from the door of my room, even though it's nowhere near the cafeteria and students are only allowed in during school hours.
January 22, 2004
It's interesting to watch how conservatives control the national political conversation. They depend on the general truth that conservatives have popular support on morality issues, like homosexuality and drugs, while liberals stand with the populace on the political issues, like wages, health care, and taxes. Whenever political issues start becoming, well, the issue, they throw out "gay marriage" or "sex education" and the real discourse disappears. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, the emotion involved in many questions of morality overshadows the rational discussion on more political issues. This serves their purposes well, because the plutocracy of the right is camouflaged by their smokescreen of hypocitical indignation at the "immoral" behavior of their focus. Many citizens, fixated on the bedrooms and doctor's offices of others, ignore their own financial and educational best interests when they vote based solely on morality issues. It seems, for them, to be okay for Bush to give the rich a huge tax break at our children's expense and send the sons and daughters of the middle- and lower-class to die for lies and oil as long as he keep the gays from getting uppity, right?
January 19, 2004
When visiting my in-laws recently, I gained control of the TV remote and commenced to muting the commercials, which is normal behavior at home. My father-in-law looked over at me and, with obvious disbelief, said, "What? You don't like commercials?" He was amazed to hear that I couldn't stand commercials and that I owned a Tivo, the single coolest thing I've ever owned, to help me avoid them.
Likewise, I can't stand ads on the internet, where they've become increasingly invasive. I've assembled a potent combination of browser, plug-ins, text files, and, now, User Style Sheet mods to surf practically ad-free. Here's my setup:
1. Mozilla browser: Everything starts here. By itself, it blocks pop-ups and unwanted cookies as well as images that don't originate from the site. Plus it has tabbed browsing, enabling the user to have several pages open within one browser. I can't recommend this browser enough.
The above is pretty straight forward and in the realm of the average user. It's also an unobtrusive way of blocking pr0n from kids' browsers, but as a geek, I go a little further using these two techniques:
3. Hosts file blocking: the hosts file resolves URLs (www.example.com) to IP addresses (184.108.40.206). Ads are served from computers with known URLs. If you resolve the URLs to bogus IPs (127.0.0.1 for example), your browser never even loads the ad. Check here for more info. Not for the faint of heart.
4. User Style Sheet Flash Animation loading option: Just found this one and it is cool. I haven't loaded Macromedia Flash for Mozilla because of all the ads that use Flash. But now, with this snippet of code placed in a local User Style Sheet, you are given the option of running a Flash animation or not. Very cool.
Why go through all this trouble? Because I'm nauseous from the everyday, relentless quest to separate me from my money. I don't want what they're selling, and I don't want to whore my eyeballs any more than necessary to be entertained or informed.
January 17, 2004
For over twenty years, Usenet has existed as a place to exchange information and technical support for geeks. Literally thousands of publically-accesible newsgroups, with categories ranging from Brad Pitt's butt to the finer points of Unix programming to garden pests, exist on news servers around the world. (more info)
Google groups archived the last couple decades into a searchable database. If you ever have a problem with a computer, I guarantee someone has posted the problem, and usually the solution, on Usenet. Over the years Usenet has grown to include thousands of categories for practically everything under the sun, so the internet's collective knowledge is at your disposal. Plus Brad Pitt's butt.
January 14, 2004
The deck feels stacked against me as a teacher.
I'm prepared. I'm competent. I'm motivated. But it seems that I'm fighting against things I can't control to convey even the most basic education to a large percentage of kids. Indulge me as I bitch and moan:
1. Tardies/Absences: The amount is unbelievable. Case in point: today, my first period class started with five kids. I have sixteen on my roll. Over the course of the first hour, seven kids showed up tardy, each needing a quick explanation of what we're doing and interrupting by work with other students. Four were still absent by the end of the period.
2. New Students: The new semester started last week. I was shocked by the amount of new kids who appeared on my rolls: at least fifteen, with two or three in each class. Some had moved or transferred from another class, but most are repeating because of failure. After 18 weeks of class, how do I catch them up?
3. On Campus Suspension: I have a few kids who seem to live in our discipline class, OCS. I'm expected, every day, to supply them as well as others in OCS with work. They're expected to get an education by proxy, I guess.
4. Incorrigible Teens: No matter how many discipline problems I and other teachers have with students, they always seem to return to class. At what point do we declare a student unfit for the classroom so that others can learn?
5. Special Needs Students: Can I really be expected to work with a student who coats both arms with a magic marker and repeats "It's Mr. Crusty, it's Mr. Crusty" for ten minutes before withdrawing to a fetal position under his desk? I'm not kidding.
Keep all this in mind when you see the next round of standardized test scores. School is NOT what you remember. Kids are NOT like you were in school.
January 13, 2004
I swallowed hard and wiped Windows from the hard drive of my main box at home this past weekend. After probably six years of toying with Linux, I'm finally gonna use it full-time. I'm using Fedora Core 1, an offshoot of RedHat Linux, but I'm open to other distributions, like Mandrake or SUSE. Distributions vary in packaging, support, and programs, but they all have the Linux OS at their core.
If you're not familiar with Linux, go here for a ticket on the clue train. Suffice it to say it's free operating system software, like Windows, but written and owned by everyone.
But it's also a lot more than that. It is, in a word, a revolution in who controls the infrastructure of a society. In the past, it took government or private industry to supply the capital to build telephone networks, roads, television stations, etc. But now, thanks to the paradigm shift toward information as the commodity, ordinary people are able to create software that runs the world's computers, outside the control of a few companies or governments.
Why is that important? Because control over software is control over information. You probably don't give a thought about firing up Windows to check your email, and Microsoft doesn't want you to. They want to provide, for a price, access to information. They want you to use their proprietary software to access everything from your online bank account to your movie theater's ticket office to the latest music video. As an example, they purposely break backward compatibility with every new Office release so you have to upgrade, for a price, to access information. Office 97 won't read Office 2000 files? Gotcha.
Linux seeks to break this control. By offering free and open source software, the Linux community is serving the user, not the corporation. Access to information becomes everybody's business and interest. Subversive and free? I like it.
January 11, 2004
I caught myself the other night watching yet another show on how the weakness of the media and the painfully obvious lies from the Bush Administration led us into war. Even the mainstream Discovery channel has run documentaries tracing the path of deceit that led the country to an illegal war.
Normally, this clarity of perspective is reserved for history, after the truth of shady political decisions shakes out over prevailing years, like Johnson's Vietnam or Nixon's paranoia. But these days the manipulation is so blatant, the motives so antithetical to democracy, the lies so baldfaced that no retrospective is necessary. It's there for all to see.
We're lying on the table, being shown our own disease, right before our eyes, and denying it.
January 09, 2004
Drug Testing in School
Drug testing in the schools disturbs me greatly.
A news story this morning and a PBS documentary earlier this week have got me thinking about the trend toward school districts forcing kids who participate in extracurricular activities to take drug tests.
When my former district in Lufkin, Texas, decided to implement drug testing, I felt obligated to voice my opinion against the policy at the next board meeting, which I attended regularly anyway. I felt emboldened when the meeting drew around 200 concerned parents. I thought, "Good. I'm not the only one who sees this as an invasion or privacy and a usurpation of parental authority."
As it turned out, I was the only one there who was concerned about that. Every parent who spoke was enthusiastically in support of drug testing. No one voiced even the slightest reservation about rights or privacy. The ubiquitous observation, "If you ain't been doing nothing, you ain't got nothing to worry about" seemed to be enough reasoning for most everybody there. To this line I would ask, "If you don't suspect something, why do I have to prove anything?"
The reasoning behind testing only the extracurricular kids is this: when a student participates in, for instance, band or athletics, he or she changes clothes at school. By doing this, a student has given up an expectation of privacy, which legally enables the school to test. The policy of testing everyone in school, mentioned in the documentary, was struck down by the Supreme Court, which led to the extracurricular workaround.
My concerns are these:
1. With any drug testing, you are proving your innocence, which is the reverse of the "innocent until proven guilty" legal premise. The burden should remain a proof of guilt, which lies with the authorities, not the student.
2. Fourth amendment rights are violated because the tests are random, which means the authorities have no suspicion of wrongdoing, a standard they must meet for warrants and arrests in the real world.
3. Parental authority is undermined. The school becomes the authority over the child's actions, even if those actions happen ouside the school day.
4. The basis for personal morality becomes fear rather than clear and rational thinking. Education leads to morality; fear leads to submission.
5. The accusation is implied when a student is called to take the test. The psychological damage to some students is significant even though they are innocent. Guilt, real or implied, stunts open discussion and honesty. See: Salem Witch Trials.
6. The students who need interaction and help to fight drug problems are marginalized as they are forced to exclude themselves from the very activities, such as sports and academic competition, that could help them.
7. Although the tests are by design anonymous, everyone in the school will know within 24 hours of a student's positive results. For the rest of his or her life, that student will be stigmatized for a single bad decision.
8. Cost. Teachers are paying 2-4 times as much for health insurance as they were a few years ago. How 'bout directing that money to help them? Or hiring more teachers? Or buying supplies?
But I obviously am in the minority. Most parents seem to be enthusiastic about the school testing for drugs. In the end, maybe what's most disturbing to me is not the testing itself, but rather the unquestioning acceptance by adults of what to me is an egregious breach of not only civil rights but of a school's purpose and scope of authority.
January 07, 2004
Open Source and Free Software
I've dabbled in Linux for several years now, but I've never committed an essential computer to the Open-Source Operating System. Instead, I've tolerated Windows and pirated most of the software I use, like Office or Winzip.
But now I've decided to take the proverbial leap and go completely open source/freeware for all software possible on my laptop, which is my main computer, while still using Windows for gaming purposes. Running the latest games on Linux is possible, but still too much of a hassle.
In case you're unfamiliar, open-source software is freely-available for all to use and modify (if you're a programmer). It's written by a community of programmers who are dedicated to providing quality software that's not controlled by evil corporations like Microsoft. The community "owns" the software, so it evolves with the user in mind, not profit. For more info, go here or here.
I thought it was going to be difficult to replace things like Microsoft Office and Publisher, as well as Photoshop and ACDSee, but tis not so. I found the following free and/or open-source replacements that have been working great:
1. Open Office: MSOffice compatible and built-in Acrobat export. Nice.
2. Mozilla: Browser and email with nice filtering for ads, popups, junk mail. I've been using this for a few years now.
3. Ragtime Solo: A weird name for a high-quality desktop publishing program from Germany. It's a perfect replacement for Publisher.
4. Gimp for Windows: Photoshop replacement. The Gimp Project is Open-Source at its finest.
5. Avast! Antivirus: Realtime scanning and frequent online updates convinced me to use this product.
6. Pan Newsreader: not quite Forte Agent, but it's a mature product.
7. XNView: Practically a drop-in replacement for ACDSee.
8. CDBurner XP Pro: It's not Alcohol 120%, but it's more functional than XP's built-in burner.
9. The Open CD: A cool collection of open-source utilities and programs for Windows.
The only program I haven't been able to replace is Adobe Acrobat. I work with a lot of PDFs, and nothing that I've been able to find provides the functionality of Acrobat for manipulating PDFs, particularly inserting and re-ordering pages easily.