Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Nice Doll

In the 1940's, Dr. Kenneth Clark conducted experiments to designed to measure the self-confidence of African American school children between the ages of three and seven when compared to the self-confidence of Caucasian children.

In these experiments, children were presented with four dolls that differed only in skin tone. The children were asked which doll they preferred to play with and which doll they saw as "good." Causcasian children, as might be expected, chose the Caucasian doll over the other dolls. In addition, African American children also preferred the Caucasian doll.

These results were seen to suggest that African American children saw themselves as inferior. In turn, the results of these experiments influenced the U.S. Supreme Court when deciding Brown v. The Board of Education, which abolished the legal foundations of segregation in U.S.

In the Spring of 2005, Kiri Davis, a 17-year old filmmaker, decided to repeat the same experiment and documented her findings in a film called A Girl Like Me. It's a short film (~8 minutes) and I ask you to take the time to watch all of it. (It starts one way, but hits you from a completely different perspective.)

I'm not sure I've mentioned this before, but I am not Kara's biological father. She knows she was adopted and has known this for as long as she's been a part of my life. Because of her biological heritage, I try to anticipate and learn about the questions she may have as she grows up.

This film shows me I have a lot to learn if I'm going to be a relevant--and reliable--resource for my daughter as she grows up. It discusses some important questions for parents in general. I think it offers a lot to think about and I commend it to your attention.

Photo credit: Kiri Davis

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nightmare, Justice, or Both?

"It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
-- Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Julie Amero, a substitute teacher in Connecticut, faces up to 40 years in prison after being convicted for exposing her middle school students to adult material via the classroom computer. While it is clear that Amero's students were exposed to adult material, Amero's guilt in the matter is it is less clear. According to W. Herbert Horner, an expert witness for the defense, the material appeared in pop-up ads displayed by spyware installed on the PC. Horner also discovered that the spyware had been on the classroom's computer many days before Amero was hired to substitute that day. Yet, the prosecution blocked the presentation of this evidence at trial. Had this evidence been presented, it clearly would have created a reasonable doubt.

This case has generated quite a bit of online coverage; here are some of the most informative links:

  • Lindsay Beyerstein's AlterNet article is in my opinion, the most complete single article.

  • Network Performance Daily has a set of related articles including more details about Horner's findings and a response from Det. Mark Lounsbury, the investigating officer.

  • An article in The Norwich Bulletin, a paper near the school where the incident appeared, offers a timeline describing events in the case. A careful reading of their coverage suggests they support the prosecution's assertions.

  • Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software (a spyware vendor), has blogged extensively about the case. This post, in particular, provides a bulleted list of the reasons why I personally feel this conviction is a travesty of justice.

I have dealt with computers infected by spyware that cause multiple pop-ups ads to appear. Most of the ads refer to adult sites and I can confirm that they are very difficult to close quickly or easily. You close one and six more appear. I can see how such an experience could be very overwhelming. In addition, the computer in question was running Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 5, versions highly susceptible to "drive-by installations," one of the most commonly used techniques to install spyware onto Windows-based PC's.

It is also interesting to note that the school allowed the license of their web filtering software to lapse, citing budget constraints. This would mean that they were unable to update the databases used by the filtering software, which in turn, would leave them vulnerable attack from sites adding exploits after the last database update.

Occam's Razor is frequently paraphrased to something along the lines of "all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one." Is it easier to believe that a self-confessed computer neophyte would knowingly and deliberately risk her career exposing her student to pornography or that she just happened to be on duty when the lack of security decisions resulted in an inevitable exposure?

Please understand that I completely support protecting children from inappropriate material. I also understand a parent's immediate and intense desire to make someone pay when their child is exposed to this material, especially in a trusted environment such as school. However, given the prevalence of this material on the Internet--and the ease with which it can be unknowingly installed on older operating systems, especially by inexperienced users, I believe it's unfair to convict a substitute teacher to a 40-year prison sentence due to something that cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If you are using a Windows-based computer, please make sure you have installed all the latest security updates. If you are not using Windows XP Service Pack 2, please upgrade...and quickly. If you use Internet Explorer, please make sure you are using Internet Explorer version 7, which guards against "drive-by install" attacks. No matter which operating system or browser you use, make sure you have a reputable virus scanner with an active subscription and an effective spyware detector. It won't protect you from all the dangers of the Internet, but it will help...especially if you have children or inexperienced users.

Photo credit: Zapa Csitul

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Touch of Brilliance in the Middle of Winter

JP sometimes refers to what she calls my "commuter series" of photos. The "series," such as it is, is not artistically planned. It's more of a series of pictures opportunistically snapped while driving. My digital camera has an untraditional form factor that lets me take pictures with one hand. Yes, they're usually blurry due to the movement of the vehicle, but every once in a while, I luck into a good shot.

(In high school, I learned the secret of good photography was to take *lots* of pictures and hope one of them turns out well. Oh, sure, you should pay attention to composition, shutter speed, and the like. But, the best photos are shots that slip in while you're trying to compose better ones.)

When I'm stuck in traffic, I sometimes use the time to learn more about my camera and what I can do with it. Digital cameras have this neat advantage over traditional cameras; you don't have to develop the images and can delete the cruddy ones immediately.

Today's photo is of Mount Rainier and shows an unusual feature in this winter's weather...sunlight and a touch of clear sky. Oh sure, Seattle has a reputation for being wet and rainy, but most locals (when they decide to admit it) will tell you that while we do get a bit of rain, some decent weather sneaks in from time to time.

Given that not much more than a week ago, things looked like the photo to the right, I'm happy to see us return to more, um, "normal" weather patterns.

Now, if we could just magically redesign the local mass transit systems to actually serve the south and east sides of the metropolitan area, I'm sure I would be a very happy scoundrel indeed.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Fantasy for Dummies

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.
-- Thorin, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This week's Sunday Scribblings prompt is "Fantasy" and it seemed ironic, given that I'd just discovered the book shown to the left in a local used bookstore. I found it because I had some time to kill and I love to prowl through used bookstores to see what I can discover. I took the picture because I thought it was funny that someone would try to reduce Tolkien's rich and meticulously designed world into a Dummies book. (If the customer reviews at Amazon are any guide, the final result was less than, um, successful.)

If you're not familiar with the Dummies series, it's considered one of the most successful franchises in technical publishing. Initially, the series focused on computer related topics, such as database programming, Photoshop, web design, and the like. The series did so well that it was expanded to cover topics like bartending, chocolate, and even sex. (One shudders to think of the kind of person who would been seen at the Barnes & Noble checkout with a copy of Sex for Dummies.)

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there's a Dummies book on Middle Earth or that there's also one on C.S. Lewis and Narnia.

I think it's rather tragic that there are enough people out there who would rather read a book about fantasy novels rather than actually read the novels. To my mind, the best way to understand Tolkien's Middle Earth, Lewis's Narnia, or any other fantasy world is to sit down and experience the source material for yourself, e.g. read the actual books.

The amazing thing about fantasy (or any genre of fiction, frankly) is that, when done right, you don't question the way things work in the world of the story, you simply accept it because it makes sense given the characters and the way they react to their world. Through those characters, those people living through the trials they encounter through the course of the story, you share their experiences, their challenges, and their transformations (if any).

Fiction, regardless of genre, only works when it's believable, consistent, and driven by needs of the characters. It only works when you care about the people you're reading about. And you only care about characters you believe. Sure, there are "thud and blunder" confections meant to distract you for a time, but the really good titles, the ones you remember and reread are those that capture something about the essence of being (if the Elves in the audience will pardon the expression) human.

Fantasy is more than set dressing and good (as in excellent) fantasy novels go beyond swords and sorcery to discover what it means to be human in a world that includes elves, swords, and sorcery.

If you're a writer (or would like to become one), please remember that your goal is to tell a good story well. It takes a lot of work to construct a story. Tolkien invented mythologies and languages for each race Middle Earth. Jumping genres, it's said that Frank Herbert took twenty years to understand and finish the original story of Dune.

If you're a reader, you shouldn't look for shortcuts to understand the intention of the original author. If you would truly understand Middle Earth, don't start with a Dummies book. Start with The Hobbit and then continue with The Lord of the Rings. Draw your own conclusions from those works.

In the end, there is only one way to know what you'll find when you look for something...and that, my friends, is to look for yourself and to not rely on what someone else says is what you should find when you look.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Musings on a Traveling Companion

In 1957, the U.S.S.R. stunned the world by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. Reacting to the potential of its radio beeping, the U.S. accelerated its own research and began a massive investment in space exploration. A year after Sputnik's launch, Explorer I launched in response. For the next several years, each nation claimed bragging rights in the media as they leap-frogged each other in technology and accomplishment. The ensuing "space race" captured the imagination of the American public. Science fiction gained a boost in readership and many children (including myself) dreamed of becoming astronauts. Tang became a household name and Space Food Sticks became a staple of school lunches.

Sputnik, Russian for "traveling companion," launched several years before I was born. I learned about it due to an overwhelming interest in the Apollo program. I was five years old when Eagle landed at Tranquility Base and I watched every moment on TV. I also devoured all space related information I could lay my hands on. I could name astronauts, cosmonauts, mission specs, and other details the way some guys can name all the players, positions, and stats for sports teams.

(I was such a "space cadet" that I got up at 3:00 o'clock in the morning to listen to a live radio broadcast of the launch of Soyuz 19, the Soviet craft involved in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission. The broadcast was in Russian, so I didn't understand a word of it, but when I heard the deep-throated rumble of the launch, my mind's eye watched the rocket slowly gain power and rise into the sky, like a regal phoenix taking wing.)

It's said that China successfully launched and tested a satellite killer last week; they were able to target and then destroy an "aging" weather satellite (launched eight years ago). Today, the headlines report that the U.S. and other countries have expressed concern over the technology which "violates the spirit" of multinational space exploration.

The U.S. investment in space technology after Sputnik came out of fear, fear that the Soviet Union would be able to rain nuclear weapons from space. I wonder if we'll see a new investment in space technology and research. I wonder if our leaders now worry about losing the communication and GPS satellites that underpin our modern communication infrastructure. I wonder if President Bush (or his successor) will offer a speech similar to John F. Kennedy's famous challenge that launched the Apollo project.

If we do see such a resurgence, I confess to having mixed feelings about it. As a life-long fan of space exploration (and science fiction), I would cheer a renewed effort to explore our local solar neighborhood and find ways to exploit the natural resources available off-world. As a citizen of this world, however, I see the need for social investment, too.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could actually make the American dream real for all its citizens? No, I don't mean buy a house for everyone. However, it would be nice to have universal healthcare, fully-funded educational programs, and safety nets that help the disaffected and unfortunate. It would be nice to settle the political feuds now rocking the headlines and help move the entire planet toward a more humane and universally accepting point of view.

Perhaps such a view could be fostered by a shared vision of exploration, much the same way a similar vision helped sustain the country through the civil rights debate, the Vietnam War, Anita Bryant, Laetril, and other social upheavals. Perhaps. For that to happen, however, we would need leaders able to articulate visions for all people, not just a select (and rich) few. Perhaps the forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election will showcase and elevate such leaders. Perhaps.

(By the way, this article has an interesting point of view regarding Sputnik and this link lets you hear the sounds that galvanized a nation.)

Photo credit: NASA

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reflections from a Playground

Last summer, Kara and I rode our bikes to a local park during one her visits with me. It was just the two of us and I tend to make her the center of attention at such times. We went to the park to toss a football back and forth.

Kara's actually quite good for someone her age. Her throws have power and she's very accurate for a (then) seven year old. She’s a bit of a tomboy. (Who am I kidding? She's very much a tomboy. I'm convinced the only reason she isn't falling out of trees is the decided lack of nearby trees worth climbing.) In many ways, she's better at football than I've ever been. (I wasn't into sports all that much when I was growing up, so I never developed skills beyond what you pick up on the playground when you don't have much else to do.)

Kara loves that park; in part because there are usually a number of other children around and she likes to befriend them with that easy, immediate acceptance children have for each other. (Why do we lose that as we become adults? Can you imagine what the world would be like if we could survive the loss of innocence with that easy acceptance intact?)

On this day, there weren't any other children at the park when we arrived, so we started tossing the football back and forth. After about fifteen minutes, a young man arrived with what I assumed was his little sister. Kara noticed them right away and wanted to include them in the game. It took a few minutes, but she was able to coax the sister to join in. We were using a football that was for older children, but the sister caught the ball gamely. Throwing was harder for her, but we made it work.

After several minutes, the girls decided they'd had enough of that and walked over to the swings. They played on the swings for a while and began to ask questions of each other. What school did they go to? What grade were they in? What were their names? And so on.

We soon learned that Kara's new friend was called "Halley" and she was a year younger than Kara. Her brother, "Jordan," was 15 and he was responsible for taking her to the park, playing with her, and making sure nothing happened.

After a time, Halley and Jordan played together and I watched them through the corner of my eye. It was pretty clear that while Jordan was well on his way to becoming one of those "cool dudes" that many teenage young men aspire to be, he really cared about his sister and enjoyed spending time with her. He engaged with her, talked to her, and (perhaps most importantly) listened to her. And, as you might expect, it was pretty clear that Halley equally adored her big brother.

I couldn't help but recall another older brother/younger sister relationship that I was familiar with...specifically DD and her older brother B. When I first met B and DD, he spent a lot of time with her and paid a lot of attention to her. Over time, though, he spent less time and paid less attention (presumably because he was spending more time in "other" pursuits). I thought about this while looking at Jordan and Halley because I remembered very clearly the emotional transition that DD has gone through the past few years regarding her big brother.

At one time, she thought the world of him. Now, she hopes he learns what he needs in order to take active responsibility (and interest) in his life beyond his "other" pursuits. I know how much she misses the connection she once shared with her older brother.

And I thought about that connection while watching Halley and Jordan interact. I hope they manage to hang onto that mutual concern, caring, and respect they had for each other. As an only child, I can only understand that connection through observation. (I grew up with no siblings of my own and, while my parents each remarried into established families, I never became close to my step-sibs.)

I thought about opportunities lost, opportunities lost between B and DD and opportunities lost between B and me.

I mention this story because today is B's 21st birthday. If you've followed JP's blog for any length of time, you're familiar with the difficulties he's facing, as well as JP's own concerns, doubts, and fears for him. While he's current receiving treatment, we're not sure he's taking it as seriously as he needs to.

I haven't posted much about him because he and I aren't exactly close. When JP and I married, he decided the last thing he needed was a stepfather and, I have to confess, I didn't give him many reasons to reconsider that decision, especially as we learned of and then tried to deal with his addiction. Several times, he and I faced off in shouting matches about his behavior. I said unkind, mean-spirited things and I wasn't the nicest of people when I said them. I had no skills to deal with B and what he was going through and I'm afraid I allowed my anger and frustration control my behavior.

I own the responsibility I bear for my actions that lead to the difficulties between us. I was not the adult that I needed to be in those moments. I have apologized to him for those errors, but I know he still harbors resentment.

We are all works in progress and parenting, like anything, takes experience and practice to do well. I didn't do a very good job in those moments and I regret that deeply.

Perhaps I'll have a chance to do a better job in the future, but for now, I can only hope that B remembers the connections he once had with the rest of his family. Perhaps those memories will help lead him to a better place.

If so, I know of one little sister that's going to be really happy to have the big brother she once adored back in her life.

Happy Birthday, B. May your next one be spent with family, with laughter and joy. May this birthday bring you peace and clarity. May you find your true self, free of fears, anger, and chemicals.

Photo Credit: Brian McEntire

Monday, January 15, 2007

Happy Birthday, Martin

The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, the U.S. celebrates a birthday (sort of). Had he lived, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 78 today.

As you may know, he was 39 when he was assassinated. I was four at the time and hardly aware of his actions or his courage.

Over the years, of course, I've learned about the age he lived in and the way he helped reshape justice in this country. I've learned what a remarkable man--and spirit--he was. He made a difference in this world and his sacrifice helped spur genuine change.

I have always been inspired by his words and his actions. One of my favorite quotes is, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

I find myself remembering these words as I read news accounts reporting:

  • more botched executions in Iraq,

  • genocide in Darfur and how the world at large is generally ignoring it,

  • continued turmoil elsewhere in Africa,

  • starvation, torture, and rebellion in Sri Lanka,

  • the intention of our Commander-In-Chief to send even more soldiers into Iraq in spite of clear and repeated warnings against such action from experienced military commanders, experienced diplomats, and perhaps much of the rest of the world.

    (As I recently said to JP, "Welcome to the new Iraq Strategy; it's like the old Iraq Strategy, only Truthier.")

As in 1968, there is much injustice in our world. To honor the life and legacy of the man who's birthday we celebrate today, I close with one final quote of his.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Holiday Catch-up and Recap

Sorry I've been so quiet lately. Things have been busy and I'm still trying to figure out how to carve time out of my schedule for daily writing.

Before I get too carried away, let me say a huge "thank you" to everyone who offered good wishes for my (and JP's) recent birthday. I certainly enjoyed mine and I'm fairly certain she enjoyed hers. Naturally, we spoiled each other (though I have the advantage of being able to have the last word, since her birthday is a week after mine. Hee hee.)

I'm going to keep this short this evening, but I did want to let everyone know that we're doing well. Yes, things are hectic, but it's a good hectic.

I do have one thought I wanted to share. I've been amazed by the way the blogging community knits together and supports each other, especially in the face of difficult times. Your support of JP, each other, and (perhaps most especially) Darlene and her family have amazed me. It's reassuring to see real people connecting and supporting each other. It's also reassuring to see how everyone supports the ideas, writings, and commentary of others. Examples of such openness and genuine friendship seem to be rare in the day-to-day world (what I call RL) and I'm proud to be a part, no matter how tiny, of such a community. Thank you!

I wish you all a happy new year!

(Tonight's picture was actually taken early in December and shows one of JP's favorite Christmas decorations hanging out with a few of my guilty pleasures.)

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Some days, you're the line noise on the modem carrier.

No matter what you try, you just can't seem to make a connection that works.

Still, you keep trying to connect...and that counts for something. I think.

I hope.