Permanent data storage

We need to focus our efforts on finding more permanent ways to store data. What we have now is inadequate. Hard drives are susceptible to failure, data corruption and data erasure (see effects of EM pulses for example). CDs and DVDs become unreadable after several years and archival-quality optical media also stops working after 10-15 years, not to mention that the hardware itself that reads and writes to media changes so fast that media written in the past may become unreadable in the future simply because there’s nothing to read it anymore. I don’t think digital bits and codecs are a future-proof solution, but I do think imagery (stills or sequences of stills) and text are the way to go. It’s the way past cultures and civilizations have passed on their knowledge. However, we need to move past pictographs on cave walls and cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Our data storage needs are quite large and we need systems that can accommodate these requirements.

We need to be able to read/write data to permanent media that stores it for hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years, so that we don’t lose our collective knowledge, so that future generations can benefit from all our discoveries, study us, find out what worked and what didn’t.

We need to find ways to store our knowledge permanently in ways that can be easily accessed and read in the future. We need to start thinking long-term when it comes to inventing and marketing data storage devices. I hope this post spurs you on to do some thinking of your own about this topic. Who knows what you might invent?

A brief history of clothes

17th-century-clothes

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” ― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Clothing may have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, with some scientists proposing that it may have been in use even more than 650,000 years ago, though most agree that the first fabric uses occurred about 100,000 years ago.

These theories are based on studies of the human body louse, which according to genetic studies, diverged from its ancestor, the head louse, about 107,000 years ago. I hope you weren’t eating your lunch when you read that…

Flax fibers seem to have been the first used for textiles and fabrics, around 8,000 BC, with cotton following around 5,000 – 4,000 BC and wool around 3,000 BC. Starting around 6,000 BC, other fibers such as rush, reed, palm and papyrus were used together with flax (linen) to make ropes and other textiles. Silk also saw its introduction as a fabric around 4,000 BC, in China. Bark and hemp fibers were discovered to have been used in Japan around 5,500 BC.

The Silk Route, which began in 114 BC during the Han Dynasty, is credited in large part with the development of the great civilizations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and Rome, and thus helped to lay the foundations for the modern world. You wouldn’t normally think cloth can have such an incredible impact, but it did.

Dress in classical antiquity favored wide, unsewn lengths of fabric, pinned and draped to the body in various ways. When I look at depictions of clothing from the civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome, there are common traits: it was made to suit the weather, covering more of the body where it was colder and less of the body where it was warmer, becoming more ornate for the aristocratic classes or for those where certain articles of clothing were symbolic of power, such as those in certain government or religious functions. The fabrics commonly used for these clothes were linen, wool and cotton. The Egyptians used flax (linen) almost exclusively, while the Greeks favored linen and wool and the Romans used mostly wool, though they also used other fibers, such as hemp, linen and small amounts of silk or cotton (which were imported and more expensive). For more info on clothing in the ancient world, you may consult this page.

Clothing in antiquity

We owe the development of richly dyed, woven, patterned and embroidered fabrics to Byzantium and early medieval Europe. During the high middle ages, the development and dyeing of wool was developed more and more, and we began to see a clear differentiation between wool as outerwear and linen as innerwear. We all know that wool cannot be washed and dried without shrinking, which makes it unsuitable for garments that are washed often, like innerwear. That’s where linen works very well, as it also breathes quite easily. Cotton and silk were still being imported and therefore reserved for ornamentation, not as the main materials.

Byzantine clothes

We have the Crusades to thank for the diversification of textiles in Europe and soon afterward, for the emergence of fashion, which historians agree occurred in the mid 14th century. You wouldn’t normally think of the Crusades as a tool for the development of fashion, but there it is, war has a way of opening up new trade routes and new ways of life. I think of these unexpected developments as turdflowers springing up from… well, you know what…

From that time onward, clothes began to change in Europe at a pace unheard of in other places in the world, where styles remained the same for centuries while the Europeans began changing them every year. This is also the period when straight seams and draped garments began to be replaced with what were the beginnings of tailoring, such as curved seams, lacing and buttons.

Medieval clothing

We began to see national variations in clothing during the 15th century. This is also when silk and velvet began to be used more prominently. During the 17th century, we find the origins of the three-piece suit — as the coat, waistcoat and breeches (pants, trousers) began to be made of the same cloth. The fellow in this illustration is not wearing a new-fangled three-piece suit, he prefers the foppish look.

18th century fashion

In the 18th century, fabric production began to be mechanized, but clothing was still being made by hand, as the complicated machines that cut and sew suits and dresses nowadays didn’t exist yet. In the 19th century, sewing machines were invented. We saw the introduction of synthetic fibers during the 20th century, and from the start of the 20th century going forward, we have seen the gradual decline of bespoke tailoring in favor of mass-produced clothes, most of them from synthetic fibers.

suit-factory

Good things have also occurred during this last century. As a result of mechanization and automation, fabrics have become much more affordable and there’s an incredible variety now, as manufacturers constantly experiment with threads, textures, colors and treatments. Clothes have also become much more affordable, and even though they’re made by machines, advancements in computer modeling and the collective data on human measurements gathered over the centuries make it much more likely for you to find an off-the-rack outfit that fits your body nicely now, rather than a few decades ago.

An off-the-rack suit

One of the goals of my project, “The Elegant Gentleman“, is to show the benefits of natural fibers and of custom-made clothes to those who are willing to listen. Natural fibers are simply better for the body and are renewable, as the sheep will grow wool every year and the cotton and flax will spring up as long as they’re well-tended, while clothes made to your measurements, to your body, will always fit, wear and look better than something you pick off the rack at the store. These two things are immutable.

For more information on the history of clothing, I invite you to check out these pages:

Make sure to also read my article on the various types of fibers that go into the making of textiles, fabrics and cloth.

Rampant piracy in Romania

Not sure if you know this, but Romania is a virtual no man’s land when it comes to movies, books and music. Romanians often get to watch movies before they’re in theaters in the US, and there’s a large loophole in Romanian copyright law that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute those who break the law and share digital copies of movies, books or music online.

I consulted with our IP lawyer, and the gist of it is that in Romania, you’re allowed to make a copy of a “book” for “private, home use”. But since there’s no reference to movies or music or anything else in the law, courts extend that same privilege to them. And by “copy”, the courts have come to understand digital copies as well. As long as you don’t charge for them, the courts consider them “private” copies. So that leaves the door wide open for all uninformed (and informed) people to share “private copies” of movies, music and books all over the net.

Back in 2009, I wrote an article about software piracy in Romania, explaining that when software costs $300 to buy (i.e. Windows), a typical Romanian won’t be able to afford it, because that’s their monthly salary. My advice back then, to those who wanted to do the right thing, was to look at Ubuntu, which is free, friendly and completely legal. Now I can add OS X to the list. At $29, it’s certainly affordable for a Romanian, and for the tech savvy people, it shouldn’t be too hard to put together their own Hackintosh. Although not entirely legal, as pointed out in this comment, it’s still a better alternative to running a pirated copy of Windows.

Something I cannot condone though is the piracy of books, movies and music. Their price is affordable to the typical Romanian. A book costs somewhere between $10-30, often even less than that. A movie can cost anywhere from $1-5 to rent and $5-20 to buy — or you can subscribe to Netflix and watch all the movies and TV shows you want for $7.99/month. Music costs $0.99-1.99 per song. There is no excuse for stealing these. Most anyone can save 20-50 RON in order to buy a book or a movie, if they really want it, and anyone can most definitely spare 3 RON to buy a song. And yet, most Romanians don’t. They willfully elect to download pirated movies, music and books whenever they can.

When did it become acceptable to steal something just because you can’t afford it? If you can’t afford it, then you can’t have it. Save up for it and get it later, you’ll appreciate it a lot more than if you steal it.

Want to hear the sad part? It’s not the poor Romanians who are stealing books, movies and music. No, it’s people who have the means to buy these things in the first place, who could afford to part with a few RON in order to get the latest song from their favorite artist, or to see the latest movie. Their lame and legally/morally invalid excuse is that the artist/movie studio/writer is already rich or that everybody’s doing it, because society’s progressing and the old ways no longer work. Which old ways would that be? The need to pay for a service or a good? Well, when I can pay for my utility bills or my mortgage with a movie I downloaded from a torrent website, that’s when we’ll talk about the old ways no longer cutting it.

Since when did someone who has no idea about the hard work that goes behind making a song or a movie or writing a book and getting it published, get to make a judgment about the artist’s financial health or about whether or not it’s okay to steal their work? When did it become okay to steal? This is tantamount to stealing a piece of clothing from a store, or a chocolate from a supermarket.

These same people who complain they have no money then go out and eat at restaurants, they have vacations at sea side resorts, they spend their weekends in the mountains. That is hypocrisy. Ever since my wife and I came to Romania, I keep hearing there’s a financial crisis going on, and everyone’s complaining about how little money they’re making, but whenever I travel the country, mountain resorts are full, seaside resorts are booked up, restaurants are full, coffee shops are full, marketplaces, supermarkets, stores and malls are full of people, everyone’s barbecuing, there are tons of cars on the streets, and money’s flying left and right. Where’s the financial crisis? 

I don’t care if the law’s not up to snuff, stealing’s never okay. Romanians always brag that they’re good Christians. If they were good Christians, they would know the eighth commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

The boring sameness of Romanian restaurants

Romanian cuisine was (and still can be) wonderfully varied and delicious. Not only are there different dishes in each region of the country, but even the basics, the staple traditional dishes, are prepared differently from region to region. Visiting Romania should be a delectable experience for one’s palate — the potential and the means to bring it about are there.

Sadly, if you should walk into more than one restaurant in Romania these days, your chances are better than 95% that you’ll see the same limited menu — the same soups, the same entrees, the same salads, the same meat dishes, the same desserts, the same drinks etc ad nauseam… It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is part of a two-star, three-star or four-star hotel or pension or if it’s a standalone place in a mountain or seaside resort or just some place alongside the road. Beside a few dishes or drinks that sometimes vary, they share the same boring menu.

They all have vegetable soup (most of them don’t know how to make it). They all have tripe soup (in varying degrees of stomach-turning oiliness). They all have fried trout, most of it bland beyond belief to the taste. They all have, of course, lots of pork, beef and chicken dishes (the same fattening dishes across the board), so it’s no wonder most Romanians are starting to look like potbellied pigs. They all have the same salads, and most seem to compete in using the most withered vegetables, drowned in a sea of oil and topped with nose-turning vinegar.

The question then arises, can you find decent food as you travel through Romania? Sure, if you manage not to get sick of eating the same dishes… We’ve traveled a lot through the country (we’d like to travel some more) and we have come across a few restaurants that do some dishes well. We’ve also seen a few restaurants that have impressed us by straying from the boring sameness with different and delicious dishes. But these places were few and far between, and when you’ve been on the road all day and you walk into a restaurant only to see the same menu, it’s a very disappointing experience.

There’s also another factor that adds a certain degree of difficulty to our search for food. We’re raw vegans, which means we prefer to eat raw, uncooked vegan foods. When we don’t have a choice, we’ll eat cooked vegetarian dishes, such as soups, side dishes or salads. But that doesn’t mean we don’t look at the whole menu, just to see what a particular restaurant is offering to the general public, and that’s when the disappointment sets in.

Having grown up in Southern Transilvania, my palate is naturally accustomed to Southern Transilvanian foods, which include Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian dishes. Those dishes were, surprisingly enough (by today’s standards) mostly vegetarian dishes (ovo-lacto-vegetarian). As I grew up, we ate meat once a week (on Sunday), and it was most likely chicken. We ate beef very seldom (I remember only a few occasions during my childhood), but we did eat pork quite often (to my chagrin) in winter-time. I loathed the stuff, but that’s what we had in the pantry, so that’s what I ate.

If you should go to a restaurant in Southern Transilvania these days, their menu won’t reflect the traditional cuisine of the region at all, even if they say they’re a traditional “Transilvanian” restaurant. (Somehow the stupidity of calling a restaurant “Transilvanian” when it’s located smack-dab in the middle of Transilvania escapes the owners…) They have the same dishes you’ll find everywhere else, prepared in mostly the same ways. And they’ll have mostly meat dishes. Where are the traditional soups, entrees and dishes I grew up with? They’re certainly not on the menu!

My grandmother used to make a delicious sweet potato soup. She also made a sour potato soup with tarragon and milk that makes my mouth water even now. She also made cabbage soup, a nice thick soup with dill and all sorts of condiments, completely unlike the pig food they call cabbage soup in restaurants these days. In the spring, she’d make a wonderful sour salad, watercress or wild garlic leaf soup. Her noodle soup was the best. And she’d also make a dumpling soup that had me licking my fingers and begging for more dumplings.

The meal that had me begging for more was chicken drumstick stew with mashed potatoes. That was the best. But she only made that once a week, on Sunday. She also made a delicious mushroom stew. Oh, and her pea stew was so good! Her fried onion sauce, usually served with mashed beans or whole bean stew, sure made my mouth water. She also made a mean potato stew with sweet sauce. Her fries were amazing, particularly when she sprinkled a little grated cheese on top! I can’t even find proper fries in restaurants these days! Most restaurants decided it’s better (for them, not for the customers) to buy frozen, pre-cut fries and warm them up instead of making them from fresh potatoes, as is the rule.

For dessert, my grandmother also made “gomboti” (a sort of dumpling) filled with plums, apricots or peaches. Or she made “clatite” (a small crepe) filled with fruit jam or honey. She made a lot of desserts as well (layered cakes and more) all of them delicious, unlike the cakes you find in pastry shops these days.

My mother and my wife both cook (my wife is a raw food chef) and they both make their own versions of the vegetarian dishes listed above. They’re all delicious. And as we visited various Romanian friends during my childhood and later life, I got to eat some pretty interesting variations on these same recipes.

When we go to restaurants, I can’t find any of these traditional dishes. Instead, what we’ll find is lots of bland, badly cooked side dishes and lots of meat dishes. And when we go to restaurants in other parts of the country (Moldova, Muntenia, Dobrogea), we can’t find any of the traditional dishes from those regions, either.

When did Romanians start to eat meat every day? That was certainly not the case 15-20 years ago. And look at them now, as a nation… They’re almost as fat as the Americans. Most Romanian men over 30 have pot bellies, which they proudly display and rub as if they’re some treasure. Hey, guys, I got some news for you, big bellies are nothing to brag about. In fact, they’re a sign you’re overeating and they’re also a precursor to erectile dysfunction. Think about that as you gulp down steaks and other fat-laden dishes…

My questions for Romanian restaurant owners are these:

  • Where are the foods that set Romanian cuisine apart?
  • Where are the traditional dishes we know and love?
  • Why do you all have the same menus?
  • Will you serve more vegetarian dishes? 

I’m curious to see what answers I’ll get (if any).

The Secret Powers of Time by Philip Zimbardo

This video is an epiphany. It explains how people’s conceptions of time affect their lives and societies — and vice-versa. My jaw kept dropping as I watched it. If you’re a sentient human being, you will think it’s the best 10 minutes you’ve spent in a long time.

RSA Animate – The Secret Powers of Time

Gotta give them something to do

It’s easy to decry TV, movies and sports as nothing more than a time suck, as a constant push toward looser morals and a consumer culture, but they also provide a benefit that’s not often discussed — that of giving people something acceptable to do with their time. Among other things, they redirect energy that would be spent on real life behaviors into vicarious behaviors, and in some ways, that’s a good thing in today’s world.

You look back through recent history, and you’ll see that as societies became more civilized, people distanced themselves from nature and segmented their existence not only in terms of time but also in terms of space. When economies were based solely (or mostly) on agriculture and crafts, people had plenty to do all day long. Life and work followed a natural cycle, and they intermingled. (You see some of that these days with telecommuting.) People had homes, and they had land, and they worked on that land and around their homes all day long. They put in long hours during the spring, summer and autumn, and relaxed during winter, at home with their families. Nowadays, very few people still live on that cycle. Most people have office jobs and live in apartment buildings, particularly in the larger cities where the costs of owning a home are prohibitive. When they get home at night, what’s there to do? Little, really. When you have an apartment, what are you going to do? Stare at the walls? Vacuum the floors? Re-organize your sock drawers? I suppose that’s how the need for mass entertainment developed, first with sports, then movies, then TV. When you have (roughly) five hours of free time per day, you’ve got to spend it somehow, so why not become a sports fan, or why not watch movies or TV?

As one follows the progress of their favorite sports team or TV show, they live in that world, through those characters or stars, and experience the highs and lows of that microcosm. Some would say that’s a form of population control, of dumbing down the population, of occupying their time with nonsense so they don’t wake up and start something. In some ways, it is, but it’s also needed. What would people do with the energy and time they spend on sports and TV if those outlets didn’t exist? Some would spend it in positive ways — with their families, on books, arts, hobbies, games, newspapers, trips and the like — and yet others (and this is a number that can’t be quantified) would spend it in negative ways — and the variety of those ways is something that would boggle the mind. For that group of people, the fact that they spend their time in front of the TV or in the stands, cheering for their sports teams, is undoubtedly a good thing.

So, beside the fact that there are very real benefits to TV networks and advertisers as more people tune in to see TV shows and sports matches, or to movie studios as more people go to see their latest creation, or to sports teams when fans fill their stadiums, there are arguable benefits to be gained for society in general as more people tune out the outside world and turn on their TVs. The issue is clearly more complicated than that, and I’m oversimplifying things, but I wanted to point out this particular aspect. It’s but one view among many that can be taken when you talk about this subject. The more I think of this, the more I realize its complexity can’t possibly be explained in a single post, so don’t expect an overarching conclusion here — just an observation.

What cartoons are your children watching?

This is a question I keep asking myself every time I turn on the TV and look at the Cartoon Network, or The Disney Channel, or Nickelodeon these days. It’s unbelievable how much thoughtless, cheaply made programming they shove into their slots, with little or no thought for substance, style, quality and most of all, for values.

Just like most foods you can buy at the store these days are made up mostly of fillers and devoid of nutrition and natural goodness, most cartoons on TV are nothing but patina, a modicum of presentation pulled over a steaming pile of dung.

The Disney Channel is in the most shameful state of all. They have a legacy to live up to. They have a heritage, which is something no other channel has. Back in the early 90s, when I came to the States, The Disney Channel was way up there on a pedestal in terms of programming quality. It was heaven for a boy with a hunger for good cartoons.

Now, it’s 95% garbage. They’ve got terrible live-action shows geared solely toward filling programming slots and selling merchandise and hurriedly-done computer-animated cartoons.

What happened to shows like Duck Tales, or the Rescue Rangers, or Tale Spin? What happened to the old cartoons with Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Daffy Duck and the rest of the gang? Aren’t there any people who still have good ideas at Disney’s TV subsidiary? There are obviously very talented people at Pixar, where great movies still get made. Can’t Disney recruit some more people like that? They’ve obviously got the money, since they just spent $4 billion on Marvel. Only a small fraction of that money would go a long way toward turning around The Disney Channel.

Overall, the industry is in decline, precisely because they’ve been focusing on quantity, not quality and substance. They’re trying to spend as little money as possible and churn out as much footage as possible, without any foresight or real planning about a show’s direction, character development, plot, dialogue, character animation (movement, drawing style, aesthetic appearance, etc.), progress (generally, if characters are doing something or striving to achieve something, progress or setbacks toward an overarching goal ought to be achieved with each show), and most of all, since these cartoons are shown on children’s channels, they ought to be kid-friendly, they ought to promote good values, and they ought to appeal to one’s artistic sensibilities.

As for those who give these shows the go-ahead, I can only describe their approach as auto-pilot. They’re throwing stuff at a wall in order to see what sticks, and instead of trying to figure out why stuff doesn’t stick, they’re looking for more stuff to throw. They care little about any of the things I mentioned above. They care about filling slots, preferably with stuff made by people they know, and about selling ads during those slots. They’re trying to hock merchandise instead of realizing their jobs involve a much higher responsibility than that of a vendor at the local flea market. They ought to care deeply about what they put on the air, and instead of examining the merchandise they’re selling through the critical lens of someone who is helping shape young children into responsible, caring, sensible adults, they’re looking at these cartoons as a means to an end — the end being solely the channel’s bottom line.

What they don’t realize is their revenues are decreasing not because they need more live action shows on a cartoon channel, or because less people are watching TV because they’re spending more time on the internet, or because they need to spend less money and cut more corners — they’re decreasing as a direct result of the crap they are putting on TV. If only they took their time to find quality cartoons and filled their programming slots with them, they would see revenues and ratings increase, not to mention that we’d have happier, healthier children all around.

You may ask yourselves, how do I find good cartoons when the good offerings are so slim? I outlined a few good rules of thumb in this post. The most important part is that you should use your good judgment to find shows that are worth watching. Don’t give into popular opinion or into what kids may ask for, because at younger ages, they need guidance. They’re not ready to save the world, in spite of what’s portrayed in run-of-the-mill cartoons. Ask your friends, or go online to sample what’s available in stores. Go to YouTube and look for video clips from quality cartoons you can purchase, or if you hear of a good cartoon show that’s not televised, go to their website and see if they show clips. Now, more than ever, there’s real choice, because you’re not limited by what’s on the TV channels, and it’s so easy and affordable to get to the good stuff if you only put a little effort into it.

Life Inc – another perspective on today's society

Douglas Rushkoff Douglas Rushkoff, an award-winning writer, documentary filmmaker and scholar, has written a book entitled “Life Inc”, where he delves into what he calls the “corporate mindset” of today’s society, and how to overcome it in order to make our lives and our world better.

I’ll let him tell you what the book is about in his own words:

“What I started to do was to look at the different ways we as modern Americans have become disconnected from one another, disconnected from the places we live, disconnected from the value we create, and even disconnected from our own sense of self-worth. I came to the conclusion that corporations, or what we call the corporate mindset, were really at the center of this phenomenon.”

“We’re living in a world where if you want to make money, you’ve got to work for a corporation.”

According to Rushkoff, it turns out this “corporate mindset” can be traced back to the Renaissance, which is when kings began to monopolize on the income created by people. Instead of letting them trade freely among themselves, they created charter corporations which had exclusive control over certain industries. The kings got shares of stock in those monopolies, thus income, and those companies got to make all the money there was to be made in those markets. This centralization of power continued right through to our own time.

“The society built through the Industrial Age was built to mythologize the mass-produced object, because we needed to create a society of consumers who thought buying all of this stuff would somehow make them happier.”

“Most of us spend so much time working and consuming that we have very little time left to do anything that has to do with other people.”

“The more we behave as individual actors in competition with one another, the harder it is to encounter one another in a friendly way.”

“People can start investing in one another and with one another, make their towns better, and earn returns that you’re not getting from your Smith Barney broker… and see the return of your investment in the place you actually live.”

“This [economic recession] isn’t just a crisis, it’s an opportunity. It’s the first moment in the last couple of hundred years that we’ve had to rebuild our society and our economy on principles that serve humanity instead of killing life.”

I agree with most of what he has to say, and it’s important to realize he’s not against corporations per se, but against the slow creep of the corporate mindset into everyday life. After all, it’s thanks to corporations that we have industrial design, which allows us to get products designed to exact specifications and high standards. And the concentration of capital and research at some corporations and organizations has resulted in amazing advances in technology that have benefited all of us. Yes, you can do a lot of things in your garage, and you can get a lot of stuff done with your neighbors and in your community, but you can’t build a highly sophisticated computer, digital camera or a modern car at home. (You might be able to assemble them from purchased parts, but those parts were made in factories, too.) There is plenty of value to what he has to say, and the book warrants a close read. We do need to become more human, more connected, more dependent on our communities.

There’s a 9-minute video summary of the book at his Vimeo account. He’s also posted video clips summarizing the main ideas of each book chapter there. I’ll post the main video summary and the first three clips below. There’s also more info on his website at rushkoff.com. You can get the book from Amazon.

Life Inc. The Movie from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Life Inc. Dispatch 01: Crisis as Opportunity from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Life Inc. Dispatch 02: Insulation Equation from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Life Inc. Dispatch 03: Money as Debt from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Meet Buttons, the cutest kitteh ever

The one with the tiny nose

Sorry for the baited title. This post is really about how web users interact with written content on the Internet, and how people in general interact with the news these days. But read on anyway, you might find this useful, and there’s even another cute kitty photo at the end.

I’ve been sitting on the sidelines lately, looking at the way people interact with items on FriendFeed, and I realized it’s all part of how people in general interact with the world these days. In a word, it’s superficial. On the web, there’s barely any interaction with items that have no thumbnails. If there’s no image to be digested quickly with a news item, then it gets buried, fast. That particular news item might be truly meaningful, it could have real value, it could be worth at least a few minutes of someone’s time, but users just don’t take the time to click through and find out what’s going on if there isn’t an image to go along with it. It’s like they’re little kids and they gotta have pictures in their story books. Whatever happened to being adults?

I’m not talking about my own articles, and I’m not talking about FriendFeed per se. I’m talking about the bigger picture. You can see this on TV as well. In the US nowadays, instead of showing the person who is talking, whether that be a news presenter or a person being interviewed, the stations overlay the audio on top of looping footage of the things the person is talking about, or they run the audio on top of marginally related video, ostensibly to keep a spastic audience glued to the set. In Romania, where I’ve been staying these past few months, they divide the TV screen in half. They show the commentator in one half, and they show video footage in the other. Your eyes keep jumping from one spot on the screen to the other, to make sure they catch all the action. And they also scroll text and stock and weather alerts on the bottom of the screen. It’s nuts. You just don’t get the chance to digest what the person is saying, because your attention is continually grabbed and pulled in many different directions.

If you are reading this on FriendFeed or in a RSS reader that shows media content thumbnails, do you know why you clicked on it? Likely because I had a photo of a cute kitten to draw your attention, not because you wanted to do some actual reading. It would have been much better if I showed some woman in a bikini — many more people would be reading this article right now, or at least skimming it, hoping for more photos.

Isn’t it sad though? For a person who likes to write, and wants to communicate through writing, it’s so disappointing to see the audience drifting from adult food to baby bites, to cute or sexy photos with (preferably) one or two sentence captions, instead of real articles. Whatever happened to sitting down and reading something?

Don’t tell me it’s because you’re busy. I don’t buy it. You’re lying to yourself and you’re lying to me. People have always had lots of work to do. Sure, it wasn’t computer work a few decades ago, but it was chores or factory work, and it took just as much time and much more effort. But they knew how to relax. They could sit down with a magazine or newspaper in hand, tune out everything else, and read something they found interesting.

You still have that ability. Stop being immature and clicking on everything, and pick the stuff you want to spend your time on carefully. There’s only so much time in one day, and you can’t keep up with a thousand RSS subscriptions and still do other things. Thin out the stuff you want to see on the web every day. On a larger scale, thin out the stuff you want to do every day, because you can’t do it all. Decide on what’s important to you, and stick with that. Maybe if more people took this advice, the world would be a saner place for those who write on the web, like me. We wouldn’t have to go nuts trying to get the word out about our content, because people would take the time to find interesting stuff and stick with it.

If you’re a FriendFeed user, let me tell you it’s not cool to subscribe to tons of people just so you can watch news items stream by you in real time and feel good about keeping up with everything that’s going on in the world, because that’s not the case. In the end, you’re just as superficial as the guy who looks at a magazine cover and thinks he knows everything inside it. Instead of wasting your time doing that stuff, pick the people you find interesting, weed out the rest, and really sit down to see what they have to say.

Now, just because you read/skimmed this far, here’s another photo of kittens, this time two of them, playing together. See, I’m not such a bad person.

Games kittens play

This is why I dislike tests

A couple of evenings ago, we were at our friends’ home, and I helped their daughter with her homework. She’s in kindergarten, and they’re teaching them how to read. One of the homework questions helped to re-awaken my dislike for tests. You can see the question below, I took a quick photo of it.

My beef with things like this is that there are usually multiple answers to a question, depending on how it’s interpreted. Unless you phrase it clearly and objectively from the start (which doesn’t happen very often), you’ll always have students that get it wrong, because not everyone thinks the same way. While in college and in graduate school, I’d often find myself at a crossroads when it came to answering many test questions; I’d come up with two or more different answers, all of which would be valid answers depending on how I interpreted the question. I’m fairly certain that some professors still remember my arguments with them on matters like these, and my insistence that my answer was also right, if only the question would be looked at another way.

If we look at this particular question, we see that it asks the child to “color the pictures that begin with the same sound as cat“. Okay, it sounds innocuous enough, until you start thinking about what that means. Do they mean the “c” sound of the word “cat”, or do they mean the “ca-” sound from the word “cat”? I don’t know. No further explanation is given.

Our friends’ daughter told me her teacher wanted her to choose the objects that began with the same “c” sound, and proceeded to do so. You can see what she did above. She told me that’s what her teacher wanted her to do, and those were the choices that her teacher wanted her to pick. But if you judge the objects by the teacher’s own definition, you see that the teacher is wrong. After all, the 5-cent coin starts with the same “c” sound as “cat”, unless you choose to call it a nickel, in which case it doesn’t belong on the list. So does the coin purse in the lower right corner, unless you choose to call it a purse or a bag, in which case it also has no place on this list.

No, I think the correct way to look at it is to interpret the instructions literally, and to pick the objects that begin with the same “sound” as “cat”, which is the “ca-” sound. If we do that, then we can only pick the candle, the cap and the can. The cane is a close call, but I’d say it’s not the same sound as cat. (If we were from Massachussetts, then we’d also be able to pick the car, since we’d pronounce it the same way due to our NE accent.)

Do you see the real problem here? It doesn’t matter what the right thing is or what the facts are. It only matters what the teacher thinks is right, which in this case, and quite possibly in many other cases, is wrong. As long as you learn what the teacher wants you to learn, facts, reality and objectivity be damned, you’ll get good grades and you’ll get ahead in life. As long as you go along with the generally accepted answer, you’re okay. This doesn’t encourage creative thinking, and it doesn’t encourage variety of thought; this is more or less brainwashing. This is why I dislike tests, and why I don’t like questions made up by others, particularly when they’ll only take one answer — theirs.

Good vs. bad globalization

As I traveled around Europe, I saw globalization in action, and made the following observations.

Being able to drive through various countries without needing to go through customs checks at the borders was wonderful. Unencumbered travel is a great experience.

The preservation of local or national cultures is of the utmost importance as people from various countries mingle more freely. Dominant cultures end up dominating, and that’s not a good thing. If I switched through various radio stations in Austria or Romania, I seldom heard German music, and even less often did I hear local music, like traditional Tirolean songs. Instead, I heard the latest hits from the US and the UK. I really don’t care to hear the same music I hear at home when I travel. I’d rather be immersed in the culture of the country I’m visiting, but that’s become quite rare nowadays.

Related to the point made above, the people who win from globalization preserve their local culture, because it not only enriches them, but it’s also a bankable practice when it comes to tourism. Clean, beautiful cities, where the old building were preserved and renovated, not torn down, and friendly local people are what tourists want to see.

The ability to export and import goods freely is great. It’s good for the local economies to have the potential of greater distribution. By the same token, it’s horribly bad when companies and factories move to areas where it’s cheaper to operate. Local economies, cities and people suffer so much when that happens. Just look at what’s going on in the US. I can see the same thing happening in certain cities in Romania. Just a decade or so ago, people used to have jobs and work in local factories or shops, and now they’ve all been sold or moved, and those same people, tied to those cities through their families and houses, are now scraping the ground to get by. I don’t know how they do it. It must be incredibly tough and frustrating.

Related to the point made above about not companies staying put and not moving, why do you think the US economy is hurting so badly now? It’s because it has become based on services and virtual goods like complicated and unnecessary financial speculation, not hard goods. Other than farming products, we make very little in the US these days. Most of the US products (and most of the world’s products for that matter) get made in China. Is it any surprise to see that China’s economy is booming?

Remember that countries have two ways to exert their influence in the world: (1) soft power, which refers to economic and cultural power, and (2) hard power, which refers to military force. US’ soft power has been waning in recent years, through its own faulty policies, and so the only way left for it to retain its dominance is to increase its hard power. The problem is that exerting hard power makes the soft power diminish even more and it also breeds enemies, which makes it even harder to retain dominance in the long run. Soft power preservation is the best long-term foreign policy a country could have, and the US has failed at it.

EU taxes are a heavy burden to bear. The VAT (Value Added Tax) is around 20%. That’s crazy. Not only does that make everything more expensive, but the markups are also higher. This means you’ll sometimes find that the same product, like a laptop or a camera, is up to 50% more expensive in Europe. That doesn’t make sense to me, particularly when salaries in so many Eastern European countries are unbelievably lower than in Western European countries, yet the prices are just as high.

In globalized economies, there’s greater potential to encourage correct or responsible behavior by standardizing business or agricultural practices. Vice versa, there’s greater potential to mess it all up as well, but let’s try to stay positive here. I liked what I saw in Europe when it came to land care and the preservation of forests. I also liked seeing entire fields filled with wind turbines, which generate electricity with zero pollution. I also liked seeing solar panels on the roofs of many, many houses in the countryside. I like the EU’s anti-corruption efforts, and I like the way they encourage good infrastructure through grants and loans to member countries.

When standards are put in place, there’s the potential to go overboard with rules and regulations. While the intentions are good, if you make it too onerous for an individual or a small business to compete or participate in the marketplace, you are effectively favoring large corporations and driving out the small guys. I see this happening with farming regulations in Europe. People that used to own herds of sheep and cows have now been forced to sell them or become part of large farming cooperatives, because they couldn’t afford to keep up with all the rules. Farmers operate on thin margins and big risks, and when you introduce extra costs, you are in effect killing them.

It would be a horrible shame to drive out all the small guys and let large corporations handle all of the marketplace. For one thing, you are killing the spirit of passionate people that love what they’re doing, and for another, you’re destroying a way of life that has served us well for thousands of years.

I do hope the EU and the US do their part to keep small farmers alive and well, while encouraging the production of food through responsible, renewable and healthy practices, free of genetic manipulation and unnecessary hormonal, pesticide and antibiotic treatments.

Hot teachers and sex with students

Three more female teachers have been jailed after it was discovered that they had sex with students in Tampa, FL. MSN has a video report on this. Plus, if you do a search on MSN Live, you’ll get plenty of search results summarizing recent news stories about similar events.

What bothers me about these reports is that the boys in question are always categorized as “abused”. It’s a great example of societal hypocrisy. To those that say that, I say this: BS! Seriously, does any male in their right mind think these boys were abused? Young boys practically swoon and fawn over attractive female teachers. It’s been going on for ages. They fantasize, and they do “other things” as well to “cope” with those crushes. So when these boys — in spite of what they might say now to the authorities — had the chance to engage in those sexual encounters, do you think they had doubts for even a second? Not a chance. Seriously, have these adults trying the women’s cases forgotten their own childhoods?

Sure, those boys will deny it now, and agree that they were corrupted, and to some extent, I agree with that characterization, as you’ll see below, but they engaged in the encounters willingly, happily and repeatedly. Given the chance to do it again, they did it and still would do it again. They went back for more, time and time again. In the case of one of the teachers, she had an orgy in a hotel room where more than 10 teens were in “attendance”. That is not abuse. That’s really slutty behavior on both sides.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I agree that the teachers did something unethical. They abused their position of authority as teachers, and they corrupted the normal teacher-pupil bond by engaging and participating in those situations. Furthermore, it was morally wrong to start an adult-level relationship with a child, in spite of their physical maturity. From a religious point of view, what they committed was adultery, and that’s clearly wrong. But we need to look at this objectively, from a civic point of view.

We should look at how much damage was caused to what we call the “victims”. It’s possible that the teachers corrupted the boys, in the sense that they introduced them to sexual situations that boys don’t normally encounter. One’s perspective in life changes once one has had those sorts of experiences. They will look at sex differently. They will look at relationships differently.

Then again, it depends greatly on how those teachers approached the situations, and how the boys viewed the encounters. In the context of “love”, not sex — and suspend for a moment the disbelief that love can exist when the age disparity is so great — it’s quite possible to have a healthier outcome, whatever that means. There are varying degrees of perception, and they depend on each individual. One must ask how ready the boys were, physically and mentally, for such an experience, and how much mutual respect there was in each “relationship”, etc… It’s a gray area, and it needs to be looked at as such. Clearly in the case of the hotel room orgy, there was no respect or “love”, simply animal sex, and that should be looked at as corruption of a minor (or rather, multiple minors).

If one is to look at this as a black and white situation, was there sex with a minor? Yes. Should it have taken place? No. Should the standard punishment apply? NO. This is not typical sexual abuse. The boys weren’t coerced. They enjoyed it, every minute of it. They went back for more. They probably bragged to their friends, etc… These are all attenuating circumstances.

In the grand picture, are these situations going to create more long-term sequelae for the boys than any of the following situations:

  • A young girl who has consensual sex with her boyfriend, but then finds out he is calling her a slut to all his friends, and is bragging about having “bagged” her, etc.
  • A young boy who has consensual sex with his girlfriend, but then finds out she is making fun of his naked body, or the size of his… manhood, or about the sounds or face he made during sex, etc.
  • A young boy or girl who are convinced by their “friends” to experiment with same-sex encounters when they’re not really interested, just questioning themselves.
  • A young girl who is forced into sex by her boyfriend, but is too ashamed to admit it afterwards.
  • A girl who is slipped a mickey or gotten drunk at a party, then gang-raped by classmates or friends while she’s unaware of what’s going on.

What happened to these boys is peanuts, literally. Yet all these “offenders” described in the bullet list above would not be prosecuted under law. Seriously, I think any one of us has either heard of “gray-area” situations like these, or experienced them in person. I can practically guarantee you that the boys and girls who have gone through the situations I described above will have more sequelae and will experience more long-term trauma than the boys who’ve had sex with their teachers in recent news. It’s pretty much a given. Yet which situations are getting more attention? These ones? Why? Because it makes it easy for prosecutors to look good. And it makes for good news. That’s why. And it’s hypocritical.

I could go on and on and talk about situations that are much worse than that, like serious rape cases, or sexual torture, or sexual mutilation. These are much more serious, yet in terms of news coverage and severity of punishment, they’re simply not getting the attention they need. In some cultures, like Africa, female circumcision, a form of sexual mutilation, is condoned and accepted by society.

Right here in the States, I’ve heard of a case where a girl was repeatedly raped by her father from an early age, with her mother’s permission. To this day, the girl cannot bring legal charges against her parents. I’ve also heard of a girl who was loaned out (prostituted) to perverts by her mother from the age of 3, in exchange for drug money. That sort of stuff is is really screwed up. That should be the stuff that gets obsessively prosecuted. Instead, we have rapists that can get away with only a few years’ punishment, then get out and rape again and again, while these teachers in the news right now are put through the works for doing something that was pretty much consensual.

Everyone is now rushing to pronounce the verdict and crowd around the “victims” when there are countless other real victims all around us that are getting no positive attention at all. I say look at each teacher-boy encounter individually, mete punishment in accordance with the gravity of the crime, keeping in mind the attenuating circumstances, and if some of those situations only deserve a slap on the hand for the teacher, let’s be honest enough to admit it, as a society. And let’s also be honest enough to admit when a crime is heinous enough to deserve the death punishment (don’t get me started on that).