Monday, January 30, 2006

File Under "Extremely Weird":

Can someone explain to me why every one of the top ten hits of this search is from an organization based in either Vermont or Minnesota?

Friday, January 27, 2006

I shouldn't be writing this post. That's true of pretty much anything done during work hours that's not work, of course, but also, writing something about any job in a semi-public place like this is generally a bad idea. But, hell with it - it's just my opinion, it's not a very big secret, and there's only person who I expect would be negatively affected by this post and that person is singularly unlikely to stumble on it.

My least favorite part of this job by far is the writing. Sounds odd, I know, considering my background and interests and stuff. Sometimes I wonder if the problem is just a general lack of motivation. But no, when I consider what has been the hardest part of specific tasks or assignments, that can't be the whole story.

Part of my job is writing profiles of students who have improved thanks to the foundation, or interesting innovations begun under our banner, or events and gatherings we lead or take part in. Writing about this stuff sounds like reporting, but it's not. It's promotion. And while there's a place for that, and I think I could really enjoy practicing it in some ways, what I do here does not include those ways.

There have been lots of little things, but two specific instances come to mind. A month or two ago, I wrote a success story about a student. It was appropriate - we work with kids who wouldn't have gone to college otherwise, not due to a lack of ability but merely due to lack of interest or awareness or expectations, and Mr. A here was a sophomore in college and already an R.A. and had several other accomplishments to his name too. So I got started with the story and it was shaping up well and I was getting glowing praise for him from educators, and glowing praise for our foundation from him. Downright inspiring. But eventually I asked for details about his time in high school. Apparently he was on his high school's football and baseball teams. Not only was he on the teams, he was captain in his senior year. And while that often doesn't translate into college ability or performance, of course, the "former delinquent who sees the light" story I had seen in my head just wilted and withered. This is our idea of a success story? We're taking kids who already have leadership ability and organizational skills and self-discipline and convincing them to take the SATs more seriously? How am I supposed to make an interesting article out of that?

And around the beginning of last week, a story I wrote went up on our Web site. Rather than being about one student, it was how all the students we had been working with at a certain school had shown remarkable improvement. As I wrote it, the improvements I had been told about looked less remarkable, but even so, the changes were impressive. Casual hyperbole might turn "every student's grades increased" into "every student was failing a year ago and now they're all getting As," but even the former statement is worth writing about. So that's what I did. But a day or two after it went up on our Web site, I heard through the grapevine that the teacher I had relied on for most of my info had complaints about mistakes or inaccuracies. I got in touch with her, and it turned out that there four problems. Two of them were innocent mistakes - an adjective not changed to fit the context of a later version, and a quote which I guess must have been heard wrong. The other two were an expectation written up as fact, and a vague part completed in a way that made us look heroic. Of those errors, how many were mine? One. The misquote. The other innocent mistake and the unjustified self-promotions were added after the last time I saw my story.

Let me be clear here: the problem is not the foundation. We do good work. I work from the central office so I never see it in person, but we've changed a lot of lives. The particular person I was asked to write about might not have had such a dramatic turnaround, but other students really have. And it's at least partly my fault that I didn't check the story one last time before it went to the Web site. And of course, I shouldn't complain about having a full-time job with good pay. But this kind of writing is just deadening. I'm not reporting, I'm not creating something original, and I'm not offering opinion. I'm just taking a different event or person in each story and hammering it into the prefab mold of "We did this, isn't that great?"

Thursday, January 26, 2006

So I finally got around to reading the editorial by Joel Stein where he starts out with the ultimate in flame bait, "I don't support the troops."

I disagree with some of what Stein said - the implication that all pacifists are cowards and all who disagree with this war are pacifists, for starters. Most importantly, it's completely false to say it's impossible to oppose the war but support the troops - groups like Veterans for Peace, for example, would disagree. I don't see any harm in parades either - it may not be a G.I.'s top priority, but it would still be appreciated. For that matter, Stein refers to Vietnam veterans getting spit on, which seems to be at best metaphor or exagerration, if not pure urban legend.

But to me, his main point seems simple and indisputable.

The real purpose of those ribbons is to ease some of the guilt we feel for voting to send them to war and then making absolutely no sacrifices... We know we're sending recruits to do our dirty work, and we want to seem grateful.

I don't support the troops. There's no draft, there are no increased taxes, there's no wartime rationing and I'm not taking part in something less formal, my employer has nothing to do with the military, I don't know anyone who's currently overseas and when a friend of mine does go overseas, to be brutally honest, chances are I won't do anything except write to him now and then, and my political activism, limited to begin with, doesn't target programs for soldiers or veterans any more than any other group.

If "support" just means "hopes they're all right" or "wishes them well, if it's convenient" or "quietly agrees with policies that would help lots of people, including them", then it means nothing at all. What's that competing parody bumper sticker, "I support meaningless jingoistic slogans?" It's sad but true.

I don't support the troops, but I'm aware of it and honest about it. I find it hard to believe that most of the people with the yellow ribbon magnets on their cars can say the same. In that sense, I agree with Joel Stein completely.
The weekend was fun. I drove out to Rochester for the Guildpact prerelease tournament. Kenny and I both did pretty badly, but it was fun and we got some new and interesting cards, so I can't complain. I avoided trading, since I never make good ones. It's not that I couldn't if I tried, I don't think - but I almost always find myself trading based on playability, or even more narrowly, cards that I want to put in a deck I have now. For example, until last fall I had five Force of Wills - for those of you who don't play this game, let's just say it's a great card - but I traded two of them and a dual land, also a good card that will never be reprinted in quite as good a form, for a Birds of Paradise, a Darksteel Colossus and a few more things. All good cards, definitely, and dollar-for-dollar I broke even or very nearly, so I should be happy, right? Not really. Force of Will won't be seen again and could single-handedly swing a game, neither of which can be said of the cards I traded for. So why did I do it? Well, I wasn't using them at the moment, so why not? ... Ouch.

So anyway, I didn't do any of that over the weekend, except with Kenny later. After the tournament he took us to this nice British pub in Rochester. It's a long shot, but next chance I get I'll ask around and see if I can find any of that Chimay Red at a store around here, a Belgian beer they had. And later that night, I... crashed. After a five-way game of Magic with Kenny, Katrina, Nate and Christine, I called it a night, well before everyone else. I always get a little less sleep during the week than I should, so after a long drive Friday and an early start Saturday, 1 a.m. was my limit.

This week has been uneventful so far. The office has been empty most of the time, since Rick and others have been in meetings elsewhere and/or getting ready for a retreat for our program directors that starts today. So I've been finishing up a long-term task, and with any luck everything will be sorted out and resolved for better or for worse by Monday.

I've been playing World of Warcraft less than usual over the past two weeks, but what I've done has been fruitful. My level 60 rogue went to the Molten Core the night before last with some guild members - my first time in there - and I got the Nightslayer Belt, which, for those of you who don't play this game, is part of a great set for rogues. Other than that... not a lot's been going on. Watching TV and working and playing games and talking to friends online.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Josh Marshall is exactly right about Hillary Clinton. If she gets the Democratic nomination in 2008 and the Republican nominee is anyone other than Voldemort (as in, someone who really has to be beat at all costs), I'm voting for the Green Party candidate.

Okay, those are my words, not Josh Marshall's. And as bad as Hillary's policies and leadership would be, she's still a lot better than Voldemort and many other Republicans. But I'm depressed and disgusted by turns at how dynastic presidential politics have become.

In fact, the context Marshall provides on the Adams father-son presidencies (24 years apart, effectively in different parties) makes the current situation even worse than I knew. But let's give the Bushes and the Clintons the benefit of the doubt. Assume that all political families are equal. Assume even that the Roosevelt fifth cousins are as bad as the father-son teams we've seen and the husband-wife team we hope for and/or fear. Even then, we had two pairs of presidents related to each other in the first 200 years of the country. If by some unlikely circumstance Hillary Clinton runs for president and wins, we will have had two in 20 years. This is not trending in the direction of more democratic.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Argh. Stressful day. The biggest cause was that (rationally or not) it feels like the incident I refer to here - sorry to be coy, but the situation is still unresolved, for reasons which are annoying but not entirely unreasonable - might actually wind up making my job situation worse rather than better.

But also, things are just hectic. Yesterday morning, my boss asked me to write an article about an event in Hawaii last week. The deadline he gave me was by the end of the day today. However, I would need to talk to at least a couple people in schools. Yesterday being what it was, and Hawaii's time zone being what it was, I only had about four hours to write the article - doable, of course, but unpleasant, especially around other responsibilities. As it turns out, it's not done yet, but I expect to e-mail it in before bed tonight, so that should work out okay. And then a couple people at the office had a family problem and had to leave on short notice, and we have much fewer progress assessments in than we should at this point... as I said, hectic.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

As John Stewart would say, "Or did I just blow your mind?"


The rules:
1. Say nothing about yourself.
2. Nominate no one else to do it.
Well, this is an unexpected bit of time off work... power failure. Not here, obviously, but in the office's neighborhood. And there's nothing we can do without power, so it's a waste for us to be there when CVPS says the estimated time of repair is noon, so... we get the morning off.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It was a good idea for me to include all those hedges and caveats in my post about being annoying online. Via Balloon Juice, I found this.

Uh, try again. Maybe you guys should read the text of the bill... this is a wildly inaccurate interpretation of the bill, in which the word "annoy" appears not once. The word "annoy" appears in *existing* legislation (Communications Act of 1934) and it does not include any communication a recipient might find annoying. Furthermore, the identity provision is not specified in the amendment discussed. Your article is, indeed, a joke.

I still think it's dumb, since most online communication is very different from talking on the phone, which was apparently what the law was originally applied to. But if the 1934 act didn't cause a crisis, I doubt this will.
Another entry in the Orwell Watch, something that's bugged me for a while but I've never articulated it very well: "Islamofascism". Commenter ffakr at Unclaimed Territory has a pretty good dissection of the problems with this term. As he put it:

BTW, please please please.. Everyone.. stop calling terrorists "islamo-fascists"
It makes you look like dumb.

1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition
2 : a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control (early instances of army fascism and brutality -- J. W. Aldridge}

Hitler was a fascist. Mousollini was a fascist. A de-centralized confederation of disenfranchised religious fundimentalists who are willing to kill themselves for promised glory in heaven (rather than continued misery in life) are NOT Fascists.

By definition, Islamic terrorism fails to be Fascism on several facets.

Please make up a new pejorative to properly express your hatred of jihadists, but stop calling them freaking fascists.

One commenter later in the thread argues with ffakr, but only by pointing out that Nazis and the predecessor of Pan-Arab Nationalism worked together sometimes... because they were both anti-Semitic and totalitarian. Seems unconvincing to me.

If the popular trigger word was... "democraphobe" instead of Islamofascist, to make up an example, those who use it might be sort of witty. If it was "splodeydope", those who use it would merely be stupid. If it was even "Wahhab-fascism," they would be honest, but that doesn't make for good theater, so you can see why they didn't bother.

But by associating the whole of a world religion with a specific type of justifiably-reviled government with which it has only the most superficial common ground, those bloggers, pundits and demogogues who make a name for themselves by heroically criticizing "Islamofascism" are just lazily throwing insults at the boogeyman-of-the-year without even caring about the truth of what they're saying.

Monday, January 09, 2006

So apparently, being annoying online is now a crime. According to that article, here's the relevant language:

"Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

Question: do you have to use your full name, or can you get by with your first name? Especially if it's rare enough to be distinctive?

I don't want to put too much stock in the story, because as of 12:45 p.m. Monday, Google news only finds three hits in a search of '"violence against women" annoy' - the above article and two that refer only to it. So if those ellipses cover something really important or if CNET News has an axe to grind - I've seen them here and there, but I don't know them well - then consider this post nothing more than paranoid conjecture.

But assuming the basic facts of the article are correct, then this is ridiculous. If they just want to prevent/punish people who "abuse, threaten, or harass", then it's covered by existing law. If the amendment was a good idea, then they wouldn't have needed to sneak it into a completely unrelated bill. Eliminate those possibilities, and the main if not the only point of this is to stop people from saying offensive stuff. The article itself points out the problems with this.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to set up a Web site or write something incendiary without telling everyone exactly who you are.

Think about it: A woman fired by a manager who demanded sexual favors wants to blog about it without divulging her full name. An aspiring pundit hopes to set up the next A frustrated citizen wants to send e-mail describing corruption in local government without worrying about reprisals.

In each of those three cases, someone's probably going to be annoyed. That's enough to make the action a crime. (The Justice Department won't file charges in every case, of course, but trusting prosecutorial discretion is hardly reassuring.)

There's not much point in talking about the Constitutional implications of this; a twelve-year-old could tell you that this prohibition violates the principle of freedom of speech, and he could probably tell you that there's no overriding need for the violation in the first place, too. It's bad, it renders the First Amendment moot if it's enforced the only way it could be, it's unnecessary, blah blah blah.

But besides all that, it's a law that would cripple the country if not for selective enforcement. Sooner or later, someone will see this prohibition and complain about burgeoning fascism. The closest thing they'll get to a reasonable rebuttal will be "You're just worrying over nothing and throwing every insult you can at Republicans. Our government is much too disorganized to use it like that. Besides, what did you expect? It's not like Congress ever does anything useful anyway." Aaand... how is that supposed to be good, exactly?

This is pinning a "kick me" sign on the back of the law. Intentionally or not, it is going out of its way to discredit the U.S. government. I believe that when the interstate highway system was first created the speed limit was only 55 miles per hour, until they realized how stupid that was - same deal here, only more so. Because in both cases, it's possible to treat the law like a joke without even trying. Social conservatives and theocons like to point out the rising divorce rate in this country and increases in drug use and teenage sex and on and on, and they usually blame it on a "culture of permissiveness" or whatever the boogeyman of the week is - liberals, Europeans, gays, who knows, who cares. But I think* the bigger reason people treat laws and traditional morality like jokes is just because the people who create one of those sets of rules already treat it like a joke on their own. 55 m.p.h. speed limits? Arbitrarily outlawing marijuana and equally mild drugs? Sodomy laws? Mind-blowing amounts of pork in the budget? And now, up to two years in prison just for being an asshole? Hell, when they're going to use my money like that, why shouldn't I cheat on my taxes, right?

Congratulations, Republicans. I'm too young to know from experience if our government worked even a little bit before your Contract [on] America, but you did your damnedest to make sure people know it doesn't. So far, you've done a heck of a job.

* And I have much more evidence of my opinion than the theocons do of theirs, which is to say, "almost none" versus "none".

Friday, January 06, 2006

Hello again. I haven't posted in a while mostly just due to apathy and stuff. Not a lot has been going on. Well, one thing has been going on at work, but there's a 10% chance, rough guess, it can still turn out for the best, and I don't want to jinx it, not to mention hurt those odds on the off-chance that someone sees this who shouldn't. So, well, discussion of it will wait until Monday night or so - it'll probably be safe by then. EDIT: Hmmm, my chances don't look quite so dire after all. Bump it up to 40%.

My New Year's Resolution
To keep my checkbook balanced. Well, to get and stay organized and on top of things in life in general, but my checkbook is the easiest to measure and determine if I've done so or not, and the most important of three of four things that would, in a perfect world, be better sorted or stacked than they are.