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Telling Your Kids The Truth About Being Safe On The Internet

OnGuard Online is the federal government’s web site “to help you be safe, secure and responsible online.” It’s managed by the Federal Trade Commission, “in partnership with the federal agencies listed below. OnGuardOnline.gov is a partner in the Stop Think Connect campaign, led by the Department of Homeland Security, and part of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.”

As a part of its mission to make sure that you are safe, secure and responsible while using electronic communications, OnGuard Online has published a manual called Net Cetera: Chatting With Kids About Being Online.

netcetera

The manual warns about malware, and cyberbullying, online scams, and the desirability of social media self-censorship, but there’s one gaping hole in the document’s coverage: How do we talk to our kids about the government’s use of the Internet and other forms of electronic communication to spy on them?

online cautionI’ve got kids, and this topic has come up a number of times. Every conversation we have about security on the Internet begins with the reality of the massive surveillance of practically everybody’s private electronic communications, by our own government.

I explain to them that the highest law in the land is the Constitution, and that part of the Constitution is the Fourth Amendment, which promises absolute protection from unreasonable search and seizure by requiring search warrants that identify specific people and specific places to be searched, for particular, legally justified suspicion that a crime has been committed or is being planned. I then explain to my children, that in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the federal government’s National Security Agency has been working with other spy agencies and law enforcement agencies to search the private communications of millions of Americans, without any warrant, and without any specific information of any particular crime or criminal conspiracy. I tell them that it’s safe for them to assume that anything they do on the Internet, any telephone call they make, any email they sent, any digital photograph they take, is being diverted into government databases, where it can be searched at will by a large number of government bureaucrats.

personal security genteMy children are confused at this point. They ask me to reconcile the promise of the Constitution with the actions of the federal government. I don’t provide that reconciliation. Instead, use my children’s confusion as an opportunity to point out that authority figures often cannot be trusted with power, and it’s important to be skeptical of them.

None of these points are addressed in Net Cetera: Chatting With Kids About Being Online. Neither the Net Cetera manual nor OnGuard Online ever acknowledge the threat to the privacy of American children posed by the electronic spying system created by the National Security Agency. They don’t even mention the existence of the NSA. When I search for “National Security Agency” on the OnGuard Online web site, the site’s search engine comes up zero findings, and asks if I might have meant to search for “personal security gente”.

This immense, politically-motivated omission makes OnGuard Online, with its Net Cetera manual for parents, yet another example of a voice of authority that cannot be trusted. Our children deserve the entire truth about the threats to privacy that exist online – not the lies and half-truths of the Homeland Security regime.

Fashionable Boys

Why do three year-olds need to be fashionable?

fashionable toddler

Drunken Monkeys Rampage Around The World

drunk monkeyIn Kenya, drunken monkeys, given alcohol by people stopping by the side of the highway between two nature preserves, have become so aggressive that locals are afraid to venture outside their homes. “They eat our goats, and we have been unable to plant food for the last three years,” one explains.

The problem isn’t unique to Africa. In Dehli, India, monkeys who are revered by Hindus as representations of the god Hanuman have been given food, and sometimes alcohol, by city residents. As a result, the monkeys have become more assertive, and have begun to steal liquor and attack people.

In St. Kitts in the Caribbean, vervet monkeys commonly sneak away with the alcoholic cocktails abandoned by guests at beach resorts. Over on the other side of the world, primates are said to go one step further. Modern Drunkard claims that monkeys in Borneo actually make their own alcohol, by stuffing collections of wild plants into holes, and then letting the mix stew. Orangutans, it is said, will raid the monkeys’ stash to get their own buzz on. Independent sources are not available to verify this story.

LePage, Education and the NEA: Why Mischaracterize to Criticize?

When I picked up copy of the latest NEA Higher Education Advocate, I came across this snippet regarding Maine Governor Paul LePage in an article titled “The 10 Worst Governors:”

LePage cut education funding by $12.5 million while handing out $200 million tax cuts that mostly benefitted Maine's wealthiest.  If you want a good education in Maine, go to a private school.  If you can't afford it, tough luck.

The placement of LePage’s quote next to a description of education cuts suggests a particular meaning for the quote: that Governor LePage wants kids in Maine who can’t afford private school to have a bad education.

But read an article written by Maine’s affiliate of the National Education Association, the MEA, and you’ll see that Paul LePage was making a different point altogether:

“On Friday, Nov. 9 Governor LePage shot a few more rounds at educators…

“He said, ‘Until the Legislature and the governor sit down and say what’s best for students, we’re not going to change our schools.’

“At the MEA we believe when decisions are made that will benefit students, educators will be a part of the discussion. The educator voice is imperative in curriculum and professional debates, discussions and decisions. We also believe that the next session of the Legislature will be more supportive of educators and the inclusion of educators’ voices as we work together to benefit our students.

“LePage went on to say charter school legislation and implementation is a step in the right direction. MEA respectfully disagrees. Charter schools will only hurt public schools by funneling off taxpayer money at a time when the state has not reached the 55% mandated resources. The promise, voted on by Maine’s voters years ago, has yet to be kept and continues to limit school opportunities. Adding charter schools into this will cause budget woes for school boards, force schools and faculties to face insecure futures and impact the quality of education we can provide to our students.

“But most insulting was his statement, ‘If you want a good education in Maine, go to a private school. If you can’t afford it, tough luck.’ Once again Governor LePage is caught in a bald faced lie discrediting public schools. Maine’s schools produce successful students statewide yet the Governor and Education Commissioner Bowen continue to push their private school agenda.

“The Governor believes that Maine’s schools should be privatized and should be run by for-profit, out-of-state corporations. Public schools belong in our communities and should be overseen by taxpayers – not by corporations. Our students and parents benefit from local public schools. Our educators work hard, provide outstanding opportunities to students and go above and beyond. The MEA loves Maine’s educators. We stand behind you and all the good work you do.”

What LePage was saying at the time was not that Maine kids should have bad educations. He was claiming that Maine kids in public schools currently were getting bad educations, and that they could get better educations if public schools were privatized.

I don’t agree with LePage’s assessment of Maine public schools. I don’t agree with him that privatization is a good policy solution. But I also don’t agree with the choice by the NEA to accomplish a cheap shot through mischaracterization. A national association of educators should know better.

How Could Barack Obama’s Birth Certificate Contain the Phrase “Afro-American”? The Answer…

Believe it or not, in 2014 there are still people out there who are obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama is a secret foreigner who from the date of his birth has been swept up in a conspiracy to bring a non-American into the presidency so he could… well, generally disappoint? The conspiracy theories are fuzzy on the supposed object of all this hypothetical subterfuge, but they agree that Barack Obama has had his birth certificate forged. The latest claim comes from Bill, who shares his insight in a thread on quack cancer cures:

“Jimmy boy Obama proved citizenship ? Kenya? The birth certificate they produced said Afro-American hmmm now where did they get that? Back in the 60′s there were no such things as Afro-Americans.”

I looked into this assertion and it turns out Bill isn’t alone in asking this kind of question. Earlier this year The Minority Report: Conservative News & Opinion posed the following question from an unnamed “New Jersey Attorney”:

“Back in 1961 people of color were called ‘Negroes.’ So how can the Obama ‘birth certificate’ state he is ‘African-American’ when the term wasn’t even used at that time?”

30 seconds’ of searching on Google trashes the latest birth-certificate conspiracy claim in two ways:

1. Go look at the White House’s own original release of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The phrases “Afro-American” and “African-American” don’t actually appear anywhere on the certificate.

2. Check out Google’s database for the term “Afro-American” in books; you’ll see that people actually were using the term all through the 1960s.

Yes, the term Afro-American did appear in books of the 1960s after all.

What’s next? Will they say that the Communists have inserted falsehoods into our historical book records? That the Islamofascists have re-doctored the doctored birth certificate? These claims are sadly more likely than the admission, “we fibbed.”

Andrew Groff A Green Alternative In Delaware

Over the last 5 years, Delaware’s Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Coons has taken over one and a half million dollars from political action committees set up to represent business interests. That’s almost 5 times as much money as he’s accepted from labor union PACs.

Is it any wonder, then, that Senator Coons refused to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would have increased the minimum hourly wage to $10.10 and provided for automatic increases in the minimum wage to keep up with inflation? Is it a surprise that Coons would not support the The Climate Protection Act, which would have transferred the costs of climate change from individual Americans to fossil fuels corporations? With all of the corporate money connections Chris Coons uses to support his position in the U.S. Senate, is it unexpected that Coons has witheld support for the Follow the Money Act, legislation that would require prompt reporting of the corporate links to independent expenditures?

No, none of this is surprising, but it is profoundly disappointing.

The Republican alternatives to Coons are even worse. The semi-literate Carl Smink proposes that Congress act to “Insure that the Bible and the Constitution of the United States are used as the primary sources for governance of this country,” not understanding the contradiction inherent in his proposal. Kevin Wade offers half-baked aphorisms for his extremist conservative political platform, advising that “military and economic weakness lead to hazard and hazard is the doorman to national tragedy,” and that “the Federal government makes a very poor Mom an insufficient husband and offers no kind of ‘god’ to replace our Own.”

Thankfully, there is an alternative to the corporate corruption of Coons and the theocratic incompetence of Smink. Andrew Groff is running for Senate this year as a Green Party candidate. Groff isn’t perfect**, but no choice in this election is. If you’re in the state of Delaware, and are looking for a third choice, it’s worth considering whether Groff might be closer to your ideals than the other two candidates.

——-

** Groff’s campaign web site features a strange article that celebrates the collapsitarianist ideas of Dmitry Orlov, which picks on the Ik, a group of people who have been forced by constant warfare into a kind of refugee status. The article, not written by either Groff or Orlov, but featured by Groff nonetheless, sneers at at the Ik with unnecessarily abusive language such as this: “The last Ik who was still human preferred to be locked up in a Ugandan jail cell rather then be with her own people, and upon release, immediately attacked someone else so she would be put back in jail.”

In spite of this strange addition to Groff’s campaign site, Groff has a positive political platform that includes: An end to corporate personhood, reversal of indefinite detention and military policing powers under the National Defense Authorization Act, repeal of the Patriot Act, restraint rather than military expansion in foreign policy, opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and support for equality in marriage rights.

Will Atheists Find Happiness Through Atheist Dating Sites?

I’ll admit, it’s been a long time since I put dating aside in favor of marriage. So, take what I’ve got to say here with a big cube of salt. Even when I was single, I never used online dating services. I simply met people, face to face, by happenstance.

That said, there’s a particular sort of online dating service that is especially inscrutable to me: The atheist dating service.

There’s Atheist Dating Service, Freethinker Match, Atheist Personals

atheist passions dating service… and there’s Atheist Passions, a web site that promises, “You have a better chance of finding Waldo on this site than you do of finding God!” The company that runs it, Passions, also hosts Mime Passions… for mimes who want to date other mines.

How many mimes, looking only for other mimes, actually exist? There are indications that these supposed atheist dating services are really just fill-in-the-blank iterations of larger dating services, a form of link bait to draw people in from a variety of different communities.

Consider, for example, the “about” text from atheistdatingservice.com: “Who are we? Atheist Dating Service is the fastest growing co-operative of online-dating sites in the world. This growth is driven by the totally unique partner concept and range of services that we provide, that are unmatched in the industry…” It goes on an on like that, with boilerplate text, and nothing at all about atheist dating needs in particular. The concept that grabbed my attention here is the the claim that atheistdatingservice.com is “unmatched in the industry”. What industry? The atheist dating industry?

The industry, if one exists, looks awful scammish to me, but putting such concerns aside, I want to deal with a deeper question: Why would atheists want to date only other atheists?

I’m atheist, but I’m not married to one. Given the odds, my guess is that this is how it turns out most of the time. I disagree with my wife about many things when it comes to religion. But then, we also disagree about food, and hairstyles, and movies, and educational policy…

Are dating and marriage about agreeing with people’s opinions? I don’t think so. The phrase vive la difference comes to mind.

Furthermore, while it is true that atheists as a category are rejected as potential marriage partners more than any other group in America, I reckon that, as individuals, atheists end up being just as attractive to potential partners as anyone else. It would be a shame, an a hypocrisy, for atheists to complain about Christians who reject the possibility of dating atheists, but then go off into dating services that are designed to help them reject the possibility of dating anyone but atheists themselves.

There are plenty of fish in the sea, it’s said, and it’s worth reminding that most of the fish don’t look very much like each other at all. I don’t want to swim in sync with a school of people who think just like me – and honestly, most atheists don’t really think just like each other anyway. If I had set out to marry an atheist woman, I would have probably ended up arguing with her about her libertarian politics, or about the way that she folds towels.

In our romantic lives, we learn about different ways of living by hooking up with different kinds of people, until we find the one who feels right – whether it makes rational sense or not. Love is a mystery, and I suspect it won’t work out very well if people try to micromanage it.

It’s true that I don’t believe in the reality of any gods. More than that, however, I don’t believe that it’s gods I wanted to talk about on any of my first dates.

There’s a reason that marriage has been one of the key political battlegrounds in American culture over the last 100 years. Regressive groups want to keep dating and marriage within strictly controlled boundaries.

I think it’s better for everyone if we mix it up.

What is this Religious Claim doing in my Kid’s High School?

image

At high school orientation for my son this evening, I saw this professionally-produced poster hanging in a hallway, posing the question, “What is Religion?”. Apparently the answer is that religion is misunderstood by the poster maker, because the maker’s answer begins by describing religion as “something that human beings have always felt a need for.” The poster maker, and the teacher who shared the poster, should think a bit more about the roughly 1 in 7 Americans who live without religion, apparently not needing it at all.  They should consider the many countries of Europe in which a majority of the population has no religious belief and yet prospers. 

Religion is something that some people do.  It is not something that human beings always need.

The Strange Animal With The Earliest Muscles

You’re a great big strong animal with muscles all over your body. Your ancestors weren’t always that way, however. They used to move using flagella, or sometimes, they just oozed.

ancient stauromedusaeA new study published today by a group of scientists from Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and St. John’s in Newfoundland describes the earliest known animal to have any muscles at all. It lived 560 million years ago.

The image you see to the right is a reconstruction of what its body looked like when it was alive. It’s pretty strange-looking, right? Who has ever seen a creature like this living today?

extant stauromedusaeActually, many people have. Take a look at the image to the left, a photograph taken of a living animal called a stauromedusae.

Stauromedusae are small cnidarians, members of the same phylum as corals, anemone and jellyfish. Unlike jellyfish, they live most of their lives attached by a stalk to particular surfaces. Unlike coral, they don’t create hard skeletons. They have the same basic body type as these other animals, however: A central chamber surrounded by feeding tentacles. They often live in tidal zones, feeding on tiny bits of organic stuff that is tossed around on the waves.

We don’t have to travel to alien planets in far flung solar systems to find bizarre forms of life. Strange is all around us.

Emaze: The Animated Gif of the 2010s

If you are old enough to remember Bob Dole, you’re old enough to remember the 1990s, when the latest thing to have for any website was an animated GIF:

DoleKemp96.org Animated Gif

Until their recent resurgence as a form of ironic retro behavior in an era of high bandwidth, animated GIF graphics were a laughingstock, derided for their uselessly large filesize in a low bandwidth environment. At a time when most people used dial-up connections to the Internet, you’d have to wait seemingly forever, just to watch an exploding smiley or a sparkling rainbow. Even now, in an age when people stream high-definition video, some people just plain hate animated GIFs for their painfully distracting quality. Alice at Wonderland sums up this reaction fairly well:

“It’s not just that I find them annoying – though I do – it’s that they actually physically bother me. I get eye strain and headaches from the things. You know how they advise epileptics not to look at flashing lights because they can cause seizures? This doesn’t surprise me one bit, because I feel like I might have one every time I look at the things. And I can talk about seizures because I really did have one, though it was many years ago and I luckily have not had one since. As far as I know. But ugh, those freaking flashing gifs are awful, and they distract from whatever the person is writing. They distract A LOT. And I’m easily distracted enough as it is.

“And what is the point? As you know if you’ve read my blog, I love using images in my posts. I’ve never found a need to animate one, though. I mean – why do you have to show someone actively facepalming (head falling to hand, head jumping back up, head falling to hand, head jumping back up, rinse, repeat, puke) when you could just show a picture of the facepalm? Huh? I don’t get it. I think you can be just as funny without the things. Actually I like you MORE without them.”

With this in mind, along comes emaze, the latest lower-caps alternative to Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. “PowerPoints?,” you reply with nose wrinkled and eyebrows raised? “PowerPoints are so boring!” What could be more boring than bland blue gradient backgrounds with bold text in the foreground?

Well, a lot, actually, depending on what an author actually puts in the slide. PowerPoint slides can be really, really interesting if they share really, really interesting information, just as boring old black text on a white background can make for a really, really good book if the author has imagination.

If you have something interesting to say, nobody will care about fancy graphic design elements. If you don’t have much to say, then you’d better rely on design to distract. And that’s where emaze comes in. Emaze has two main selling points. First, it can be shared universally across the internet — but so can PowerPoint with its updated formatting and exporting options. Second, it has flashy, spinny, 3D animations. Just. Like. Animated. GIFs.

In honor of the headachy emptiness of it all, let me share an excerpt of a presentation showcased by emaze as an exemplar of its possibilities… as an animated GIF:

Tal Moravkin's headache-inducing presentation on emaze

Loving the progress yet?