Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Harassment gone wild

I tried to explain what usually goes into a blog to my wife the other day. I explained how many blogs are just link farms, where people post links to other blogs that interest them, with a brief comment. I said that others are very focused, talking about political topics or specific interests. Mine ... is more like a diary, unless I feel like using it as one of those other kinds :).

Today I'm going to talk about a news story, found here:

The story talks about a study sponsored by a foundation that gets paid to put Sexual Harassment Education programs in universities, claiming that 62% of all college students have been sexually harassed. Obvious conflict of interest aside, let's look at how they define harassment:
"Most students are experiencing non-contact forms of sexual harassment -- jokes, gestures, remarks, homophobic name-calling, flashing and mooning are examples of that," AAUW Director of Research Elena Silva said.
Now let's step back a little and think about this. What exactly is sexual harassment? From a legal standpoint, it's defined in the US as "any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job, having the effect of making the workplace intimidating or hostile" (thanks, Wikipedia). Are these college students working on campus and being harassed? With a number as high as 62%, I find that unlikely, but possible.

Now, obviously there are looser definitions of the term which allows people to substitute education for the workplace. So that would be, using the same definition, "any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct in school, having the effect of making the school intimidating or hostile." A study on the subject seems to agree with this interpretation.

And here's where I want to question the fine folks at the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (the link to the actual study is dead right now, so I can't determine this for myself). Are your students claiming harassment at school (as in: in class, or other school-sponsored activities), or are they reporting unwanted sexual conduct by fellow students outside of the school? If I go to a party with fellow students, and someone tells a dirty joke, is this actually sexual harassment? Is this a problem we need to hire a focus group to investigate?

Let's look at the ERIC Digest link I provided earlier. Here's their definition of sexual harassment:

"Generally, any behavior of a sexual nature that provokes undesirable, uncomfortable feelings in a target can be considered harassment."

This is a dangerous precedent. I don't know about you, but as a teenager, I spent a lot of my time stuck with undesirable, uncomfortable feelings. Your brain is like a chemical experiment gone wrong at that point in life. The whole "learning to date" thing is one big mess of undesirable uncomfortable feelings provoked by behavior of a sexual nature.

I'm not saying that kids harassing other kids is a good thing. But young adults, set loose in college, will stretch the bounds of their social conduct. We have a million "girls gone wild" and "jackass" clone videos to prove this. Some of that behavior will make other people uncomfortable, and unfortunately that's a fact of life. Forcing kids to attend sensitivity training in between their all-night beer pong parties is probably not going to change anything ... except tuition bills.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Gore blasts Bush, does anybody notice?

Just passing along a link to Al Gore's recent speech:

An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution - an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."


The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk.

Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I can't stop

You know, I usually hate the concept of mutual intellectual masturbation: a bunch of like-minded individuals talking about how right they are and how wrong everyone else is.

But I can't stop reading every single Ars Technica news story that involves the clusterfuck that Intelligent Design has turned into. Today's link is on a supposed "Philosophy" class that was a clumsy front for teaching creationism in public school. It's been shut down before the lawsuit even had a chance to gain notoriety -- even the Discovery Institute guys distanced themselves from this one.

Links for the interested:
Ars Discussion
"The Intersection" blog post

My wife thinks I'm a little obsessed on this issue, and she's probably right. I don't know how, over all the other "culture war" issues going on out there, this particular one sets off my alarms so much, but it does.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

We have the technology...

Ok, Google, pay attention. This is my next awesome free business idea. People want to be notified of news that interests them, right? So imagine a system where people specify exactly what they want to know, and you tell them that information.

For free.

Along with, of course, very targeted advertising. Someone has to pay the bills.

"Tell me a week before the new Sopranos season starts."
"Let me know next time the Dell 2001 FP is on sale for less than $450."
"I want all news and gossip relating to the cast of the original Star Trek."

I'm not talking about "areas of interest," I'm talking about very specific requests. I don't want to register for "Entertainment News," or even a search string. I want to be able to fully describe all kinds of information and sleep easy knowing that powerful forces are working for me.

This is, of course, the original promise of the Intelligent Agent concept. An AI scours the network for you, and when you wake up it tells you all you need to know. We never got there. Now, with information powerhouses like Google holding all the data and trying to figure out what to do with it, maybe it's possible to approach this problem?

Granted, allowing free-text requests from the entire user base would be disastrous. But you can start with focused specific requests, and generic search strings, and work your way upwards? You begin with trying to model the questions people might ask, and figuring out ways to answer.

The three questions I've put up above are all very feasible with current technology. And once I've registered them, I get periodic ads or targeted email letting me know of things which might interest me. You can't go overboard here, but targeted ads here would probably have a high rate of return. "You asked to be notified when Rush tickets went on sale in your area. While we don't have any news on that, we do think you might want to know about their new DVD set, which you can buy for 40% off by following this link...."

Done poorly, you've just got people signing up for targeted ads.

Done well, you've got a rich subscription service for the entire web. I'd opt-in.

What's more fascinating is the other side of this coin ... the user-modeling approach where Google tracks your blog posts, your searches, your emails ... and takes the initiative. "Hey, Dave, interested in this special offer for this monitor?" "Wow, how'd you know?" "We know. We know everything." People would complain, but ... doesn't it almost appeal to you?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Feeling the pain all the way from Vegas

Sometimes it hurts to be a geek.

CES is one of those times. Over in Vegas, dozens of companies show off their newest toys, and the materialistic little kid in me cries at every gadget I won't own.

For example, I thank my newfound home-buying debt for stopping me from trying to buy Dell's new 3007FPW monitor (while not-so-patiently waiting for the dust to settle and the price cuts to come on the legacy models ... if they ever do).

The real heartbreak is in the TiVo Series 3 unit, however. Here are a couple blog posts for you on the subject.

If you haven't heard me rant about DVRs before, you're lucky. I love my TiVo more than is probably healthy for a piece of consumer electronics, but it just can't compete with the features handed down by the cable company DVR. I hate the cable company software, I hate their interface, and I hate their remote ... but HD-capability, direct connection (no IR blaster to digital cable box), and two tuners wins out over all the nice things TiVo does (season passes that actually work, intelligent prioritized conflict management, TiVo suggestions, better in-progress viewing of recordings, network streaming of media from PC or other TiVos, and much more).

All that should change with the Series 3 TiVo. It'll use CableCard 2.0, which allows your cable company to give you a PCMCIA card instead of a cable box to decode their digital signal. You slap that into your TiVo, and you get the best of all worlds -- no cable company box, awesome TiVo software, and all the dual HD tuner love you can handle. It's got a lot more going for it too -- networked out of the box and ready for additional storage, no hacks needed.

In other words, it's everything I want in a DVR. Prices and release dates haven't been announced, but the rumor mill is suggesting a $500 - $1000 price towards the end of '06.

Can I really justify buying something that costs as much as my TV to help me watch it, considering how little TV I actually watch?

Rumors are also flying that Comcast's partnership with TiVo might extend to this kind of hardware. That would certainly be interesting (especially if, say, Comcast were to buy Charter and get me as a customer).

Hey, a materialistic little boy can dream, can't he?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Album of the Year

So, the votes are in (note: there was only one vote) for album of the year, 2005.

Dean Gray: American Edit

I am a mash-up (aka Bastard Pop) novice, to say the least -- my previous exposure to this musical genre was the much-publicized "The Grey Album" which combined Jay-Z's Black Album and The Beatles' White Album. This album still gets more play on my winamp list than either of the two albums it combines, so I guess I should have expected to find further entertainment from this kind of music, but I was genuinely surprised with American Edit.

When I saw the link to American Edit on some blog or other, I was only interested because of the number of comments who were blown away by the album. So I checked it out. Within minutes, I was sending links to friends and posting it on other sites. This was something special.

From a political standpoint, it's American Idiot with giant fucking teeth bared directly at the administration. I mean, American Idiot wasn't exactly politically neutral, but the remixes just remove all doubt. It's somehow deeply satisfying to listen as George Bush's speech is compared to the dialog of a Dalek from Dr. Who.

From a technical standpoint, it blew me away. Songs which I wouldn't even think were similar are blended together seamlessly. For a geek like me, it's a taunt -- look how little you know about music, punk. Watch how we weave these wildly different songs together due to a common sequence of notes, or a similar beat, or whatever else they have in common. I shake my head in admiration and humility -- I have no rhythm in me, and moments like hearing American Edit for the first time make that painfully clear.

Nearly two months after its release, I'm still grinning ear-to-ear whenever I play this album.

I'm sure if you're interested, you can find this album somewhere under the dark corners of the Internet. It's worth it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Post-Holiday Movie Commentary

Quick movie "reviews" from the holiday season:

King Kong
I was blown away by this one, in spite of its length and my skepticism (Jack Black?). As a stinking LOTR fanboy, I saw Peter Jackson's footprints all over this movie, but it didn't bother me overly. What really blew me away, though, was how real Kong felt, especially in his interactions with people. That took it from "great action flick" to something higher, which is more than I was expecting. I think the single best scene in the whole movie was when Kong finally finds Ann in NYC, and they go to Central Park. Seeing them together, knowing what was coming next ... it was movie magic. Sure, the fight between Kong and the T-Rexes was amazing, but the real winning moment came much later in the movie.

I'll take Mainstream PG-13 Romantic Comedies for $300, Alex. I have nothing against formula movies, but honestly this is a formula that just doesn't do it for me any more. Jess wanted to watch it, and I sat through it the best I could. Sure, it had some genuine laugh-out-loud moments but so does your average 30-minute sitcom, and I don't watch them either. Given the awkwardness with which the two storylines came together, and the inconsistencies in the title character, it's hard to give this movie any kind of respect. Move along, there's nothing to see here.

I Heart Huckabees
Now this is an unusual comedy. This movie, clearly, is not for everyone. As often as I was laughing, it was usually at the absurdity of the story and characters. Think of a movie as weird as Magnolia or Vanilla Sky, but much less "polish" and strict comedy instead of drama, and I think you've sort of described this one. In many ways it reminded me of a slightly-higher-brow Big Lebowski, and not just because of the Nihilists. I can't really explain why. I think maybe a third of the times I laughed watching this movie, it was because I knew how much fun I was having and how little Jess was enjoying it. It was like a little comedic revenge for making me watch Hitch, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Ancestor's Tale - comments

Today I finished the Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor's Tale. It was a long journey, taking several months of my time to read through billions of years of history.

It was well worth it.

Do not be fooled. This is not a book you'll rip through in a couple days. It's meaty, it's solid, and it's full of science. Some of it is nearly impossible to follow, and you'll forget half of what you read by the time you're done. But, if you're like me, you'll still be glad you read it. Dawkins brings together the latest thinking in evolutionary biology to create a compelling visualization of how life went from its earliest stages to where it is today.

He does this by starting off on a pilgrimage from humanity back to the common ancestor of all life. Along the way, he pauses to tell the stories of various others who join in. Primates. Mammals. Fish. It just keeps going, and along the way he tells the story of life's incredible ability to adapt and overcome. It's mind-boggling and eye-opening, and it's hard not to smile as you learn something new every page.

It's not all good, however. At times it's dry and inaccessible, but that's not the real flaw. The real flaw is that Dawkins is writing as a soldier in the culture wars, and it's hard not to see it. He takes jabs at organized religion, at creationism, and at superstition as often as he can. It's not that the jabs aren't deserved, and I'm sure he showed restraint in how he did it. But it's still distracting. Some call it preaching to the choir, but I'm more reminded of the phrase "mutual intellectual masturbation." I know he's right and he knows he's right, and frankly nobody who disagrees is wasting a couple months of their life reading his six-hundred-page textbook. So just relax and tell the story you're here to tell. I don't need the propaganda that comes with it.

Read the wikipedia article. Dawkins is a controversial figure, and he can't resist the controversy here. But the book is solid, and well-deserving of the praise it has gotten. On my binary scale, it gets a "yes," with the qualification that it might read differently to someone with no scientific background.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

In With The New

2006 is here, and it's natural to take a moment to reflect on what has happened in the past year and what awaits us in the next. I am not a big fan of "New Year's Resolutions" because I think it's an excuse to set goals which can be broken with little consequence. But, especially this year, with so many changes at the end of the year, I think it's fair to reflect on what is coming in the next twelve months.

My main concern, I think, will be balance. I have long known that the chief stressor in my life is feeling out of control, swept up in the tide of competing forces. There are two ways to solve that problem. I can either exercise more control, or I can make a decision to not worry myself over a lack of control. The truth is that the middle road (doing both to varying degrees) is the only plausible path. The extremes in either direction don't lead to a life I would enjoy. But refusing to move along that path, feeling overwhelmed and inadequate, is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Progress, awareness, and understanding are vital.

With that in mind, I started writing a long-winded list of my different roles, who I am and what that means, but ... well, if I couldn't stand to write it, I'm sure I wouldn't want to read it. So instead I'll just keep it simple. I know what I have ahead of me. I know who I am, and what that means. I know I'm going to hit some speedbumps this year, but I'm not going to let them derail me.

So, watch this space, to see what I become in 2006. Watch me write about my responsibilities as husband, friend, son, brother, homeowner, engineer, and citizen. Watch me walk, run, write, game, travel, work, and read.

And hopefully, watch me figure out how to balance it all and keep a smile on my face.