National Handwriting Day – 23rd of January

It is that time of year again, National Handwriting Day!  From my friends at Fahrney’s:

This Thursday (January 23) is National Handwriting Day in the United States. Established in 1977 as a day to acknowledge and celebrate the handwritten word it was created by the Writing Instruments Manufacturing Association “as a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting”.

On the topic of handwriting, specifically writing letters, I finished reading To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing and really quite enjoyed it. It was a little bit of the history of the written letter, despite Simon Garfield’s initial statements that it was not the purpose of the book. It was a bit of biography, because after all, that it what most letters, that are kept become, the basis for a biography, and a review of the evolution of the post as we know it today. It was a fascinating read. And while he did not outwardly attempt to say that this medium of electronic “mail” is bad, he certainly highlighted many of the failings of not putting pen to paper and sending a letter.

So for National Handwriting Day, I encourage everyone to pick up their pen and write someone they know a letter. Put a stamp on it and mail it! And once you have done that, it is also time for the Annual Handwriting Contest! And like last year, I am going to put my mind to it and my pen and see what I can come up with. You should too!  Deadline is the end of January.

So let’s get writing!

If you wondered, is the US a Police State? The answer is – yes.

Over the last few months, the citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States have been regaled with stories of how the Government of the United States has been invading their privacy, opening their mail, listening to their phone calls, and generally monitoring their daily lives.  Of course, this is all in the name of security and to protect the public from the bad guys.

Up to this point in time, the revelations have been about how the National Security Administration are capturing your metadata, but not actually listening to your calls or reading your mail in real-time – they claim. But we have always suspected that other aspects of our life were under scrutiny.

Today, we got our answer:

The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information. (New York Times)

What starches my socks is not that the TSA is doing this.  We pretty much knew they were doing this, even if we did not know they were doing this. No, what really galls me is that the TSA has a new program, called TSA Pre, which:

…allows select frequent flyers of participating airlines and members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs who are flying on participating airlines, to receive expedited screening benefits. Eligible participants use dedicated screening lanes for screening benefits which include leaving on shoes, light outerwear and belts, as well as leaving laptops and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags.

And to get this benefit, you have to fill out an on-line application, have an in-person interview and, most importantly, pay the TSA for the privilege every five years!  Currently the fee is $85.  Now some frequent flyer programs include this in the ticket price, but for the average Joe Flyer, you are on the hook.  Yet the TSA is already doing a complete scan before you board for free!  OK, so it is not really free.  I have already paid for it with my taxes, fees, and other departure costs rolled into the ticket.

So what is the point?  Already, the United States has more secure screening processes in place, compared to the rest of the world.  I can leave my shoes and belt on in Europe and Canada.  The x-ray machines can already pick out my laptop.  And frankly the screening outside the US is much better than what the TSA is doing.  So why should I be paying the TSA?  They already know more about me than I do.  I have already paid the fee, several times over, and they already have done the in-person interview, every single time I fly.

I am opposed to the police state the United States has become.  There are a number of reasons for this. But to charge the flying public to go through security is really taking the cake. As the saying goes: There’s a sucker born every minute. Clearly the American public is the sucker, and their own government is taking advantage.

“Requires Facebook” is a recipe for an automatic fail

For the better part of the last four years, I have managed, quite well I might add, to do without a Facebook account.  Yet, despite this, more an more applications seem to be depending or relying on you having a Facebook account in order to use them.  This is true of a wide range of things from comment boards to business applications.  What baffles me is why anyone would tie their application to Facebook.

Sure, I get the idea that the general public is stupid when it comes to technology.  They cannot remember their passwords (which is why Apple put a fingerprint scanner on the new iPhone), they cannot manage to understand what a URI is or why it matters, and basic interfaces confuse them, but Facebook is hardly the panacea, and worse, it opens the end user up to even more insecurities and potential application and privacy leakage.

So from this point forward, if your application, chat room, or comment board requires a Facebook account to use, I will give it an automatic fail and one star rating.  Real application development does not rely on some other application for its security model. And the general public should not accept any application or solution that does.

Srsly?

If you have been following along with me for any period of time, you know that I have a thing about language.  And not only language but formal use of language. And a few people will tell you that I cannot spell to save my life (thank goodness for the red wavy line).  That being said, when I get an email like this, I cringe:

BABE… i guess your not getting any of my email huh? ive been tryign to email u so many times but this dam laptop is such a piece of garbage and keeps freezing.. anyways how u been?

Of course, it is a spam message. At the bottom of a very long, almost unreadable, 1000 word message is a come on link that I assure you, you do not want to click. It is a typical example of this sort of thing, but what really surprises me is how bad the language is.  Not just the random capitalization (and lack there of) and the slang shortcuts but just bad English. It concerns me that someone thinks this is the right way to to send mail. And since they have sent it, that people might actually write and talk this way!  If this is the future of the English language, I have a very dim view of the next generation.
Not to mention the spammers.

On Snowden

Whether or not you think Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain, he is getting the politicians to say a number of interesting things.  Take for instance, this blurb from Paul Ryan (R-WI) that was replayed on the CBC news on Monday evening:

If we are not able to convince our allies or other countries to help us with this, that doesn’t speak very well to how we are being viewed in the world, it does speak well to our credibility.

Let me highlight one part of this: …it does not speak well to our credibility.  What Mr. Ryan does not understand, or at least does not seem to grasp, is that the credibility of the United States is pretty much a joke in the rest of the world.  And the Snowden leaks are only the latest example of why the United States is the butt of the world’s jokes.

There have been several reports, reported by the BBC, and the CBC, but surprisingly not by any US news outlet of how trade with the EU and the United States is in rough shape because of US policies, public or not, on issues like transparency of government, crime and punishment, climate and environmental issues,  and of course, privacy.  The Snowden revelations are only the latest bit of glass being thrown into the international communities eyes.

This is a global economy.  Information is, for the most part, is available with a few key strokes, not just the unclassified, but much of the so called classified information, if you have the time and patience to sort through the minutia to find it.  Big data sifting can be done with almost any server today, so if you want to know what is going on, it is not hard to find out.

Yet there are many in the United States that do not want to know what is going on and see all of this as a great blow to the efforts and image of the United States.  To these individuals, Mr. Ryan included, I say this.  The image of the United States was irreparably damaged when the United States invaded a sovereign nation with little more provocation that they might have had weapons of mass destruction, and, having found nothing, did not so much as say sorry. Further, has left the country in worse shape economically and socially than when they invaded it.  And that is only one of many events I can point at.

I cannot help but laugh at the politicians and other pundits that are worried about the credibility of the United States.  You should worry more about other, more critical things.  This one is a tempest in a tea pot, designed to distract from the fact that these same politicians are the same ones that allowed the NSA to do this in the first place.

The NSA is listening – quelle surprise!

Through a top-secret program authorized by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data. Documents describing the previously undisclosed program, obtained by The Washington Post, show the breadth of U.S. electronic surveillance capabilities in the wake of a widely publicized controversy over warrantless wiretapping of U.S. domestic telephone communications in 2005. These slides, annotated by The Washington Post, represent a selection from the overall document, and certain portions are redacted. (Washington Post)

I am trying hard not to laugh. No really, I am. Someone, and I am not sure who, has suddenly decided to release (sorry, a document was leaked) information that via FISA, under the Patriot Act, the National Surveillance Agency is listening to phone calls made by Americans, to Americans, within the United States, as well as filtering ISP pipes, social media sites and reading your email. What I find funny is the absurd level of outrage being vented by Congress (who knew all along about this) and the American public, who, despite having a short memory about things, should know better by now that the United States is one nation under surveillance.  And this is all to protect us from terrorists. Whatever that means.

If you find this offensive, well, the horses are well gone and the barn has burned down, the ashes already scattered to the four winds.  If you find this offensive, it really is too late to do much about it.

But if you want to keep most of your traffic safe, use encryption.  At least that way you are not publishing everything on a postcard and they have to at least work at it.

Feel free to use my PGP key for any correspondence.  The fingerprint is: 2428 CE82 2E0C E6B7 E1E3 8D84 85BD BF93 B6CF CE1B

 

California “bans” Mapping Apps

A recent ruling in California bans drivers from using mapping apps like Google Maps, after a man was caught while checking his smartphone for directions. (Autoevolution)

Raise your hand if you still have a paper map book in your car? Raise your hand if you have a third party GPS in your car (a Garmin or some on board system). Raise your hand if you update either of them more than once a year? Raise your hand if you live in an urban area?

Chances are you answered yes to the last one but no to the others. Which means that the way you navigate is by some form of on-line, cell based mapping application. One of the questions I keep asking myself and my elected leaders, who thus far have not answered, is how to I get from place to place, when the tools to navigate are not allowed anymore? Am I supposed to print out detailed maps and carry them like me like old fashioned map books? Clearly, according to California, the answer is going to be “yes.” But what is worse, is the with the rise of the GPS device, the map book publishers essentially went out of business over night. I have not seen a current paper map of my region in at least three years, which means the maps I still have are grossly out of date, missing new roads, showing roads that no longer exist and a comedy of other errors.

Do not mistake me. I am all for laws that punish distracted driving. But this current spate of new laws for old purposes is little more than political window dressing. Distracted driving was around long before cell phones and will be around long after they are legislated out of vehicles. But not everyone has a car mounted GPS, either because of the cost of the upgrade or the practical reason of “but I have it on my phone and I am already paying for the service.”

This is not to say that electronic maps are always accurate. Apple proved that with their poorly thought out mapping app released as part of iOS 5, but the point here is that if you do not have a GPS, or you do not know the area, you are now unable to use one more critical tool to help you navigate your way. And that could be the difference between life and death.

The Networks are waking up.

Some people have had it with TV. They’ve had enough of the 100-plus channel universe. They don’t like timing their lives around network show schedules. They’re tired of $100-plus monthly bills. (WTOP)

According to Nielsen, who has been tracking household viewing habits since time immemorial (or at least as long as it has been a money making effort), there are five million folks who do not even own a television. That seems low to me. I suspect there are a lot of people that own a television, but have long since given up their connection to receive the traditional television signals. And, if you have watched television lately, you probably know why.

As pointed out in the article, people are tired of being tied to their televisions. More so, they are tired of being tied to schedules that have nothing to offer, either intellectually, or visually. For the one or two shows that you find interesting – and I suspect most people find fewer than five shows even worth the time – there are other ways to watch it if you really want to. The rest is a waste of time.

Lately, we have moved from relying on regular television to watching Netflix, Hulu, and any of our many DVDs rather than wasting time looking for something to watch on broadcast networks (and this includes cable).  We get our sports directly from the leagues, without the commercials and with the ability to rewind and watch the game later if we want to or have other things going on when the game is live. The rest is ignored in favor of other, more interesting things, like doing laundry.

And the networks are only just talking about this?  Here is the first light-bulb they should turn on – get rid of the anachronistic blackout rule. Just because I live in the same geography as a marketing area for a sports team does not mean I have any intention of going to see the game, and for a variety of good reasons.  If you think someone should have exclusive rights to show it, you are again ignoring those of us who have paid for the privilege of watching this same game, yet do not have a television, or, access to television. Sometimes I want to watch a game while working at the office.  There is no television at my desk, but the video stream works just fine. And did I mention, I have already paid for it?

By the time the networks, and their boards realize what is going on, people will have already flocked to other forms of media.  My daughter already gets more video from YouTube than she does from television and this is not a trend that will change any time soon. But it is good to see that the networks are taking notice. To bad it is five years too late.

My Doctor Is My Dealer*

Let me start by saying that I am not generally opposed to modern pharmaceuticals.  As a sufferer of kidney stones, I am very happy that morphine and its opiate relations are available to me.  But I have to wonder if we, as a nation, are not using modern pharmaceuticals a bit too much.  For example, at a recent physical, I was told my cholesterol was outside the norm.  So rather than tell me to lose 40 pounds – which would be a good idea and a goal I have – I was put on a commonly prescribed statin drug. One described as clean, meaning few side effects and few interactions. For grins, I will take it for a while and see what happens, but I will work harder at losing the weight.

Further, two reports made me sit up and take notice that this is getting worse, rather than better.  The first was that more than 25% of boys have been diagnosed as ADHD.  The second was that 1 in 50 children are suffering from an Autism spectrum disorder.

1 in 4 boys are suffering from ADHD?  And the solution for this is to medicate them?! ADHD is characterized by either significant difficulties of inattention or hyperactivity and impulsiveness or a combination of the two. Without getting into it too far, this describes most boys between the ages of 2 and 30 (and a number of teenage girls too). I am sure there is a standard by which the rather subjective definition of significant is, but I am also wondering if part of the problem is a simple lack of exercise. I do remember growing up, that we had a lot of running around.  Sports, recess, after school sports, and walking back and forth to school.  Today, not so much.  As I have written numerous time, we are seeing a serious decrease in exercise in schools.  Recess is almost non-existent, sports are more standing than participating, and we all know that walking to school is almost a vanished skill. So I am skeptical that medication is really the answer.  Or even the primary solution.

Autism is a little bit harder though.  The new guidelines lump a whole mess of spectrum disorders under the heading of Autism and do not take into account the level of severity.  Again, autism is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.  We are all familiar with the gross levels of autism, but again I have to wonder if we have not gone too far in the diagnosis.  Under these descriptions, I could be suffering from it, to some extent.  Of course, there are no drugs currently available, although I heard that a study into an Alzheimer’s drug might help some of the more severely affected sufferers.

This is not to say that there are individuals who are bona fide sufferers.  Clearly and without question.  But based on the two survey’s, these numbers are going up, not down, which begs the question – are we over targeting people that are not really suffering from these (or other) diseases, or has the genetics of humanity finally failed? Only time will tell.

* From Robin Williams’s sketch on Drugs, Alcoholism, And More Drugs, on Weapons of Self Destruction

Wal-Mart Shows The Way

Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves (Bloomberg)

While the article is about the loss of business by Wal-Mart to other cost conscious retailers, that fragment caught my attention.  Further, Wal-Mart says the problem is not stock:

Our in stock levels are up significantly in the last few years, so the premise of this story, which is based on the comments of a handful of people, is inaccurate and not representative of what is happening in our stores across the country

So, if the stock is there, why is it not on the shelf? Especially with the unemployment rate at 7.7% (est), roughly 4.8 million people are looking for work. But Wal-Mart cannot find enough people to get stock on the shelves? I find this baffling. But only slightly.

Clearly there are a couple of factors at work, but I cannot exactly come to any conclusion which one is having the most impact. It could also be a combination of factors. Here are my thoughts. First, those looking for work are not looking for a minimum wage job.  They are professionals, with mortgages, student loans, and credit cards to pay off, much less be able to feed and clothe their families. Second, I am willing to be that if Wal-Mart is paying minimum wage, it is only just paying it. In those areas of the country without a stated minimum wage, they are paying much less.  Which makes it hard even for those willing to accept those jobs to make ends meet.  Third, they cannot find skilled workers. I have said this before, but there are a large percentage of the population that simply are not able to function in our modern society.  Either because of illiteracy, and in this case I mean being unable to either read, write, do basic math, or use basic tools like scanners and registers, or because of work status. Not all immigrants are illegal, but most human resource departments do not have the proper training for evaluating the documents that are needed to get a job, and thus they are turned down, rather than put the company at risk.

And yet the companies, including Wal-Mart, will not invest.  As stated further down in the article:

Adding five full-time employees to Wal-Mart’s (WMT) U.S. supercenters and discount stores would add about a half- percentage point to selling, general and administrative expenses…about $448 million a year.

Half a percentage point, which would be passed onto consumers who are barely able to pay the prices of these goods in the first place. Which really is the bottom line. If they raise their prices, people will not shop there, further increasing the flight. Or so the business logic goes. I do not buy it though.  I believe that most people would rather pay a little more for good quality goods, and good service, rather than the lowest price. I would argue that the chickens are coming home to roost.

Wal-Mart is discovering that lowest price is not the be all and end all of retail success. Sadly, this comes at a point when they have almost entirely crushed out of existence all of the potential alternatives. Leaving the shopping public with few, if any, alternatives.