Friday, July 29, 2011

Networking Nightmare

Sorry for the extended silence. I've been busy, partly with a family situation that prompted me to (reluctantly) join Facebook, and partly with Google+. As a newcomer to both Facebook and Google+,* I'm simultaneously overwhelmed (by all the data suddenly streaming into my life, from Google+ and from relatives via Facebook), underwhelmed (by Facebook's interface), and enthralled (by Google+, and I mean that in both the "Wow!" and "I've sold my soul to Google" senses).

Things are starting to settle down, though, and I'm looking forward to the weekend. I hope to drop by the Oklahoma Freethought Convention tomorrow at least long enough to sit in on ERV's talk. I've seen ERV (a.k.a. Abbie Smith) give a couple of other presentations, and they were simultaneously entertaining and informative. I'm not as familiar with the other scheduled speakers (Matt Dillahunty, "AronRa," "The Thinking Atheist," Matt Silverstein, and Dr. William G. Morgan), so I'll just be playing it by ear once Abbie is done.

Have a good weekend, y'all.

* And social networking in general, although I've used LinkedIn for about a year, and have participated in various user forums to some degree for decades, starting in the era of dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). If the phrase "HI MAGGI" means anything to you, you're probably in my neighborhood, both age- and location-wise.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Meriting Badges?

I've capitulated. I've joined Google Plus (a.k.a. "Google+" or just "G+"). And for the most part, I'm enjoying it, although I'm following (or "have circled") so many celebrities† that my Google+ "Stream" is getting quite long. I really need a way to collapse comments so I don't have to scroll forever to get past the stuff posted by the followers of the people I'm following.

A sure sign of Google+'s popularity (however fleeting it may be) is the number of celebrities and celebrity impersonators it's attracted in the three weeks it's been live. Google would obviously be pleased to have celebrities endorse Google+ by using it, so the company is working on a "celebrity acquisition plan" and a scheme for verifying that celebrities are who they claim to be. (William Shatner would probably have appreciated an opportunity to prove his identity before his Google+ account was suspended, but the error has been corrected.)

Google+ isn't the only new feature that Google is working on this week. Google News, "a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together, and displays them according to each reader's personalized interests," has implemented a system of "badges" for subjects that you read up on frequently. By default, your badges are shown only to you, but you can share (publicize) them if you want. I'm not sure whether I want to earn, let alone share, Google badges, since at first blush they seem about as useful as those cheesy certificates I got in elementary school for reading library books during summer vacation. And to earn badges, I'd have to actually click on links to read news articles. No more pretending to be up-to-date on current events by just skimming headlines!

PC World suggests that if badges catch on, "it's going to become increasingly easy to spot spammers simply looking to promote a brand without any knowledge of it. Authentic businesses (and individuals behind them) will get a credibility boost by displaying their high-level badges." Maybe so, but Google still needs to work on the algorithms that determine the subjects of articles before I'll take the badge system seriously. I'm on my way to earning a badge about Google itself, which is appropriate since I've recently read about a dozen articles on the company. But instead of giving me points for reading articles on Scientology, Google hints that I might qualify for a badge on prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise. Bleah.

† Well, celebrities to me, anyway. People like John Halamka (who doesn't seem to be posting anything to Google+ yet) and Greg Laden (who is active on Google+) would probably not be considered "celebrities" by most people.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Resigning to the Inevitable

Laura Fotusky, the municipal clerk of the tiny town of Barker in upstate New York, has resigned her position so she won't have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Ms. Fotusky believes that "God designed marriage as a divine institution to protect our families and our culture and our society, and so [same-sex marriage] goes against His plan." Ms. Fotusky is the first city clerk in New York to resign rather than be involved in same-sex marriages, but may not be the last. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that those who "enforce the laws of the state...don't get to pick and choose which if you can't enforce the law, then you shouldn't be in that position."

Damn right! Now if we could just get pharmacists who refuse to dispense emergency contraception (or any contraceptives at all, as is the case at so-called "pro-life pharmacies") and high-school biology teachers who balk at teaching evolution because of their own creationist beliefs to follow Ms. Fotusky's brave example and quit their jobs too. When asked to perform a task that's perfectly legal and in line with your skill set and job description, but not your church's teachings, resignation is the obvious and honorable solution.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Insisting On ID

I've been hoping that Google+ would be a better, more private alternative for social networking than Facebook. One of the reasons I don't use Facebook is their policy that users must sign up under their real names,† and now I hear that Google+ has the same policy. (To be nit-picky, the "real name" requirement seems to be tied to Google Profiles, not directly to Google+, but the two services are tightly linked, and I believe that you have to have a Google Profile to use Google+.)

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said in a CNBC interview a couple of years ago: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." For the average person who just wants to keep in touch with classmates, coworkers, friends and relatives, "Don't do stupid stuff" (or at least, "Don't post evidence of stupid stuff you've done where the whole world can see it") is a reasonable attitude. For those who have legitimate reasons to conceal their legal name, gender, likeness, and location from all but selected individuals, it's less reasonable. Whistleblowers, victims of abuse, and those suffering from embarrassing medical or psychiatric conditions, for example, need social interaction just as much as (or more than) the rest of us, but are unlikely to seek it in a public forum. And as the CNET article points out, "People's online names, while not on their birth certificates, often are a real persona--reputation and all." That's one reason I prefer to be known as "Ckbep"...that, and the fact that being an atheist in a state that's so red it's maroon requires a certain amount of discretion. There's no dishonor in declining to pin a target on your own chest.

† Which are visible to everyone.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Posting Early

Apparently I'm not the only one who prepares posts in advance:

I try to be a little more careful about what I actually publish, though! (In case you haven't already heard, the news story shown at the top of the screenshot is the correct one. The final flight of the US space shuttle program successfully launched earlier today, despite forecasts of foul weather and a brief delay to ensure that a "vent arm," whatever that is, had properly retracted.)

I've got plans for Saturday, so I'm posting a day early. Have a great weekend, y'all!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Writing Off Penmanship

I've been waiting with trepidation for the day when schools officially embrace SMS-inspired abbreviations like u r ("you are"), l8r ("later"), and i <3 u ("I 'heart' [love] you"), and spelling tests disappear or at least are graded more leniently. So I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that Indiana public schools will no longer be required to teach cursive handwriting, but I was.

Although my own handwriting is often illegible even to myself, I'm oddly fond of cursive, maybe because it's been championed by people I admire. My mother's gorgeous handwriting looks like an example from a penmanship manual because "that's how we were taught to write back then," she says. When I took a couple of semesters of Russian in college, the instructor, a native Russian, allowed the class to print (in Cyrillic, of course) only for the first half of the first semester. After that, she started deducting points from homework assignments and tests that weren't written in cursive. "In Russia, only little children print," she explained.

I'm thrilled to wave bye-bye to most skills that are obsolete, or nearly so. Thanks to electronic banking, I've only had to write about ten checks in the last five years. I never really got the hang of manual record turntables, and almost always produced that horrid zipping/scratching sound when putting the needle on a vinyl record. Typing on an actual typewriter—I even had a manual (non-electric) student model in my youth—and using Wite-Out® correction fluid are now as antiquated as getting up from the sofa to change TV channels. There are some things I'll miss, though. I never got, and now never will get, my chance to pilot the space shuttle, darn it. And there are a few practices that I stubbornly refuse to let die. I mow my lawn with an old-fashioned push mower; it's good for the environment and my cardiovascular system. I baked a cake from scratch just last week. I handle most correspondence via emails or greeting cards, but I still write condolence letters by hand (even though I first compose them on computer, then copy them out in pen). Writing still has its place.

Indiana schools that want to teach cursive handwriting will be allowed to do so, but my guess is that most won't bother. Andree Anderson of the Indiana University Northwest Urban Teacher Education Program says that cursive lessons have been a low priority for a while now. Keyboard proficiency will be the new focus, and eventually even that will be supplemented or replaced by something else: voice commands, multi-touch gestures like "pinch to zoom," neural implants...who knows? I think that the use of paper and pencil will eventually be limited to the briefest of notes, probably no more than will fit on a Post-It®. Until someone invents disposable devices that'll display text and stick to pretty much anything, we've got to at least have Post-Its!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Aging In Absentia

Had she lived, Princess Diana would have celebrated her 50th birthday last Friday, but even in death, she can't escape reporters and the post-mortem version of paparazzi. Newsweek's Tina Brown spins a yarn of what Diana's life could have been like if she'd lived, after she'd broken up with Dodi Al-Fayed (as Ms. Brown assumes that she would have). Brown's conjectures about the middle-aged Diana's taste in men, what cosmetic procedures she'd have used, and whether she'd have forgiven those who wronged her could serve as the outline for a romance novel. They'd have to find a better cover picture for the novel than the "age progressed" and "updated" photo that accompanied the Newsweek article, though.

One of the minor—perhaps only—consolations of losing someone who died much too young is that in your memory, they'll always be young. Thanks, Newsweek, for screwing with my memories. The periodical's motive for publishing the article and the modified photograph is, I'm sure, to titillate readers and sell as many magazines as possible. I think they chickened out, though. Given the popularity of television dramas like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," why not just go whole hawg and print a projection of what Diana's actual remains look like today?

N.B. I thought about including a copy of the doctored photo with this post, then decided it's not an image that I want to perpetuate. If you want to see it, go check out the article and photo on Newsweek's site. I couldn't find the original of the modified photo, but did find one that could serve as a reasonable comparison. Here's how I'd prefer to remember Diana: