Archive for February 2008

The Real World?

February 26, 2008

When I was a junior in high school, I joined the drama club.  It was actually a joint venture between the all-girls Catholic school I attended and the all-boys Catholic school a mile away.  I volunteered to do technical work and was quickly appointed Prop Mistress.  A freshman from the boys school was appointed Stage Manager.

While working with this frosh, I learned that his mother was a secretary for a local professional theater company in which our drama director/moderator often starred and assistant directed.  This boy had started out as a child actor with the company, singing and dancing, but had switched to technical work (set building, follow spots, and prop placement) upon hitting puberty.  Theater had been his summer job for most of his life.

Well, one night during the rehearsal a couple of senior boys in the group started doing something unprofessional.  I can’t remember if they were messing with the sets or if they were supposed to be helping with something and had decided to goof off instead.  Well, my friend the stage manager started to reprimand them, and they weren’t too happy about it.  I believe it turned into a rather heated exchange of words.

I managed to pull the younger man away in a corner to cool off.  Then I felt obligated to set him straight.  I basically told him that he had better be a little more respectful of those guys or they would not hesitate to kick his ass.  Seniors don’t take kindly to freshman telling them what to do, even if it is justified.  “But, but,” he stammered, “In the real world things like that don’t  matter.  Tech people are expected to do whatever the stage manager says.”  I took a deep breath and made the sad observation, “But this isn’t the Real World; this is High School.  They’re two completely different things.”

I was reminded of this incident last night when an acquaintance who is considering homeschooling expressed her husband’s concern that their children wouldn’t be prepared for the real world if they did not go to regular school.  This is a misconception that many people have been schooled into believing.  When you stop to really think about the school structures, you begin to realize that they often do not translate into the real world.  In the real world, I have never had to ask permission to use the bathroom.  I have never been told to do the same work over again to give other people a chance to catch up.  I never been harassed or bullied because of what I wore, how I looked, doing too well, or what my interests are.  I have never been segregated into a group by the year I was born.  And I was never prepared about the importance of economics and the effect it would have on my life, from personal finances to corporate practices to media manipulation.

My hope is that by homeschooling my kids I can give them more real world skills and more real world interactions.  Instead of spending six to seven hours a day in a school building or stuck at home doing homework, I hope they will have more time to volunteer and intern and befriend a wider variety of people.  I disagree with John Mayer.   There is such a thing as the real world and I have my doubts about how closely it matches up with the social world of schools.

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Being Aware of Spychipping

February 20, 2008

There was a commercial a year or so ago where a scruffy looking young man walked around the grocery store surreptitiously stuffing various products into the pockets of this clothing. The illusion was that he was a sneaky shoplifter, but in the end he walked through an electronic door jamb, beams of red light shot out to every product hidden on his body, and then the young man nonchalantly picked up his receipt on the other side. The receipt listed every product scanned and the amount automatically deducted from his bank account.

I can’t remember what product the commercial was hoofing; I want to say that it was a credit card. The secondary point of the commercial, though, was to impress the audience by the idea of the seemingly convenient technology that may be a reality in the not-too-distant future. I doubt most people, including myself, stopped to think about the true implications of such a technology on our security or our privacy. But as I read the book Spychips by Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre that commercial came to my mind several times.

Spychips discusses the development, proposed uses, and possible negative consequences of radio-frequency identification chips (RFID). Most people are not even aware of RFID and the fact that manufacturers have already put them on products that we may have even brought home. Actually, the ultimate goal of many manufacturers is to have RFID chips and readers on every product in every store, in every part of our homes, and even eventually in every human being. Why do they want to do this? Many large corporations want to use RFID to invade our privacy even more than they already do (think junk mail and telemarketing) by being able to track our every movement in a store, our every little purchase, and our personal consumption, so that they can make profiles of our likes and dislikes so that they can bombard us with even more unsolicited and personalized marketing promotions

The scariest part is that the U.S. government, particularly the Department of Defense, the Treasury, and Homeland Security, is also extremely keen on implementing RFID. Did you know that starting in May 2008 all states are required by federal law to make driver’s licenses that can be scanned by any state and any Federal agency? These new licenses must conform to regulations set up by Homeland Security and will most likely include RFID chips. In the coming years, one would have to have one of these new licenses to enter a Federal building or fly on an airplane. U.S. passports have already been equipped with RFID chips. Supposedly this is all done in the name of national security, and again 9/11 is being used to scare everyone into acceptance.

So what is so scary about RFID? Isn’t it just a fancy bar code? Actually, bar codes require a line of sight with a reader beam in order to spill it’s information, and every product does not have its own unique id number. UPC bar codes are used to number batches of a product. Passive RFID chips have an antenna and a computer chip which send out a radio signal that can be activated by any RFID reader with in a few feet and can transmit a complete history of its host product’s manufacture and sell through an internet database. In the afore-mentioned commercial the products were read through clothing, so bar code technology would not have been tenable. Furthermore, the scruffy young man must have had a form of identification with an RFID chip (either a credit card or store-specific reward card) in order for his bank account to be accessed.

Active RFID chips have their own battery, constantly transmit their information, and have a longer range of transmission. There is no common way to deactivate an RFID chip unless you want to burn up your microwave. If RFID chips become standard in every product, than RFID readers will become more readily available to anyone who wants one, including criminals who could make a note of every valuable and its location on your person or in your home in a matter of seconds from a few feet away.

And the impact on Civil Liberties could be devastating. If we live in an RFID world than the government can track your every movement, restrict your ability to travel within your own country, and arbitrarily ostracize people from society by deactivating their ID chips and their ability to buy or sell. Any company could refuse you service or give you a variable price rate based on how profitable you have been to them in the past or how profitable they project you will be to them in the future, not good for the poor or frugal. Health insurance companies, which already do this, could be empowered even further to deny your coverage just by perusing your past food purchases and deciding that you brought that heart attack on yourself. So in the RFID world that is being proposed and pushed don’t expect privacy, anonymity, equality, or fairness.

Pushers of RFID technology were surprised to learn that most people who were asked were not to keen on their idea, even without the negative implications being spelled out; they were delighted to learn, though, that most people feel helpless to resist the technology. How am I to resist getting a new RFID driver’s license, which is tantamount to a National ID card, when it is illegal to be caught driving without a license? How can I avoid products that have RFID chips in them when manufacturers are not required by law to let me know they are there and the chips can be as small as the period at the end of a sentence and hidden from accessible sight?

What can the average person who is concerned about RFID do? I’m still puzzling that one out myself. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s better to be aware or ignorant of the whole thing, but my gut tells me that it is better to be aware and make other aware. I can suggest that people read Spychips and visit the website of the watchdog group CASPIAN to get a better idea of with what we are dealing. I can try to avoid using my check card so much and avoid any store that requires a “reward” program card; I never really thought about how much I was willingly giving up my privacy to corporations and manufacturers by using these things. I can write to my Senators and Congress members and urge them to fight RFID by passing laws that require public notification of use and resist government implementation of the technology. And I can pray that at the end of this election year we will get a new presidential administration that will reign in Homeland Security and respect the Civil Liberties that we are guaranteed in the Constitution.

Pet Peeve #2: Mass Chain E-mails

February 12, 2008

I remember when I got my first e-mail account. It was a few months into college when some of my Computer Science friends from the Honors dorm took me to the technology building to sign up, even though I only knew one person outside of the college who had an e-mail address. The year was 1995, and private e-mail and the internet would revolutionize communication over the next few years.

At first I thought those mass mails with funny jokes, quizzes, and stories were cute and funny and harmless. After all, I was just glad to be receiving an e-mail. That’s why I couldn’t understand why an acquaintance became so anti-mass mail that he started spamming anyone who sent him one. His spamming list later became an alternate universe for silly college students with too much creativity and time on their hands, but that is a whole other story that was hard enough to explain to the FBI.

Now I absolutely despise mass chain e-mails. My turn-around started once I entered the work force. The same chain e-mail would be forwarded within a pool of about 40 people, so I would usually receive the same e-mail from five different people at the same time a couple times a day. After a few years of this, I just started automatically deleting anything that looked like a chain e-mail. At first I did this so that I could stop wasting my time, but now I get extremely ticked off when I read most of them. I really don’t need any more pointless stress in my life.

Sometimes there is the occasional funny joke; unfortunately, many of the jokes passed on in these e-mails are extremely racist and sexist. And then I particularly love the mass e-mails that insist that the only way I can prove that I am a Christian is to pass the mail on to five or more of my friends. I personally thought that God had an even more direct communication system than e-mail. The ones that particularly annoy me are the ones that are based on complete fiction or misrepresented information in order to push a political agenda.

For instance, there has been an e-mail going around that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim. I have not had the pleasure of reading that particular piece of crap. I believe that this is supposed to insinuate that he also has ties to Bin Laden and plans to take down the American government if elected (although I think George W. has done a pretty good job of that so far).  All one has to do is read Obama’s first book or even his Wikipedia page to learn that he has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which has brought its own share of controversy, for the past twenty years. But, you know, it could just be a cover. After all, his middle name is Hussein. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

There was one going around about a year ago that was supposedly written by an American soldier in Iraq. It was touting the moral superiority of the United States as the best country in the world with lots of strong rhetoric, one of those “If you don’t support the Iraq War than you are not supporting the soldiers and you should move to another country” messages. Unfortunately or thankfully, I have blocked most of the actual content of the e-mail from my mind. It only took my husband a few minutes to find the original text on snopes.com . Apparently, the e-mail was comprised of a whole bunch of stuff taken out of context from a speech by some Australian dentist a few years before.

I think the only mass chain e-mail that I have sent on in the past three years was one that was supposed to raise money for breast cancer research, but I must admit that I have my doubts as to whether or not any money was actually donated. It has taken me thirty years, but I’ve finally realized that you really can only believe half of what you read. If anything good can be attributed to mass chain e-mails, it is that they have made more skeptical and more likely to take the time to see if there is more to a story than what I’m getting.

And while I don’t believe in capital punishment or torture, I am tempted to make an exception for those people who actually compose mass chain e-mails. I think there might be a special circle in hell just for you.

I Want Sam Wiggle

February 7, 2008

I can’t remember how long it has been since that sad day when it was announced that Greg Page of the Wiggles would be retiring from screen and stage due to health issues.  It was just as quickly announced that he would be replaced by Sam Moran, who had understudied with the Wiggles for years.  Like most of us Wiggly parents, we kind of had our doubts as to whether the Wiggles could ever really be the same.  Was this just going to be Van Hagar all over again?

My younger daughter, age 2, just received The Wiggles: Getting Strong as a Christmas present.  This is the first Wiggles release featuring Sam Wiggle wearing the yellow shirt.  I must admit that it was kind of an adjustment; I mean for the past five years we’ve been watching and listening through videos, cds, and television episodes as Greg led the  Australian quartet.  My two-year-old, though, accepted Sam with open arms.  Now she will even tell me that she wants to watch Sam Wiggle when I try to put on a recorded television episode of the Wiggles with Greg in it.

I must admit that the addition of Sam has also caught my older daughter’s attention again, who at age five thinks that she is too grown up for baby stuff like the Wiggles.  (She has generously donated all of her old Wiggles things to her little sister.)   First of all, she has realized that Sam was an extra and sometimes special guest on old videos and episodes.  Now when her little sister watches the Wiggles, my older daughter plays Where’s Waldo? looking for Sam in the background.  Secondly, the Wiggles are starting to enter some new educational territory dealing with letters, phonics, and early reading skills.  I don’t know if this is inspired by Sam or just a coincidence that his first video included segments on reading the same three-letter words that my five-year-old is working on.

We will always hold a warm spot in our hearts for Greg, and we hope that he is enjoying this time with his family and that his retirement leads to improvements in his overall health.  And I dread the day that we hear that the Wiggles will be no more (they’re not getting any younger).  They have brought a lot of fun, learning, and dancing into our lives.  So we thank Sam Moran for filling in the yellow shirt, and we look forward to seeing what else the Wiggles have to offer.  With another baby on the way, I think that the Wiggles will have a place in our home for the next five to seven years.

Pride and Prejudice…at the Aldi

February 6, 2008

My first experience with an Aldi store was shortly after college. My husband and I were just starting out, and our income was small. I don’t remember if it was lack of money or just curiosity that led us to check out Aldi. I just remember that we walked in and quickly became bewildered. There was not a single food that we recognized or wanted. It was all (cue dramatic music) “generic brand” (cue fearful scream). No Hamburger Helper or Campbell soup or Fruit Loops. What alternate universe had we entered? It’s just as well that we didn’t buy anything; we would have been put out to have to pay for our grocery bags since we had not brought our own. And I don’t know if they had the policy even then that you could only borrow a shopping cart if you put down a quarter deposit.

Fast forward about eight years and two kids to a life based on one income, an income that was about to be re-distributed in a different way. Without getting into all of the details of our income and bills, we needed to find a way to cut our food budget. On a tip from various tightwad sources, I started putting together a price list of items we commonly buy and how much they cost at the various stores that we frequent. Another tip on a favorite internet forum convinced me to check out the prices at the local Aldi.

As a result, I usually buy most of our dairy and some of our meat at Aldi. Since I’m also trying to move away from so many pre-packaged foods and cook more from scratch, Aldi is a great source for cheap baking ingredients and pantry staples. I’ve also realized that “generic” doesn’t necessarily mean worse, and “brand-name” often just means “more expensive packaging”. Now I keep a quarter in the van with which to borrow a cart and be sure to take a few shopping bags with me and watch the savings roll in.

Even though I’ve been making weekly trips to the Aldi store, I also hit another local grocery store weekly to pick up those must-have brand-name items, produce, and things Aldi just doesn’t carry. I often feel discouraged, though, when I see how little I get for so much money. A few weeks ago, though, I was surprised to notice a few customers seemed to make Aldi their one and only grocery store, despite its very limited selection. The biggest shocker was the woman in the check-out buying the Aldi-brand tampons. I thought to myself, “Thank goodness, I don’t have to do all my shopping here.”

The more I thought about it, though, I was wondering if I was really being thankful or just being prideful. I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes kind of pat myself on the back for being willing to shop in the same place as all these poor folks. Isn’t that horrible? It kind of assumes that only desperate people would do all of their grocery shopping at Aldi.

And what if all these people aren’t poor? What if they are just being smart? What if that woman was using Aldi-brand tampons because they worked just as well as whatever name-brand she formally used for half the cost. An article in the Tightwad Gazette discussed how most truly wealthy people did not inherit their money but acquired it through a mix of frugality and innovation (of course these are the wealthy people who you would not realize are wealthy unless you looked at their net worth).

Have my pride in not wanting to be considered poor and my prejudices against generic brands just kept me from being a smarter shopper all these years? Well, they certainly didn’t help. Of course, the fact that I graduated from college not knowing how to cook anything that wasn’t conveniently pre-packaged didn’t help either, but that’s a subject for a whole other post. And what is it about human nature that makes a person want to feel that they are better than someone else, even if it is just because they can afford (or choose to waste their money on) a brand-name food at a fancier grocery store?

Even three or four years ago, “you could not have made me the offer [to shop at Aldi] in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it”.  But as Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth said to Colin Firth’s Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, “my feelings are quite the opposite” now.  Maybe the reason that novel has endured is because it calls to the pride and prejudices we all have that can keep us from making better and informed decisions, even if it is just deciding where to buy our groceries..

Pet Peeve #1

February 2, 2008

Pet Peeve #1: People who insist on parking on the street when there is a perfectly good parking lot.

We live right around the corner from the local ice arena. Around here, ice skating and especially ice hockey are big deals. The weekend is the arena’s busiest time as that is when most kids take their lessons. After apparently squeezing several classes on to one rink for many years, the arena decided to remodel and add another rink, shrinking their already limited parking lot.

Now I would be more understanding of all of those people who park along both sides of the street in front of the arena were it not for three things. 1. The village bought the building across the street from the arena that used to be a church. Since they have yet to do anything with the building (and I doubt it would change things if they did), there is a big empty parking lot right across the street. 2. The city and the ice arena did a joint venture with the land next to the ice arena to extend the commuter bus parking lot to make a lot to be used by commuters during the week and the arena on the weekends. 3. Most of the people who park along the street are dealing with one or more small children in addition to huge bags full of skating and hockey equipment.

I’m afraid that if it was me I would be parking in the parking lot where I could keep the kids off of a busy a street in which visibility is impaired because of all the stupid cars parked along either side. Maybe I’m just over-cautious like that. Or maybe I don’t mind walking an extra few feet for safety reasons. Ok, and maybe I’m just annoyed because I drive past the ice arena on average four times a day or more on the weekends when the street is a madhouse of cars parrallel parking, kids crossing the street, and parents struggling with equipment bags. It stresses me out.

I know I’m just being whiny, but isn’t that the point of a pet peeve? So thank you to all those families who have realized that there are other parking lots besides the one right outside the entrance and don’t cross the street until everyone and everything is together. And could the rest of you realize that it is more important to escort your children across the street than fumble with their bags in the trunk?