Thursday, June 27, 2013

Another Damn' Gifted Kid...

And in news from the All-Duhhh Channel today, a psychologist confirmed after three sessions of testing and interviewing that young Genghis is, like his brother, up in the Exceptionally Clever range, and should probably have his education adjusted accordingly.

On the one hand, it feels stupid being the parent who hounds the school, saying "My kid is special." On the other hand, it feels even worse watching your kid absolutely hate and loathe his mandatory schooling. So what do you do?

I've had the 'gifted' label described as a bit of a poisoned chalice, and yes, it certainly can be. It's well established now that telling a kid he (I'm gonna stick to the male pronoun, 'cos I'm dealing with Genghis, by and large, in this post) is smart is potentially detrimental to his learning. Instead, you're supposed to praise the  work and effort the kid puts in.

I get that. I really do. I was one of those kids who skated through everything, pretty much ignoring the teachers and the curriculum, and passing exams because that's what they wanted me to do and it was easier than making a fuss. And then I got to high level calculus, and suddenly discovered I couldn't do it. That was a real shock. And all without knowing what I was doing, I actually had to develop study and learning strategies to get through university. (Mostly they didn't amount to much. I admit it. I passed my science subjects by studying the night before the exams. And the English subjects... yeah, I was drunk some of the time... and other stuff.) I credit the martial arts training with a lot, to be honest: that was where I learned that breaking something down into component parts, practising them individually, and practicing repetitively was a good way to master complex techniques.

But you can't ignore the fact that the kid is bright. Especially when it's precisely that factor which frequently makes schooling a misery. Example: they have this 'lexile test' thing, where they check out the students' vocabulary, and try to advance their reading. Genghis pretty much maxed it out. And why not? He really enjoyed Dune. He's still working on The Master and Margharita, but H P Lovecraft isn't slowing him down.

Now, the school librarian knew he'd maxed it. But she kept handing him books that were part of their 'lexile program', and told him kindly, and gently (but altogether patronisingly and erroneously) that while he could read adult books, she needed to know that he was comprehending what he read. That pissed Genghis off a whole lot, and drove him away from the school library. And I understand that. I get it. It makes sense. Frankly, that kind of shit pissed me off too when I was his age.

My answer was just to keep reading books I brought from home. But then, I wasn't the victim of some kind of lexile crime. It was - literally! - Old School teaching, and they figured if I was reading at all, it was good. Poor Genghis has been the victim of Advances in Educational Science.

But you see what I mean. There's no point in trying to pretend the kid isn't smart enough to handle high-level books. And there's no way to hide from him that his friends and the other students his age (and older; the lexile/reading age thing maxes at 19. It doesn't actually go higher than that, I understand.) aren't reading those books, and can't yet read them fluently, with comprehension.

So for all that the 'gifted' label represents a new raft of dangers, at least it puts his abilities into black and white, and nails them to the mast of his record. The school can't ignore them now. The psychologist says she's already had a word with the library folks, and that's good -- because if I hear any more shit about Genghis being restricted to their 'lexile programme', I'm going to press the Ugly Parent button.

At least with the primary school, there's hope. I know the kid's already involved with the math group a year above him. And the teachers do seem genuinely engaged with his learning. His main teacher is excellent, and his math/sport teacher seems quite good too. Now, hopefully, with this assessment report behind him, we'll be able to get a bit more of a challenge in front of him on things like German, for example. And the psychologist has already encouraged us to get him to touch-type, and agreed that he should be allowed to work via a keyboard, rather than by oh-so-slow-and-ugly handwriting.

In the end? Well, I guess it was no real surprise. I've been having conversations about quantum physics, immunology, chemistry, and a host of similarly unlikely topics with this boy for a long time. He asked his mother a question about valence electrons a couple weeks back; she gave me a look like a desperate rabbit in the headlights of a semi-trailer. Lucky he didn't ask me -- I couldn't remember the answer to that one!

But it is a pain in the arse. Because, yes, you can't just chuck it all in the school's lap. They haven't got the capacity for it anyhow. More importantly, the kid learns more from parental attitudes and actions than he ever does from the school process. Of course, we were already trying to challenge and extend him, so really, there's not that much more work involved... not really.

It just feels that way.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Accor Hotels Do NOT Need Your Phone Number!

So, at some time in the antediluvian past, Natalie went to a medical conference, and stayed with one of various Accor-owned hotels. Who knows which one, or when, or where? Not she, nor I.

Unfortunately, when she stayed there, she made the grievous error of filling out one of their forms properly. They acquired our home number from her.

This is Not A Good Thing.

Our number is unlisted, for starters. And beyond that, we make a point of discouraging marketing calls of all sorts. I was recently at a computer store in Launceston, for example, and I flat out refused to give them a contact number (despite preparing to purchase an expensive system from them) until I got a written guarantee that the number wouldn't be used for marketing. Handed a bank the same line the last time I applied for a credit card.

I don't need marketing calls, folks. I can do my own fucking market research. If I want to buy, or rent, or otherwise utilise, or obtain some item by way of a commercial transaction, I'll use the Internet, the phone book, and word of mouth. But I promise you this: phone me up to ask for data, or to tell me about the joys of your pissant corporation, and you move immediately to the bottom of my list of potential suppliers -- and there you fucking stay.

Which brings us to Accor.

Every six months or so, we get a friendly phone call. The caller is always female, always upbeat, always asks for Natalie by her first name. Of course, it's almost always me who answers, so I do what I always do: I ask in a friendly way for the name of the caller. And hey: friendly female on the other end always gives her first name, usually with a lilt and a giggle.

Funny thing is, I don't recognise the name. And being the doctor's husband, I gently point out that I don't know the caller, and I need more information please. At which point only then does Friendly Female mention that Natalie stayed at an Accor, and could she just --

Now, the first time this happened I gave the phone to Natalie. And she played along, and asked not to be called again. The second time it happened, I gave the phone to Natalie and she told them she wasn't interested. The third time, I said politely that Natalie wasn't going to come to the phone, thanks. I can't remember how it's been since then, except to say that so far, I've been polite.

Yesterday, I got to the point of 'clipped'. As in: "Oh, you're from Accor? No. Nobody's going to talk to you. Thank you. Goodbye."

Still polite. Still calm.

Not for very much longer, though. Next time, I'm going to put the phone down and leave it off the hook. I'll check now and again to see how long it takes Friendly Female to get bored. The time after that, I'll blow a police whistle intermittently near the mouthpiece. The time after that, I think I'll perform my famous "Oh my God, I'm having a heart attack" skit. And after that? I dunno. Maybe with some SFX, I can mock up a decent "suicide by shooting or hanging". And hey, maybe I can do "ASIO breaking down the door to arrest a terrorist"...

Doesn't matter a whit to me, Accor. You've been asked to stop phoning us. You didn't listen. What comes next is your fucking problem, not mine.

As for the rest of you folks out there -- Accor Hotels do NOT need your phone number. For any reason. Ever.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dear America

Dear USA.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio. I still retain US citizenship, although I have been a dual national with Australian citizenship for more than twenty years now, and I have for some time identified as 'Australian'.

When I was younger, at school, growing up, I learned a good deal of history. Not just American, but history of the world. And I admit that I saw reason to hold the founders of the American nation in high regard. Knowing the times in which they lived, and the difficulties they faced, I felt then -- and now -- that the work and principles of the men and women of the early days of the US were among the most momentous and laudable efforts towards bettering the human condition that history has seen.

For the better part of two hundred years, the US identified itself with ideals such as freedom, equality, opportunity, tolerance and egalitarianism. In the 20th century the US became something special -- not just a country, but a symbol, a promise: a vision that offered hope to a world full of dark, grim, hopeless places.

Today, I read online a note from the government of Hong Kong regarding the movements of Mr Edward Snowden, a US citizen now charged with treason by the US government. I'll copy the note in full:

  The HKSAR Government today (June 23) issued the following statement on Mr Edward Snowden:

     Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today (June 23) on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.

     The US Government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR Government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden. Since the documents provided by the US Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR Government has requested the US Government to provide additional information so that the Department of Justice could consider whether the US Government's request can meet the relevant legal conditions. As the HKSAR Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.

     The HKSAR Government has already informed the US Government of Mr Snowden's departure.

     Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.
Ends/Sunday, June 23, 2013
Issued at HKT 16:05

 Two things must be said.

Firstly, there was a time in the USA when what Edward Snowden did would have been seen as an act of true heroism: reporting on the widespread abuse of the US constitution by the government which has invaded the privacy of (seemingly!) every US citizen and much of the world through its NSA spying programme. There was a time when people in the USA who spoke up, who exposed corruption and institutionalised wrongdoing were seen as true Americans, not traitors. I am bitterly disappointed to see how deeply times have changed.

Secondly: there was a time when the rest of the world viewed the US with such trust, and in such a good light that a man like Edward Snowden, who openly broadcast state secrets, would  have been returned to the US government at once by any government in the world not actively opposed to American interests. Yet Hong Kong has blandly let Snowden go unmolested, citing a legal technicality. It should be apparent to all, therefore, that the credit and the good name of the United States of America has slipped a long, long way down in the eyes of the rest of the world. 

Bradley Manning is in a military prison for revealing some part of the attitude of the American government to her "friends" and "allies", as well as her enemies. Manning's treatment has been, and continues to be, beyond the pale, and there is no chance he will ever receive anything like a fair and open trial. 

Julian Assange is currently in asylum in Ecuador's embassy to the UK -- Ecuador, a country once staunchly alllied to the US, with a history of looking to America for leadership and protection -- because Sweden will not offer assurances that they won't use charges of sexual misconduct against him as an opportunity to send Mr Assange to the US, where he will assuredly receive the same treatment as Bradley Manning. And of course, the reason the US wants Assange has nothing to do with sexual misconduct, and everything to do with the fact that Mr Assange's Wikileaks programme discomfited the US government by giving voice to people like Bradley Manning, and others.

Now Edward Snowden remains at large, having left Hong Kong while his arrest papers were held up on a legal technicality. I understand his destination is Moscow, but I recall reading that Iceland -- another one-time ally and friend to the USA -- has suggested they would offer him asylum.

Dear America... land of my ancestors, land of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and so many others -- how much more will you accept? Your government spies on you, lies to you, gives your lands, your waters and your forests to corporations to destroy, gives your tax money to the same banks and bankers that take your houses and homes, denies you medical care, denies you proper education, denies you even the simple privilege of paid holidays that much of the world takes for granted, and gradually imprisons you, stripping your freedom to travel, your freedom to assemble, your freedom to speak and be heard, and even your simple right to privacy.

How much more will you accept? How long can you keep saying 'yes' to the people who are doing this to you? When will you say 'no'? What will it take? Have you sung those old songs about freedom and liberty so often that the meaning has vanished completely away? 

What will it take to make you stop accepting what is being done to you, and to the world, in your name?

Yes. I know this small screed is meaningless, and will achieve nothing. But I meant what I said at the start of this. I was born an American, and even now, I think the ideals on which the country was so famously founded are the finest yet put forward by humanity. 

It hurts to see them abandoned. Truly: it hurts. 

I know. These are only words, but I am hurt, and words are all that I have. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

I Promised I'd Post This

Well, fuck it. Blogger won't let you post an audio file? How shitty is that?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Hope: If Corporations Can Learn, Then Maybe Governments Can Too?

Okay. This is a difficult call to make, and I'm making it with serious reservations, but I'm gonna make it, and I hope I'm not wrong.

I think Sony might just have learned how not to be a pack of fucking arseholes.

Sony has a long, ugly history of arseholery. In 1999, I first got to use a MiniDisc recorder when I worked with the radio station at Wondai, in Queensland. Minidiscs were proprietary Sony tech, and they were pure magic. They recorded digitally to a little magnetic disc that had excellent storage for the time. The recordings were very clean and clear. The whole unit was a really convenient size, and the fact that the recordings were digital and on disc meant that in theory, editing them should have been a doddle.

Except, of course, that fucktarded Sony kept the file format jealously to themselves. Nor would they permit easy downloading of the files to a computer. Nor would they let anyone build editing software or anything else. You could edit... sort of... using the functions on the hardware. But not the way you can edit MP3 recordings now.

I loved the fidelity of the MiniDisc, and the ease of use. But the fact that I couldn't actually do with it all the things I wanted to do -- make soundtracks, record stuff for animation, edit music -- made me give it up as a bad job. Along with 'most everyone else, I notice. Frankly, I think Sony must have taken a major bath on MiniDisc technology -- which is a pity. They shouldn't have. It's only in the last few years that portable MP3 recorders have come down in price, and up in quality to the point where they can match MD tech.

But that was Sony's mistake, wasn't it.

And then there was the RootKit thing. Anybody else remember when Sony actually put malware on their music discs, to invade the computers of people who put the songs on their machines? If you don't recall, here's the Wikipedia article, and here's an article from the contemporary Wired magazine. I can't be stuffed rewriting it, but the gist is exactly as I said: Sony actually loaded some very nasty, very sneaky malware onto their discs to fuck with their own customers. All in the name of Digital Rights Management.

I haven't bought a Sony disc since then, by the way.

Then there was the Librie. Anybody remember that? It was the first commercial e-reader. Sony used the proprietary e-ink technology to build an electronic reader. Unfortunately, they did it only in the Japanese market. And they made a tight deal with a bunch of Japanese magazines: you could ONLY buy content through Sony, from very specific sources, and after sixty days, your content vanished because your license had run out. Seriously: here's a link.

This was back in 2004. Well before Kindle, or anybody else. And yeah: it tanked and died. No surprises, really... it couldn't handle anything except Sony's proprietary file-types, and what with your purchased content vanishing after two months, it didn't exactly set the consumers ablaze with enthusiasm.

Honestly, I'd really like to know how much Sony lost on the Librie and the MiniDisc. I'm betting it was a lot, though, because lately, things are... different.

There's my high-fidelity Sony voice recorder, for example. Reasonably cheap. Great quality stereo microphone. Records directly to high-bitrate MP3. Lots and lots of storage space. Talks to my computer just like it was a simple USB thumb drive, through a standard USB interface built into the recorder. You just plug it in, and the files are there, right away. Do with them as you will. Better still, it has a rechargeable AAA battery... but the battery itself is easily accessed and replaced, when it dies. (You listening, Apple? You and your fucking iPod batteries? Fuck you!)

Doesn't sound like the same company, does it? But I love my Sony voice recorder. Wouldn't part with it.

Then there's the Sony Smart Watch. Yeah, I didn't know it existed either. But it does, and Sony has just opened up the entire system, allowing external developers and open source people to dive in and play with it. Cynically, one might say that Sony is hoping to create a community of people willing to revive a poorly selling item... but then, why is that cynical? Smart watches are a nifty idea, and frankly, handing them to the open source community is a whole lot smarter than trying to keep them locked up, like, say, some kind of iPhone.

And then finally, there's the PS4. Again: if you're not aware of the current war between Microsoft's corporate tyrannosaur, the Xbox One, and Sony's DRM-free, region-free, Internet-requirements free Playstation Four -- well, it's not up to me to enlighten you. You can do your own Googling. But the point is that Sony has just harpooned Microsoft so effectively that the Xbox brand may never recover... and they did it purely by allowing customers a degree of trust and fair usage.

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. According to James Bond and Ian Fleming, three times is enemy action -- so I'm going to paraphrase, and suggest that three times, in this case, represents something of a milestone. I think Sony, as a corporation, has learned that repeatedly ass-fucking its customer base on things like fair usage, copyright and digital rights management is a fantastic way to burn goodwill and lose money. I think Sony may have actually discovered that customers want to own what they buy, and want to use the things they buy in the manner that they expect.

Now, I think corporations are just about the ugliest, dumbest, most singleminded and fucked up organisms this planet has ever produced, and at one point, Sony was a shining example of the very worst. But something has happened. Something changed.

Maybe... just maybe... they learned.

Who knows? Maybe there's hope after all.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Do Not Be Too Proud Of This Technological Terror You Have Created...

Go to Google. Type in "mac and windows on the same LAN?" and see just how many hits you get. For me, it was about 133,000,000. And of course, the first umpteen pages are all about the pain of failure, or about complicated work-arounds, and shit like that. Cut it short: there's a history of trouble in making Macs and Windows machine sing in harmony.

Now, let's look at something else. Technology and me. Mr Barnes will be happy to put you in the picture if you aren't already: I'm notorious for producing... peculiar effects in high-tech gear. It's not that I do anything deliberately off-kilter. Just that if something is going to go wrong, and do it in an obscure fashion, it's likely to happen when I'm playing with it. There are people I know who still won't let me near their computers. Just in case.

I don't really mind. It's made me a fairly self-reliant computer user. Why do I know how to do absurd things in the name of making Windows work? Because I had to know, that's why. And it could be worse. My father can't even wear a wristwatch for more than a day or two before it just goes batshit. And recently, when he was hospitalised with Scrub Typhus, the complicated monitor machine kept telling the nurses at random intervals that he was either dead, or in massive tachycardia. (He wasn't.)

So I've been running a LAN here at home for... uhhh... six or seven years, I guess. Just as a way of sharing our (fucking piss-poor, thanks) Internet access. I've gone through three different routers, three different base-station computers, and patched in something like three peripheral desktops and eight peripheral laptops at various intervals.

Never had any trouble sharing Internet access, either by network cable or by wifi. Never had much trouble sharing drives, swapping files, accessing printers, etc. But you know what I could never get to work?

LAN gaming.

Oh, once. Just once. One afternoon, I got a single instance of a very simple, very old, artillery-duel game running. But then it stopped.

I've had tech-freaks in. I've had professional programmers in. I've had people tell me I set it up wrong, and spend three hours setting it up right only to give up in rage and frustration. And in the long run, I just said: fuck it, I don't really have time for LAN gaming anyway.

So. The boys like Minecraft. There's a copy on their desk machine, and another copy on Genghis' little school laptop, and because we've got a visitor today, they even stuck a copy on Nat's MacBook Air, or whatever it's called.

This morning, they got the bright idea of going multiplayer over the LAN. And they spent hours trying to get it to work. Jake finally came up to me and announced that despite his best efforts, and doing everything he could think of, it just wouldn't work, and he couldn't figure out why.

I thanked him -- rather dryly -- for validating six years of effort on the part of myself and a number of professionals in the tech industry. He didn't seem to detect the irony.

And then, our visitor hit "multiplayer" on the MacBook.

And all of a sudden, all three of those computers are in a LAN-based Minecraft game. The boys are happier than pigs following a herd of elephants with diarrhoea.

Yep. Sounds about right to me. Adding Macs to Windows is supposed to be tricky? Oh, well then: that must be precisely the necessary cure for my LAN gaming dilemma.

Sometimes, I admit, I get tired of this shit.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rules, Regulations, and Rubbish

Well, I've had one of those conversations recently. The kind one has with one's spouse every now and again, where there is much frustration and non-communication, and nothing really gets better as a result. But since I've had this one a couple times before, it's been sitting the back of my head, simmering, and now I think maybe I have part of an answer. Of course, you don't know the question, so I'll frame it for you:  why do I find it necessary to question rules and regulations wherever I find them?

And the short answer is simple: I don't.

There are lots of rules and regulations that I accept. Speed limits, for example. I don't necessarily obey them to the letter, but I know what they're fore, and why they exist, and by and large I approve of them. On the whole, anyhow.

Speed limits are an excellent example, in fact, because they are precisely the kind of rule that was never written with someone like me in mind. And here we come to the crux of my argument. Allow me to be a little arrogant, for just a moment: I need you to accept, for the sake of this argument, that I'm a little smarter than the mythical Average Jo. There's reasonable evidence of that assertion, but I don't think I want to go into that here, so let's just accept the assertion for the moment.

What does that mean, anyhow?

Well, I'm not wholly sure. In my late forties, I'm still finding out exactly what 'being a bit smarter' means with regard to my relationship to the norms and behaviours of the bulk of the human race. I know this, though: I don't actually need speed limit laws.

I don't need them because I can clearly understand the consequences of driving too quickly, and of doing so on a road system full of other people driving too quickly. More: I understand what 'too quickly' really means, and I moderate my driving as a result. Slower in complex conditions. Faster in clear, open, hazard-free driving conditions. This is simple sense, as far as I'm concerned. I don't actually need the speed limit signs, because I will voluntarily limit my own speed purely for my own well-being, that of my passengers, and of other people and creatures on the road.

And yet there are speed limits, and laws to enforce them. Why is this so? Why is it necessary? Well -- as gently as possible, it's because not everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car thinks about it in the same manner. I'm not talking about the petrolhead who loves his car, and picks an open stretch of empty highway to crank up his project car. To me, that's someone else who has examined the situation and worked out what speed limits are for. The petrolhead may be risking his life, but if he's done his homework, he's not risking anybody else's life. And hell; a lot of petrolheads drive pretty well. Maybe he's not even risking himself significantly. But like me, our putative petrolhead isn't exactly representative of Average Jo.

Politeness is another example. My friends will tell you, if you ask them, that around them I'm not particularly polite. That's because I've thought about politeness, and I understand what it's for, and where it works. Politeness is a specific verbal and behavioural code designed to signal others that we are limiting our actions in specific ways, and can be relied upon to continue observing those limits. Politeness signals people we don't know that our intentions are non-harmful, and we can be negotiated with. Politeness signals to people that we do know that the conversation or behaviour has gone past the understood limits of our existing relationship, and we need to proceed carefully.

My friends don't need that from me. They know me. They know the limits I place on my own behaviour, by and large, and they accept that behaviour. Of course, it's different strokes for different folks. There are friends who are comfortable with some behaviours and not others. That's fine. It's a matter of learning the boundaries, and trying to observe them. (That, by the way, I regard as 'courtesy' or 'respect', not mere politeness. I am often very polite to people that I do not respect at all. It's considerably easier that way.)

So how does this lead to the issue of 'questioning rules'? Simple, really. Given that I don't really need most rules because I understand them, and the purpose behind them, it follows that when I don't understand the need for a particular rule, my radar goes off. If I haven't understood the reason for a rule, it suggests there may be a danger or hazard for which I'm not prepared, and obviously, I don't like that. And of course, the simplest and most logical way of discerning whether or not there's something genuinely important behind the rule is just to ask.

So, yes. Nat's right. I do question rules. Pretty much all of 'em. And why not? Is there some kind of rule against that? And if there is such a rule... why does it exist?

Now there's something to think about.