Sunday, March 9, 2014

The view through the window

Remember when the Internet was hailed as a glorious new window on the world?

It would shed light on corruption, democratize dictatorships, make information and education more accessible, and generally move us toward a more open and enlightened world.

"Information wants to be free," we said. Washington and Ottawa spoke of "open government."

We ignored the fact that windows allow people to look in as well as out.

First we had marketers of products, in collusion with corporations like Google and Facebook, watching and recording our online behaviour --- the search terms we use, the videos we view, the products we buy, and so on --- in order to target us with their advertising.

Many, perhaps most, found that an annoying but acceptable trade for the services provided in return.

Now we have government security agencies in most developed countries monitoring the details of their citizens' lives, sharing that information with each other, and aggregating it all so that individual profiles may called up whenever needed, for whatever purpose.

Phalanxes of lawyers are employed to argue that all of this is legal, a diversionary tactic that obscures the discussion about its necessity and justification.

Public debate has already been chilled as people self-censor, wondering whether their comments will put them on a list somewhere. You are not being paranoid when you are actually being watched.

Not long ago, we would have expected this from the rulers of Zimbabwe, China, North Korea, and other repressive regimes, but not from countries in "the free world."

Now trust, along with privacy, has disappeared.

Here's looking at you, kid.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The fat lady sings at the end of the day

The last man standing, a chip off the old block, does an about face and abandons ship, despite having an ace up his sleeve, because all bets are off, so it's as useless as tits on a bull.

After all is said and done, it's as plain as the nose on your face that even a babe in the woods knows a bad hair day beats a dead horse, but you're barking up the wrong tree if you think a baker's dozen of bald faced liars will bet the farm, then blow their brains out because they got a bum steer from the big cheese before the bottom fell out of the market for wooden nickels.

They know there's a fast buck just around the corner, and that they'll be busy as one armed paper hangers when the fickle finger of fate pushes all the right buttons. Then they'll be running with the big dogs, in the clear and in the money, all downhill from there.

It boils down to covering your ass when you're caught with your pants down. Come hell or high water, you have to stay cool as a cucumber when you're a day late and a dollar short, and it's sometimes better to do a 180 rather than face the 800-pound gorilla.

That being said, even a stick in the mud can be a snake in the grass, so keep your eyes on the prize and your hand on your wallet.

Friday, January 31, 2014

A lesson from the schoolyard

Helicopter moms, look out! There's a counteroffensive being launched.

None too soon in my opinion. The current propensity for protecting youngsters from every form of risk has reached ridiculous levels, much to the detriment of kids who don't learn, until it's too late, that the world is a risky place and they'd better be prepared for it.

That trend was a spinoff of the self esteem movement that deemed competition to be bad, and rewarded kids for just showing up. The real world isn't like that either, despite their mommies' and daddies' wishes that it were otherwise. University degrees, athletic and academic distinction, promotions, raises, will all need to be earned.

Parents that try to grease the skids for their progeny undeservedly are doing those children no favours. What kind of message is sent when Mommy tries to pressure the teacher into awarding a higher, unearned, grade?

These ruminations were occasioned by the news that an Auckland school has reintroduced the kind of bedlam into playtime that used to be typical in earlier generations.

Going against the advice of many teachers, principal Bruce McLachlan tore up the rules that controlled recess. "We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over," said McLachlan.

The results were amazing. "Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol. Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a 'loose parts pit' which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose."

They were motivated, busy and engaged, got into less trouble, didn't bully other kids, or wreck things around the school, according to the Principal.

Funny how that works.

The bonus is that a scraped knee is a small price to pay for life lessons that prepare children for the vicissitudes of life.

I know I sound like an old fart when I hearken back to a time when it was not considered cause for a lawsuit if a couple of boys had a disagreement and settled it with their fists in the schoolyard.

Look, I don't support bullying. Bullies need to be shut down, pronto. But kids also need to be taught to stand up for themselves, to not expect that their parents will take care of every problem that arises, and that actions have consequences.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A rite of passage

Francie, who blogs at North End Journal, mentioned haircuts the other day, which brought back some childhood memories.

At some point, Dad decides that Son needs to graduate from Mom's trims in the 1940s farmhouse kitchen, and takes Son into town for the professional treatment. For Son, whose circle has mostly contained other children and women, this is an introduction to the world of men.

A room full of gents awaits, everyone seems to know each other, and greetings are exchanged all around. Seats are found, and the new arrivals note who is ahead of them for the barber's services. Standing up out of turn would be a mildly embarrassing breach of etiquette, and would result in some good-natured banter.

Son admires the big, ornate, leather-upholstered chair with footrest, headrest, lever and pedal, as it rises, swivels, and reclines, providing optimum angles for scissors, clippers, and razor work. Tall glass jars containing colourful liquids are reflected in the wall-to-wall mirror. Calendars with illustrations of comely young ladies advertising motor oil hang on the walls. Pipe, cigar and cigarette smoke fill the air, and the talk is about the smelt run, the spring weather, local politics, and Charlie's new Allis-Chalmers tractor.

While Dad's in the chair, Son peruses the reading material provided for patrons --- True Crime, Police Gazette, Field and Stream, as well as several well-thumbed publications aimed at students of the female form. All quite educational.

The barber gives the straight razor a few quick strokes on the heavy leather strop before finishing Dad's trim with a neck shave.

Dad gets a splash of bay rum, and now it's Son's turn. He feels very grown up, even as the barber whips out a padded board, places it over the arms of the chair, and hoists him up to a comfortable height.

"First haircut," says Dad, and the barber says something about Son being a big fellow now as he drapes him with a cloth and wraps his neck with a paper tape to catch the cuttings.

Electric clippers are suddenly buzzing at the back of the neck, scissors are snipping around the ears and above the eyes, and falling hair is tickling the nose.

Then, with a few flicks of a soft whisk to remove any stray bits from the face, it's done.

A milestone passed.