January 29, 2003

World Wide Spam

You know the world is getting smaller when your inbox begins to fill up with spam in exotic languages. I'm used to getting email in Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish, but among the 80 messages in this morning's mail was this:

Tahukah anda tentang syarikat Sure Return Corporation Sdn Bhd atau lebih dikenali dengan nama SURECO?

SURECO adalah syarikat MLM 100% milik Bumiputera Melayu Islam yang begitu hangat diperkatakan sekarang. Ianya diasaskan oleh ahli lembaga pengarah yang berpengalaman luas di arena MLM dan berkebolehan di dalam bidang-bidang yang diperlukan bagi menjana perniagaan syarikat.

It's Malaysian. No idea what they're selling, though it seems to include 100% milik. Got milik?

January 28, 2003

War Games

While watching a rerun of the State of the Union, I'm running Gulf War 2, a cutting edge simulation of the war that looms ahead. Looks entirely accurate to me.

Now I'd like to see a simulation that shows where the money is going to come from that will fund all these threats and promises, and what magic is going to transform Iraq into a democracy when it's over.

It's all voodoo. I haven't been this disgusted and disdainful since 1974. He even said "nuke-yu-lar".

January 26, 2003

Editors and Lobbyists Wage High-Tech War Over Letters

A full nine days after it surfaced in the blogosphere, The New York Times has written about Astroturf. Apparently Planned Parenthood does it, too.
"The editors issue alerts and queries on a 600-member e-mail list run by the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Last week, for example, an editor from Nebraska posted a questionable letter about the Pledge of Allegiance and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Within minutes, editors from Wisconsin, Tennessee, Illinois and Nebraska responded, saying they had received the same letter.

"It's instant communication among us," said Lynnell Burkett, the editorial page editor of The San Antonio Express-News. "It's extremely helpful, every day, several times a day."

So, even without my million dollar idea, they're networking with each other to ferret these things out. With only partial success, it seems.

January 25, 2003

What's News?

Thanks to Metafilter for the pointer to Today's Front Pages. The front pages of 154 newspapers around the globe are updated daily. A wonderful resource.

This would be a cool core to build a WebQuest around. The central question would be What Makes Something News? Years ago there was an email based classroom activity in which kids everywhere would collaborate and compile what was on the front page of all their local papers on a given day. They'd then analyze the headlines and discover patterns across regions and cultures and the fact that local stories trump global ones most of the time.

Like most telecollaboration lessons, there was a whole lot of logistical overhead required... more than most teachers have the time or patience for. This site makes it possible to take a more comprehensive look at news without all the coordination.

Don't Let 'em Put Words in your Mouth

OK... I'm back to astroturf, but I'm doing it with a newfound positivity! Got a letter from Stephen Phelps of the Bristol (VA) Herald Courier, who just wrote an editorial titled Don't let 'em put words in your mouth. He received 8 identical Astroturf letters, Googled to see if there were more out there, and wrote to the submitters to investigate the source. Good spadework, Stephen!

"It wasn't party discipline or uniformity of thought that made America great, after all -- certainly not people sending in letters to the editor that they didn't write. It was a majestic cacophony of voices, raised in perpetual argument, all counterpoint rather than harmony. It was original thinking. It was a passion for freedom, an eagerness to take part in the greatest experiment the world has ever known."

A thought that just occurred to me: Someone (perhaps Google) should provide a service to newspaper editors. Editors would paste letters they receive into a web-based form and Google-check it against what's already out there and what other editors have already submitted. It would be very similar to the way teachers use TurnItIn.com to detect plagiarized term papers. In fact, this would make a great sideline for Turnitin.

There... that's my million dollar idea for the day. Now someone go do it and send me 1% of the proceeds. Thank you.

Positive Revolution

With rumbles of war, the stock market plummeting, budget cuts everywhere, it's easy to get into a funk. Surely there's a path that gets us out of this, I was thinking, just as I ran across the Positive Revolution Page. It's an interesting stance to take on life, based on The Yellow Book by Edward deBono... one of my favorite creative thinking gurus.

It's hard to put ideas forward like this without crossing over into flaky new age territory, but you can't beat the appeal of positivity. I'm going to pick up the book. If I start acting more sunny and less crusty, that's why.

January 22, 2003

The Inquirer Follows up on AstroturfGate

OK... I'm going to stop posting about this right after this. Promise. The netters' outing of the GOP's astroturf campaign is being covered by a UK site with three articles so far: the first news (already noted here 2 days ago), then the sordid details on how it was done. It's all automated, including printing the envelope with the newspaper's address.

The Inquirer has even posted a satirical apology with a comparison between this and the Nigerian spam most people get daily. Funny! Thanks to Susan Jesson-Ward for the heads up.


January 21, 2003

It's Still Raining Astroturf!

I'm going to stop adding to this list. Gary Stock has the definitive collection of appearances of this letter. Looks as though new ones are still being printed by clueless (or at least Google-less) editors. What a cynical ploy!


January 20, 2003

Astroturf Letter Source Found?

As linked by Paul Boutin, Mike Magee of the Inquirer has traced the source of the Bush Astroturf (phony grass roots) letter to the GOP Team Leader site. I'm tempted to sign up to be a 'team leader' so that I can be first to catch the next wave, but my name is probably in some database of enemies already.


January 18, 2003

Who's Manipulating the Letters to the Editors Page???

The GOP, apparently, as several bloggers and other netizens have already pointed out. It's fair play, I suppose, to urge your fellow travelers to write letters to newspapers and even to give them talking points to guide their writing, but this goes well beyond that. Over the last three weeks, the following lettter has appeared verbatim all over the country, each signed (presumably) by a local reader. Here's the letter:

When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership. The economic growth package he recently proposed takes us in the right direction by accelerating the successful tax cuts of 2001, providing marriage-penalty relief and providing incentives for individuals and small businesses to save and invest.

Contrary to the class-warfare rhetoric attacking the presidentís plan, the proposal helps everyone who pays taxes, and especially the middle class. This year alone, 92 million taxpayers will receive an immediate tax cut averaging $1,083, and 46 million married couples will get back an average of $1,714. Thatís not pocket change for a family struggling through uncertain economic times. Combined with the presidentís new initiatives to help the unemployed, this plan gets people back to work and helps every sector of our economy.

I Googled for "the proposal helps everyone who pays taxes", to see the extent of this spamming. Here's what I've found:

Sarah Kocal, Grayslake IL The News Sun, Waukegan IL
Kyle Klink, Rochester NYWHEC-TV, Rochester NY
Trevor Carlson, Santa Rosa CAPress Democrat, Santa Cruz CA
John Pinckney, Muncie INStar Press, Muncie IN
Stephanie Johnson, Milton MABoston Globe, Boston MA
David O'Connor, Jericho VTRutland Herald, Rutland VT
Sandra Rauschhuber, Boulder Creek CASanta Cruz Sentinel, CA
Nick Koszykowski, Dodgeville MIThe Daily Mining Gazette, MI
Edward T. Kranick, Appleton WIGreen Bay Press Gazette, WI
Scott L. Herrin, Blue Rapids, KSThe Manhattan Mercury, KS
Derick Mfoafo, Lynchburg VAThe Lynchburg Ledger, VA
Michael Snyder, Merced CAMerced Sun-Star, CA
David Bednarski, Wausau WIWausau Daily Herald, WI
Charles J. Long, Berrien Springs INSouth Bend Tribune, IN
Nile Gomez, Secaucus NJThe Jersey Journey, NJ
Debra Bauer, Carpentersville ILThe Courier News, IL
Donna Zahner, Cape Girardeau MOThe SE Missourian, MO
Robert Lowery, Victoria TXThe Victoria Advocate, TX
Philip Patzkowski, Kingston NYTimes Herald-Record, NY
Dirk M. Maurins, Hawaii Kai HIHonolulu Star Bulletin, HI
Jennifer R, Sheboygan WISheboygan Press, WI
Jeff Mellor, Knoxville TNKnoxville News Sentinel, TN

They're all identical! Either these Republiclones are completely bereft of imagination and unable to give the letter a local spin or personal voice or... more sinister... the authors are all fictitious. Either way, this strikes me as a disingenuous way to warp public opinion. They're trying to make it look as though ordinary people support a policy that doesn't really help ordinary people. Let's not be fooled.

Postscript: This isn't the first time this has happened. In November and December, another letter crowing about the midterm elections appeared in 34 papers. Failure Is Impossible has the list and some advice on how to respond. I've written the editors of each of the publications on the list above urging them to check Google before falling for this again.


January 15, 2003

The Algebra of Happiness

The former math teacher in me loves this: British researchers interviewed 1000 people, crunched the numbers, and came up with an equation for happiness. What is it, you may well ask?

Happiness = P + (5xE) + (3xH)

where P is personal characteristics like outgoingness and outlook on life, E is existence (health, financial stability and friendships) and H is higher order needs (self-esteem, expectations, humor). Aside from some dubious clumping of these variables, it seems to echo Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Assuming that you get yourself well past bare survival, the parts that account for the remaining 44% of the score (P + H) are somewhat within ones own control. You can be as happy as you choose to be, they say. That squares with my experience. Big grain of salt time: one of the authors of the study, Pete Cohen, is described as a "life coach". Does that add to or lessen his credibility as a researcher? You decide.

This complements a different equation I was exposed to back at WPI, one that was proposed decades ago by Turkish cyberneticist Ali Irtem in Cybernetics, Art & Ideas:

H = G/W

Happiness is what you've Got divided by what you Want. The Buddhist approach is to minimize the denominator, while the Western approach is to maximize the numerator. That rings true, too, even though Irtem wasn't a life coach.

January 10, 2003

Hawai'i Day Six

This was the best day of the trip. After checking out of the hotel, we had lunch at Zippy's, an old-fashioned kind of place as common here as IHOPs. Then on to the 'Iolani Palace, the only royal residence on American soil. How it got to be on American soil is a sad story. The palace was almost torn down to build a parking lot for the Capitol building that replaced it after statehood. Luckily, people rallied around to restore the palace and begin to retrieve the furniture that was auctioned off. What a loss that would have been! The workmanship of the place was amazing.

Then we went to the Honolulu Academy of Arts and looked over their collection of Asian statues, armor and paintings. Alex was fading again by this point so we cut it short and drove up into Diamond Head's crater. Didn't look much like a volcano; just a flat plain with military contraptions perched along the rim. We continued to drive around the eastern end of the island and on to Hawai'i Kai. More beautiful shoreline, islands and mountains with suburbia beginning to encroach. We finished off the day with another dinner at Keo's: green curried fish, shrimp in peanut sauce, grilled chicken and sticky rice. Yum! A great way to finish our visit to Hawai'i. We'll be back.

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January 09, 2003

Hawai'i Day Five

Finally, a day in which we all felt well enough to tour. We drove up H2 toward the North Shore, stopping every time something seemed vaguely interesting. First stop was the Dole Plantation, the epitome of tourist trappitude. Pineapple pot holders, pineapple shirts, pineapple softserve cones, pineapple quilts, a maze of pineapple plants arranged like a giant crop circle.... you get the picture. And here, as in many places in Waikiki, there are vendors where you pay to pick an oyster out of a pile and then watch as they open it up to see if you got a pearl while ringing a bell and calling out "A - Lo - HA!". The original natives of this island must be spinning in their tombs.

We then stopped at the Waimea Falls Park, a Disneyized version of a verdant valley, and then lunched at Giovanni's, a place that's famous for its shrimp. It's just a white truck parked on the side of the road and they only serve shrimp in one of three ways, but it was very good. Small world: we bumped into one of the 25 people who were in my session at the conference yesterday.

We dropped in at the Polynesian Cultural Center, but the $40 per person minimum entry fee was a deal killer since we really didn't feel like $120 worth of Polynesian culture. Spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the view of the coast, as well as a botanical garden. Then back to Honolulu to kick back and then dinner. With our aesthetic sense and any trace of frugality already beatenout of us, we picked up another 2 muumuus and a shirt on the way back to the hotel. We ended the day watching Japanese soap operas on TV. Wish we got that channel at home!

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January 08, 2003

Hawai'i Day Four

Not an eventful day. Alex, poor kid, was ill all night with a fever and cough. June stayed with him while I went to the conference. I did my part of a panel discussion about best practices in education and got lots of nice strokes from some of the participants. One said that WebQuests were serving as a rationale for schools around her in Connecticut getting themselves wired. Another said that it was being widely adopted for teacher education in Singapore. Still another said that she'd been doing something similar in Manitoba until she happened on my site and has since been teaching teachers the WebQuest way with great success. The best question from the group asked about maintaining the quality of the links on the site and continuing to scale it up. I said a few things about the forthcoming WebQuest Portal that are specifically there to address that problem. It verified to me that I'm working on the right stuff.

June and I walked down to the beach and then went to Keo's, a Thai restaurant highly recommended by Diane Lapp and Doug Fisher who I bumped into at the converence. Had a green papaya salad, deep fried whole red snapper in green chile sauce and opaka opaka. Yum!

Tonight Alex gets Nyquilled into oblivion in hopes that rest will put him in good stead for more tourism tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

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January 07, 2003

Hawai'i Day Three

I woke up at 7AM to watch Steve Jobs keynote at MacWorld. Couldn't get the QuickTime stream, but I joined a chat room where others were able to see it so I got each bit of news 10 seconds later. It was more eventful than I'd been expecting. The Keynote software looks terrific and I ordered it immediately. They've also added the Ken Burns-type feature into iMovie that I've been lusting after. That will serve me well in my EDTEC 470 class this semester. The new 17 inch PowerBook looks great, too. I think Apple is ahead of most in realizing that there's a growing number of people like me who never use a desktop anymore.

By the time we were all up, it was clear that Alex and I weren't feeling that well. After a late start we headed toward the north shore, but (we HAVE to get a better map) we missed an exit and ended up having lunch near the western shore of Oahu. By this time I realized that I'd left the camera battery charging back at the hotel, I was feeling achy and grumpy, and we decided to postpone the circuminsular expedition until Thursday.

Instead, we took a more modest tour of The Contemporary Museum, a very nice spot overlooking Honolulu, then headed back and crashed. It was dinner time before I felt well enough to venture out again, and J & I explored Waikiki while Alex stayed in. Tomorrow I'm at the conference for my panel presentation. A good night's sleep will remedy things, I hope.

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January 06, 2003

Hawai'i, Day Two

Got a lot packed into one day. One of the virtues of going west is that you wake up earlier in the morning, so even sleepaphilic Alex was up for breakfast at 8. First stop, thanks to a missed exit, was the National Cemetary of the Pacific, a vast and pretty set of fields with tombstones set flat into the ground.

Then on to the Bishop Museum, where a demonstration of various forms of Hawaiian songs, chants and dances was just starting when we arrived. The museum covers the natural and social history of the islands, and includes a planetarium that we might go back to later in the week.

Then on to the USS Arizona Memorial which was a moving and well designed experience. You see a film about Pearl Harbor, then get onto a boat to enter the memorial itself which is anchored over the wreck of the Arizona. It was (ironic? bemusing?) to see Japanese tourists having their pictures taken with the rusting shell of the ship in the background. Next stop, Hilo Hattie's, a megastore for all things Hawaiian. We got caught up in the moment and bought a muumuu for June's Mom, 5 shirts for the rest of us, and salted macademias. Finally, dinner in Chinatown with pretty good seafood and dirty water glasses.

More to see tomorrow.

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January 05, 2003

Hawai'i, Day One

Thank God for the extra leg room on American Airlines. We were all bushed for the flight, having spent all the previous day making the house presentable for the catsitter and finishing up a lot of old business. Six hours sitting in one place is a long time. We got to the hotel and crashed, and only ventured out later for dinner and a stroll down through the Waikiki shopping area. So many Japanese tourists! I guess their economy hasn't tanked completely. Looking forward to a fresh start in the morning.

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January 03, 2003

If Only I Could Draw

Jack Chick is a xtian who put his cartooning skills to use by creating comic strip tracts like this one to spread his faith. He urges his fellow travelers to buy these things in bulk and leave them on restaurant tables, waiting rooms, bathroom stalls... wherever they might be picked up by someone with a few minutes to spare for reading. It's hilariously heavy-handed and cleverly subversive at the same time.

I wish someone with other goals would pick up on this idea. Imagine using the same format to get people to listen more critically to the baloney they hear on talk radio. Or a little parable that extols the virtues of reading more or exercising more (without having some product to sell). Perhaps a cartoon that demonstrates that politeness and hospitality don't cost you anything but make the world a better place.

Is there a secular humanist out there who can draw? I'll happily distribute the results to restaurants and men's rooms everywhere.


January 02, 2003

What, Indeed, Should I Do With My Life?

The blogosphere is all abuzz about What Should I Do With My Life?, a new book that's just been excerpted in Fast Company. What excellent timing to raise this question at the first of the year when we're all looking back, looking ahead, and have a little time to actually think about such things. Here's a snippet I liked:

"In the past decade, the work world has become a battleground for the struggle between the boring and the stimulating. The emphasis on intensity has seeped into our value system. We still cling to the idea that work should not only be challenging and meaningful -- but also invigorating and entertaining. But really, work should be like life: sometimes fun, sometimes moving, often frustrating, and defined by meaningful events. Those who have found their place don't talk about how exciting and challenging and stimulating their work is. Their language invokes a different troika: meaningful, significant, fulfilling. And they rarely ever talk about work without weaving in their personal history. "

I've always felt that way; the line between work and the rest of life has always been blurry for me...and I've married a woman and sired a son who are exactly the same way. To some, it probably looks as though I'm always working. To others, I probably seem like a slacker who doesn't apply himself enough to be fully productive. But mostly I'm having a good time. Wish you were here.

Coincidentally, I recently came upon Frost's poem Two Tramps in Mudtime on the web. It's also about that blur. I might stick the last stanza up on one of my pages as a kind of long signature:

"But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes."


January 01, 2003

Happy New Year

As a younger man, I always wanted to experience Times Square at midnight just once. New Yorker friends of mine, knowing the event as a holiday for pickpockets and a minefield of vomit, told me to fugeddaboudit, and so I've deferred that dream indefinitely. This spiffy QuickTime VR is good enough for now.