Thursday, December 18, 2014

About those product reviews on Amazon.com

I have some advice for you about the product reviews on Amazon.com. AND on Cnet.com.

After you read this, you may think, "Well, duh, Ray. That's just common sense." To which I respond, after looking at the reviews again, "Apparently not."

1. Never buy anything online without checking the reviews first.

If you find something online that you want to buy, first read the reviews available at Amazon.com and Cnet.com. Even if you don't buy from these two places, they have the best collection of reviews on whatever it is that you want to buy.

And it doesn't matter if you're looking to buy a tech gadget, a stuffed animal, a book or jewelry. NEVER buy without checking the reviews first. It's as close as you can get to handling the thing in the store before putting it in your basket.

2. Ignore the canned, professional reviews. Go straight to the USER reviews.

Cnet.com, PCWorld and other sites are given products for FREE, by the sellers or the manufacturers, so they can try them out and write glowing reviews of them. And they DO write glowing reviews. Those reviews are based on the literature provided by the seller or manufacturer, a demo performed by the seller, and a few hours spent tinkering with the product before they move on to the next product review.

So these reviews are generally glowing reviews, praising the product in superlatives and highly recommending you spend your hard-earned money for something that they got for free. Skip them.

Go past the professional reviews, straight to the user reviews. Cnet.com and Amazon.com both have a core of serious users, who will give a wide variety of useful reviews based on actual experience with the product.

3. Read both the five-star reviews and the one-star reviews.

You need to know what people LIKE about the product, but sometimes it's more important to know what people DON'T LIKE about it. Also pay attention to the quantity of five- and four-star reviews versus the quantity of one- and two-star reviews. If more people DON'T LIKE the product than DO LIKE it, then you'd better be very careful about parting with your money.

4. Ignore the reviews that complain about purchasing or shipping problems. Pay CAREFUL attention to the ones that complain about product quality and customer service.

I'm not saying that sellers aren't going to rip you off. And I'm not saying that there aren't incompetent, lazy or dishonest shippers out there. But by and large, anyone selling online has a reputation to uphold, and the vast majority of them will do their best to make you happy. That's why the order-taking-and-shipping departments in so many businesses are now called "Customer fulfillment." If there's a significant number of negative comments made about the order fulfillment process, then yeah, pay attention to it.

But the reviews that matter to you the most are the reviews about the PRODUCT. How good is it, and what problems does it have? And if the user needed to get the seller or manufacturer (that is, Customer Service) involved to fix the problem, how well did that work? See, you're going to spend your money on something, and once the money and the product change hands, you (or the gift recipient) are going to be stuck with it for a long time, until you choose to throw it away. So it had better work. User reviews can reassure you that it will work, or they can warn you that it won't work. (I know, this sounds like common sense. Unfortunately, it isn't as common sense as you would imagine.)

5. Filter out the complaints that you can reasonably attribute to "stupid users."

A large percentage of complaints are due to people who didn't read the specs right, didn't read the instructions, or somehow don't understand. Have pity on these people. Don't think, "Good grief, what a moron," about them. But figure out quickly who they are and discard anything they say.

6. Learn to detect the fake five-star and one-star reviews.

It's okay to think "Good grief, what a moron," about everyone who falls into this category.

Many sellers get friends and other people to write glowing reviews of their products. These people have never read the book or used the item, and may have never actually seen the book or item. Many of them use prewritten text or stock phrases, provided by the seller. If you look at the reviewers' profiles, you will see that they have only written one review, for one product.

One great example of this type of review are the five-star reviews for "The Price of Silence," by William D. Cohan. Commenters have pounced on most of those reviews and exposed them as frauds.

Not surprisingly, some people get paid to write positive reviews. I guess that's one way to use your English degree to make money. These shills are more difficult to detect, but you will notice that their reviews are filled with useless, overly general verbiage.

Some sellers are also dogged by psychopaths who write negative reviews about anything they have to sell. Fortunately, they're not very subtle and you can spot them instantly.

7. Snort derisively at the five-star reviews from anyone who has had the product for less than three months.

THIS is the one that will get you. So many five-star reviews read something like this (best read in an airheaded, Valley Girl voice) : "Well, I don't know what all those bad reviews are about. Maybe some people just get lemons. I've had my product for about three weeks now, and it works great! I love it! So does my significant other! It's never given us any problem."

I want to phone these people six months later and see what they have to say about it. You never hear from them once the thing goes south. ANY five-star review less than three months old is not a reliable indicator of actual product performance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Lunchtime Conversation With My Niece

I had a lunchtime conversation with one of my many beloved nieces. I reprint it here, for your viewing enjoyment.



I hope it's clear to you how much fun we have together.




Thursday, December 11, 2014

I Believe in Magic

I am an engineer. I am also a scientist. I am grounded in the real things of the world, phenomena that can be measured with tape measures, balances, thermometers, voltmeters, oscilloscopes, calorimeters, spectrophotometers, ... and even ATLAS detectors.

But I also believe in magic.

No, I'm not talking about Harry-Potter-Hogwarts-witch-and-wizardry magic. And I'm not talking about the timeless, frightening, fell, dark arts of sorcery, that formed the basis for Rowling's masterful opus.

Nor am I talking about the faddish, mystical, New-Agey horsecrap that flits around the world today like a butterfly, full of flashes of color but no substance whatsoever, trying to take the place of classical religion.

No, I am talking about everyday magic. It's the kind that you can't really make happen on purpose. It just comes to you. Things like this:

The tinkle of a child's laugh.

A surprise kiss from someone you love.

A mountain brook in the cooler seasons, making music as it splashes across its own ice formations.

The feeling you get when you see an explosion of sunrise or sunset on the clouds and the mountains.

The feeling in your mouth when you eat a spoonful of mint chocolate ice cream.

The zing in your nostrils when you catch a whiff of an anonymous woman's perfume (something really good, like Ciera) in a crowd.

That same zing when the woman you're snuggling with is wearing that same perfume.

The way your heart jumps when you answer the phone and hear the voice of just the person you were hoping would call, on the other end.

A sign of humanity - love, or sharing, or forgiveness, or basic human kindness and decency - shared between two people.

A child's embrace.

That feeling of satisfaction when you finish something, and you know it's done right.

We live in a world of magic. But it's all simple, everyday magic. We need to learn to recognize those magic moments and treasure them.

Religious people might call the magic God's grace. And they may be right. I don't care whether it is or isn't. It's magic just the same, and it's there for everybody.

Fair warning: I'm going to edit that list as I feel the urge. It may change from reading to reading.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Two great apps for Android

Let me tell you about two great drawing programs for Android: Markers and Autodesk SketchBook.

Apple device users have long had access to a quick-and-dirty drawing app called Jot!, and a more complicated app from Autodesk, called Sketchbook. I was so pleased with both apps that I once wrote an article recommending them to you.

I've been looking in vain, for over a year, for an Android app to match Jot! which, unfortunately, is an iOS-only app. I think I finally found it.

With the unassuming name of "Markers," this app sticks to the fundamentals: it lets you do quick-and-dirty sketches. You can change brush sizes, styles and colors, but the selection is intentionally kept small, to keep the application simple and uncluttered. It's not really fair to do a feature-by-feature comparison of Markers to Jot!, because one only works on Android and the other only works on iOS.

(It turns out that Markers has been around for over two years. I don't know how I missed it, but I'm glad I finally found it.)

Some of the nice features of Markers:
  • It's pressure-sensitive, varying line width according to how hard you press on the glass.
  • The background is transparent, not white, so you can draw with a white marker.
  • If you draw with two fingers, you get two lines; three fingers gives you three lines and so on, up to whatever limitations your hardware imposes.
  • You can zoom and pan the drawing surface - very useful if you start getting complicated.

Markers - screenshot
A sample Markers screen. If you click on the green marker in the upper left corner, the menu disappears, leaving you with a full-screen drawing surface.

Jot! for iOS is available in both a free and a paid version; the paid version gives you extra exporting and sharing capabilities. Markers for Android is simply free. The author, Daniel Sandler, keeps a small website devoted to the project, at https://code.google.com/p/markers-for-android/. You can download Markers from the Google Play app store. Follow this link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.dsandler.apps.markers.

Now, let me tell you about SketchBook.

Autodesk knows how to follow the income stream. Their SketchBook app is available on both Android and iOS devices. As far as I have been able to tell, the app behaves identically on both platforms. SketchBook comes in three flavors:
  • SketchBook Express, free and good enough for casual users
  • SketchBook, also free but frustrating until you upgrade to Pro
  • SketchBook Pro, $3.99
For casual users, SketchBook Express will fill all your needs, but Markers is easier to use. Serious users will want SketchBook Pro. You don't download and install SketchBook Pro directly. You install SketchBook, and then you buy the Pro Tools inside the app. Installing the Pro Tools is what turns SketchBook into SketchBook Pro. Believe me, for four bucks, it's worth upgrading to the Pro version.

Autodesk SketchBook - screenshot
A sample SketchBook screen.
SketchBook is an entire Autodesk product line, spanning platforms from mobile devices to serious desktop workstations. Autodesk supports the product line at its own website, https://www.sketchbook.com/. You can download SketchBook from the Google Play app store. Follow this link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.adsk.sketchbook.

One little note about the reviews at Google Play: many SketchBook reviewers gripe, and with some (but not a lot of) justification, that the free version of SketchBook is more like an advertisement for the Pro version, and that they feel deceived in some way in having to upgrade to Pro to get the tools they need. Eh. Think of it as an evaluation copy. Avoid the disappointment and frustration that the reviewers experienced, by planning from the start to spend the $3.99 and upgrade to Pro immediately. That way you will know exactly what you are getting and you won't feel like anybody's trying to pull a fast one on you.

Besides, the SketchBook app is easily worth $10 or more. And the Markers app is worth $2 or $3. They're both bargains at their current prices.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Castle


I drew this for a friend of mine. It's a castle, a fortress. It protects everyone inside it.

It has a moat, too deep to wade across, with steep banks on one side and sheer walls on the other, and probably full of man-eating creatures. There's no way the enemy is getting across that.

It has thick stone walls. An enemy once tried to break the walls down by heaving boulders at it. You can see on one turret that the boulders did nothing but chip the stucco.

The tall, thin windows you see are ports for the archers. They are too narrow for an attacker to climb into, but they give the archers a great view — and great protection while they rain arrows down on the enemy from above.

On top of the turrets, and along the walls, you see the crenellations or battlements.These give protection to the defenders while they roll their catapults, onagers, pots of boiling oil, and ... okay, Gatling guns ... into the openings and pour death down on their attackers.

The only way in and out of this fortress is through the drawbridge at the front of the castle. There is a portcullis behind the drawbridge, but of course you cannot see it. The tracks on the road indicate that there is a great deal of traffic in and out of the castle during times of peace, when the drawbridge is down. But when the drawbridge is up, the castle is protected, invulnerable.

But what's that on the right, towards the rear of the castle? It's a tiny door, and a dock just the right size for a small rowboat. This is a secret entrance, used by the king to sneak out at night and do un-kingly deeds in secret.

For all of its strength, and all of its offensive and defensive features, that secret entrance is the castle's (and the king's) downfall. For, just as the king can sneak out of that door by night, so his enemies can sneak in at night, stealing silently through the castle and capturing or killing all of its defenders.

In your life, you have built up strong defenses to protect you from evil and from attack by your enemies. What is your hidden weakness, the one that you don't think anybody knows about? When will your enemy discover it and use it to conquer you — or, at the very least, to hurt you badly? Don't you think it's time to tear down that dock and wall up that door?

The castle image is © 2014 Ray Depew. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ladies! Learn How to Take a Compliment!

Here is some seriously important advice for all of you ladies out there. Listen carefully.

You've got to learn how to accept a compliment.

When a man pays you a compliment, ... Nope. Let's start again.

In the course of your life, many men will pay you compliments. Some are flatterers, and you can ignore them. Some are manipulative little [deleted]s, who want to use you as their private sex toy. But the vast majority of compliments you will receive are from men who know you well, who admire you and respect you - maybe even some who love you.

These latter groups are sincere and selfless in their compliments. You've got to learn to stop blowing them off when they compliment you. Do you know why?

When you ignore a compliment, brush it off, deny it, argue with it, roll your eyes, give an exasperated sigh or give any other negative response, you are basically telling the man that he is wrong. That his judgment is flawed. That he has poor taste. And that you don't appreciate his attentions.

Now, with some men, that may be the message you're trying to get across. But if it's someone who loves you, then DON'T BE SURPRISED when time goes by and you realize that you haven't gotten a compliment from him for years. YOU REJECTED HIS OFFERING. He accepted your judgment, swallowed the rejection and the hurt, and vowed to honor your wishes by never complimenting you again. YOU DID IT TO YOURSELF.

Ladies, it's really not that hard to gauge the sincerity of the compliment and respond with an equally sincere smile and simple "Thank you!" That's all you need to do. Practice it now. Make a habit of it. And give the men in your life a break. Years from now, you will be glad you did.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Will the real Common Core please stand up?

I've done some more research, and I think I found one of the reasons for all of the confusion.



This is NOT Common Core. This is Common Core, Inc. According to their website:

"We are a Washington, D.C. based non-profit 501(c)3 organization that seeks to ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstance, receive a content-rich education in the full range of the liberal arts and sciences, including English, mathematics, history, the arts, science, and foreign languages. Since 2007 we have worked with teachers and scholars to create instructional materials, conduct research, and promote policies that support a comprehensive and high-quality education in America’s public schools."

This is an organization that promotes itself as "a noted provider of CCSS-based curriculum tools. "

You can tell that they're not the REAL Common Core because:
(1) They"provide ... curriculum tools" based on the Common Core State Standards
(2) Their website promotes three commmercially-available curricula, namely Eureka Math, the Wheatley Portfolio, and the Alexandria plan.
(3) Their website also covers history and art, which are not part of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core State Standards only cover mathematics and language arts.

I don't care what they call themselves, they are not COMMON CORE. They are Common-Core BASED, as far as that goes.

Let me add a qualifier here, and say that I've looked at their website, and I've looked at their offerings. Most of it is good stuff. These people know what they're doing. But some of them are not stuff I would use. And your child's teacher isn't being forced at gunpoint to use these materials.



This IS Common Core. This is the Common Core State Standards Initiative. According to their website:

"The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life."

These standards are the ones that are being voted upon in state legislatures and school districts, and the ones being promoted rather cackhandedly by the federal government. Nobody makes any money on this website or from these standards. Thousands of teachers have worked tirelessly over the years to bring this effort to fruition.

The Common Core State Standards are a good thing, a very good thing, as you will decide after you read the information on their website.



So, why the confusion? And who started using the term "Common Core" first? And why is commoncore.org allowed to continue using that name, which only adds to the confusion and the rancor on both sides?

I don't have a good answer to those questions. Part of the problem is that the CCSSI doesn't have a very strong branding, trademark or copyright policy. But one thing that needs to be clear is this: The CCSS and Common Core, Inc., are two separate and independent entities. A state or school district can adopt the CCSS and not buy a single thing from Common Core, Inc.

More about Common Core, Number Lines and the "Frustrated Parent" Bullshit

Well, the Independent Journal Review has resurrected the story of the Frustrated Parent and the Common Core math problem. The writer, Caroline Schaeffer, writes the story as if this were new news, ignoring the fact that the story is already seven months old.

The IJReview has an axe to grind with Common Core, as this Google search illustrates. The problem is that all of the examples they cite are NOT examples from Common Core. They are straw men. We've been through this argument before: Common Core is not a curriculum; it's only a set of standards. The IJReview, like so many other CC opponents, ignores this fact. They build up their own straw men, knock them down, and say "See? Common Core is bad."

If the writers (and the editors) at the IJReview would read the real Common Core stuff at the official CC website, they would understand. A little research with an open mind can dispel an awful lot of ignorance.

But enough of that. Right now, I want you to remember way, way back to your grade-school and middle-school days. You were pretty good at learning all of that addition and subtraction stuff. Do you remember the kids in class who weren't all that good? They were labeled "dumb" or "slow." They ended up sitting in the back of the room. When they got frustrated and acted out, they were labeled "problems."

Education research has come a long way since you were that young. Since then, researchers have discovered that different children learn in different ways, which they call learning styles.  Students with a strong logical or mathematical learning style pick up the vertical method of subtraction (the way you do it) very easily. Students who are weak in this area, but who have a strong visual or spatial learning style, such as artists, or who have a strong physical or kinesthetic learning style, like dancers and athletes, may not understand the vertical method at first.

These visual and kinesthetic learners, however, will understand the number line immediately. They can use it as a crutch, or as training wheels on a bicycle, until they get the idea well enough to move on to the vertical method.

Or would you rather that teachers did NOT use all the tools at their disposal to help their students learn? Should we abandon this number-line method, as Frustrated Parent and all of  his fans loudly proclaim? Would you rather go back to the days when the dumb kids and the slow kids were relegated to the back of the room, where they could be safely ignored? God forbid we should allow our teachers to use the tools that might make them successful!

I recently had lunch with one of my former students, now 20 years old and a junior at college. Before she came into my 7th grade math class, she didn't like math. She was one of the "slow" and "dumb" ones. In my class, we used a number line and a marching Gummy Bear to learn about addition and subtraction — of both positive and negative numbers. She tells me that she remembers that lesson  (even though she no longer uses a number line). It was a turning point for her, and the confidence she gained from that one exercise changed her life. She ended up taking advanced math classes in high school, and she will be graduating from college with a minor in mathematics.

Her major is education. She wants to be a teacher.

One final note. If you think that it's simple and easy to teach the vertical method of subtraction to children, including the very difficult concept of borrowing, then you probably also think it's simple and easy to teach the vertical method of multiplication (also known as "long multiplication"), don't you? I know you do. I've seen some comments in the anti-Common-Core articles decrying the "box method" and other modern methods of teaching multiplication, and demanding that teachers teach it "the way we learned it."

So let's watch the Animaniacs demonstrate the simple and easy vertical method of multiplication — the way you learned it. Click here.




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fusion Energy: It May Actually Happen

Thirty years ago, fusion was going to be the clean-energy source that powered the future. Big names and big institutions were involved in fusion research. It eventually became clear that unlocking the power of fusion was not going to be an easy thing, nor was it going to be as economical as we were promised.

Fusion was a disappointment, and it disappeared from the public eye; however, it continued to be pursued quietly in laboratories, large and small, around the world. It only made the news when a crackpot would announce his crackpot "breakthrough" and everybody would get a good laugh out of it.

Well, one of those laboratories, where dedicated researchers simply kept hammering away at the problems of fusion, finally has some good news to report. Lockheed's famed Skunk Works, the birthplace of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, a bunch of other flying machines and the Sea Shadow stealth ship, has announced ... well, here's how a Reuters reporter puts it:

"Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade."

Thomas McGuire, the team leader, says they've been working on this fusion project for four years (only four years?!) and they can build and test a real reactor in less than a year, and have a working prototype sometime in the next five years.

Dayyum.

This is the Real Thing. And it's a compact design, too, not the stadium-sized Tokamaks that the big names were dreaming about.

After all the crackpots that have come and gone, this is something worth watching. The Skunk Works (officially known as Lockheed's Advanced Development Programs organization) is not known for its crackpottery. For its revolutionary designs and out-of-the-box thinking, yes. That was part of its original charter. For its solid science and engineering, applied in ways that would turn our perception of reality on its ear, definitely. For its nimble operations, for sure. And for its ability to keep its collective mouth shut and let the results speak for themselves ... well, other organizations (and individuals) could take lessons from the Skunk Works on this rare and precious skill.

Stay tuned. This is gonna get very interesting, very soon.

UPDATE: If you want to read a more detailed and technical article about the Skunk Works fusion reactor, here's an excellent article in Aviation Week and Space Technology.

Why cellular phone voice quality sucks, and what to do about it

I've always wondered why people are ditching their land lines and going to cellular phones. In my article "Telephones: Not Ready to Give Up my Land Line Yet", I gave four good reasons for keeping a landline. The fourth reason was sound quality.

Cellular service providers made a lot of compromises to sound quality in order to fit more channels, and hence more calls, into their networks. Those compromises degraded the quality of the sound to the point that it's become very frustrating to try to hold a decent conversation over a cell phone. Compounding the problem is the fact that the handset manufacturers have forgotten that a "smartphone" is supposed to be a telephone that does other stuff. Nowadays a "smartphone" is a palm-sized computer that also makes phone calls.

And the manufacturers have also built compromises into their hardware. The built-in speaker distorts the voice of the person on the other end. And the microphone, if it picks up your voice at all, also picks up a lot of background noise.

It doesn't have to be this way. You know those interviews on NPR, when the correspondent, sitting in the studio in Washington D.C. or Los Angeles, is having an interview with two people, one in Kabul and one in London, and it sounds like they're sitting right next to them? Yeah. Those are telephone connections, people.

Why are you settling for the tinny, fuzzy, static-filled, crap that comes out of your cellphone? A recent article in IEEE Spectrum tells why cellphone sound quality is so bad, and what can (and should) be done about it. The solutions are practical, and they are available today.

So why aren't we using them? I think it all boils down to money: the same reason that airlines are mashing seats closer together and making them more uncomfortable. It doesn't have to be this way. I'm not sure what to do about it, but I'll keep my landline until the day the phone companies get this mess figured out — and do something about it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Zyzmog's Fourth Law of Motion

In May 2012, I listed Zyzmog's Three Laws of Motion, and two corollaries to the Second Law of Motion. I have recently discovered a fourth Law of Motion, which is as important - vital, even - as the previous three. The fourth law can be written two different ways. The words are the same, but the word order changes subtly:

Zyzmog's Fourth Law of Motion:
You can only drive your car.
or
Only you can drive your car.


This Law has serious implications that extend beyond the simple act of driving a car, and into the more complicated act of living a life.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Why I moderate comments

Many blogs have a rather free-form comments policy. I chose from the beginning to moderate comments on this site. Here's why.

Sometimes comments are inflammatory, or attempt to derail the discussion and take it in a different direction, or are personal attacks on the author or one of the other commenters. That's not what this blog is for. This blog is meant to entertain, to make one think, and to give me, the author, someplace to vent. Once I got an anonymous comment chewing me out royally for saying how I felt about someone — for showing some emotion and expressing an opinion. Um, am I not allowed to have my own feelings or opinions? If that's what you think, then you can go eat rocks.

Many comments say things like "Love your site, glad to hear you talking about this," followed by a link to someone else's site. That linked site is always spam. The comment is basically unpaid advertising. If I were to allow these comments, then anytime someone looked at my blog, the linked-to site would get a boost in its ratings, and some Web users would think that the site was reliable or trustworthy because its link appeared on my blog. I don't want to be responsible for that, and I don't want to give spammers any assistance. So these ones automatically get the boot.

I have approved comments that disagree with something I've written, or provide an alternative viewpoint. I'm not at all afraid to do that.

Most people who discover my blog like what they see. They like to read what I have here. I want to keep it that way, for their benefit. As for the rest, well, nobody's forcing them to read this stuff.

UPDATE, AUGUST 28: I received a comment on this blog entry today. It was a spam comment.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I hate Microsoft's Click-to-Run.

For the record, I hate Click-to-Run.

I bought Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Student Edition two years ago. Taking advantage of the diskless download bargain prices, I bought just the product key and downloaded the bits, direct from Microsoft.

The thing ran fine, as far as I can tell, until this morning. This morning I really, really needed to type up some meeting agendas in a hurry. First, when I tried to open Word, it was very slow. It flashed a dialogue box at me that said something about Click-to-Run, which I didn't remember installing or activating, and the only option on the dialogue box was "OK". SO I clicked OK.

Once I was inside Word, every time I tried to do anything like open a recent file, or Save As ..., a message balloon appeared on the status bar, saying: "Microsoft Office is installing the required upgrades" and "Your office application may be unresponsive during this blahblah."

It turns out that Click-to-Run is meant for users on a broadband network, to get constant, unattended upgrades of their software. This is Microsoft taking control of my computer again. It makes no sense for a "Home and Student" computer to have this feature enabled by default. A corporate or office computer, perhaps, where a broadband connection can be assumed, but not home or student.

And there's no way to disable Click-to-Run. If you installed the software by clicking on the Download button, you've got it. The alternative to Click-to-Run is to install Office using the old-fashioned MSI installation package, and allow Office to inform you once it knows an upgrade is available. But Microsoft has very carefully hidden the MSI package so it's difficult to find.

I am following the instructions on http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/excel-help/click-to-run-switch-to-using-an-msi-based-office-edition-HA101850538.aspx to delete my Click-to-Run version, but the MSI version is not there, in spite of what the instructions say.

If this doesn't work, and if I can't find an MSI package, I'm ready to dump MS Office and go with LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Microsoft loses again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Things you don't have to do when you don't have a dog

When you don't have a dog:

You don't have to put the couch cushions up when you leave the dog alone in the house.
You don't have to cover the living room furniture with blankets to hide the shredded cushions.
You don't have to find chewed-up books and other important stuff around the house.
You don't have to go through the ordeal of potty-training the puppy.
You don't have to clean the dog poop that's been smeared on every square inch of the bathroom floor by a puppy that didn't want to be left all alone while the family went out to dinner.
You don't have to shut all the bedroom and bathroom doors, all the time.
You can throw your used Kleenex tissues in any trash can you want to, because there's no dog to fish them out and chew them up and swallow them.
You don't have to chase the dog off the couch, off your bed, and so on.

You don't have to vacuum up dog hair every week. (However, you will find it in the vacuum cleaner bag for several months after the dog is gone.)
You don't have to pick dog hair out of the food you're preparing.
You don't have to tell the dog to shut up whenever someone knocks on the door or rings the doorbell.
You don't have to tell the dog to shut up when the UPS or FedEx truck goes down the street.
You don't have to tell the dog to shut up in the middle of the night when his snoring and whimpering wake you up.
You don't have to go sleep on the couch because he won't stop snoring and whimpering even when you tell him repeatedly.
You don't have to open the front door carefully or shut it quickly to keep the dog from bolting.
You don't have to drive around the neighborhood on July 5, helping your children post "lost dog" signs because he ran away during the fireworks the night before.
You don't have to carry him into the house after Animal Control returns him to you three days later, with the pads of his feet worn away and bloody.
You don't have to go to court, plead guilty and pay a massive fine, because he bolted out the door and bit the mailman one day when you weren't even home.
You don't have to rent a P.O. box because the mailman won't deliver mail to your house as long as you still own the dog.
You don't have to fight the dog to see who goes through the doorway first.
You don't have to deal with his incessant begging for food from the table.
You don't have to deal with him scratching or licking himself inappropriately in front of guests.
You don't have to take him for walks in cold, wet or otherwise miserable weather.
You don't have to pick up his poop, put it in a bag, and dispose of it in your trash can where it can smell up the place until garbage day.
You don't have to clean up after him when he poops or pees on the carpet.
Or when he vomits on the carpet.
You don't have to protect him from rambunctious little children who tend to run over him.
You don't have to take him to the vet when he overdoses on jars of pills he pulled off the counter.
You don't have to yell "it serves you right" when he eats an entire batch of something off the counter while your back is turned, and he looks at you with pure misery in his eyes when you notice.
You don't have to trip over him in the dark when you get up in the middle of the night.
You don't have to endure his cold nose waking you rather abruptly in the morning.
You don't have to worry about running over him when you push out your chair after a meal.
You don't have to step over him or yell at him to move while you're preparing meals or cleaning up after meals.
You don't have to take him to a kennel when you're leaving on a long trip.
You don't have to pick him up from the kennel and endure his enthusiastic welcome-home affections when you return.
You don't have to take pictures of him frolicking in the snow like a puppy, in the winter.


You don't have to wish you had taken video of him running at full speed, pure beauty in motion, in the fields near your house.
You don't have to imagine the rabbits laughing with glee as he chases them up and down the street at 11 at night.
You don't have to take him for rides in the car, and think of how much like a little kid he is, in that back seat with the windows down.
You don't have to sit with him and comfort him during thunderstorms or fireworks shows.
You don't have to sit and scratch his head, his back, his belly or any other body parts while he snuggles up next to you during a movie.
You don't have to feel even the least bit guilty about leaving him at home alone, yet again.

You don't have to endure his joyful welcome when you're the first one to return home in the evening.
You don't have to call out his name and listen for the sound of his tags or his footsteps when you return home.
You don't have to fill his food or water dish every day.
You don't have to receive his thanks for filling his food or water dish every day.
You don't have to give him doggy treats and see the look of delight on his face.
You don't have to make him do tricks for doggy treats.
You don't have to see him smile when he's playful or happy.
You don't have to waste perfectly good bacon or ice cream on him, or see the doggy joy in his eyes when you do.
The same goes for waffles.
And steak.
And anything with cheese.
You don't have to deal with him snuggling up next to you, or lying on your feet, or lying next to your chair, or nuzzling up to you and fishing for affection.
You don't have to envy him snoozing in that patch of sunlight on the carpet.

You don't have to pretend that you don't like him when people are watching.
You don't have to watch him slow down as he gets older and arthritis sets in.
You don't have to give your money to a veterinarian as easily as you would give it to a pediatrician, if only the doctor can make him stop hurting and be healthy again.
You don't have to worry every time he lies down, that he might not be able to get back up.
You don't have to wonder if he's in constant pain and just being stoic about it, because he doesn't want his humans to worry about him.
You don't have to make that agonizing decision about letting him live in misery or putting him to sleep.
You don't have to hold him in your arms and love him while he takes his last breath.
You don't have to watch his lifeless eyes staring at you as you gently lower him into that hole in the ground.
You don't have to endure being eaten by mosquitos as they fill the hole with dirt, burying him once and for all.

You don't have to scratch his name into the dirt of his grave as a first, makeshift memorial.

You don't have to keep finding his possessions around the house for weeks after he's gone, and enduring the heart pains when you do.
You don't have to miss him when he's gone.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Manufacturing Outrage

Someone on Facebook pointed me to a political blog called IVN, written by a published author and retired professor named Michael Austin. His blog entries are balanced and well-written. If you perceive a bias in any of his articles, bear in mind that it's an opinion, and a logical and well-supported one at that. You may or may not agree with his opinion, but that is precisely why you need to read this article.

The July 11 article, "Manufacturing Outrage," points out how the continuum between agreement and disagreement no longer exists. If you don't like someone's viewpoint or behavior, you slip past all the socially-accepted degrees of disagreement and go straight to outrage. This causes serious problems, as he explains.

I wish everyone who goes into spasms of outrage at the slightest provocation would read this article. Because blogs occasionally disappear or become unavailable, I am reposting it here in its entirety, with Mr. Austin's permission.

Manufacturing Outrage

Here’s an interesting little fact: to the best of my ability to recall, I have never seen one of my conservative friends post anything on their Facebook feed by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Pat Robertson.

But my liberal friends post something outrageous by one of these commentators every day. When Ann Coulter wrote a column denouncing soccer as a symbol of America’s moral decline, I probably saw a hundred links to it. I forwarded it on myself.

But every single person who forwarded it did so with the intention of mocking it. A million people probably read Ann Coulter’s column that day just so they could laugh at what a Neanderthal she was. To my knowledge, nobody read it and agreed with her.

So Ann Coulter gets a million readers and makes a big pile of money so that liberals can smile smugly at their superiority, even as they drive another million readers to her site by forwarding her posts. Outrage, as it turns out, is kind of fun.

It’s fun for everyone, liberal and conservative alike. Though none of my conservative friends forward things by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, quite a few of them forward nearly everything that President Obama says or does or is rumored to have done—normally with a statement like “there he goes again.”

I read, dozens of times a day, descriptions of Obama as a “tyrant,” a “dictator,” a “communist,” a “traitor,” and, of course, “the worst president we have ever had.” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that he is merely a bad president, or even one in the bottom quartile. Come to think of it, I have never even heard him described as the “second worst president we have ever had.” Millard Fillmore and James Buchannan get a pass—outrage only works with superlatives.

And this pretty much sums up our political environment today: we are outraged. Everything is outrageous. Obama is outrageous. Benghazi is outrageous. The Tea Party is outrageous. Ann Coulter is outrageous. Immigration, health care, contraception, the Supreme Court, Russia, Israel, Egypt, and the World Cup—it’s all outrageous, and it all proves that things are worse than they have ever been.

I suspect that this narrative prevails on both sides of the aisle because we really do enjoy being outraged. It makes us feel smart and special, like we are actually doing something noble by reducing everything to the most vile proposition we can imagine and then getting outraged about it. If we feel especially noble, we will go out on the internet and call people stupid. That’ll show ‘em.

And, at the same time, the political parties know that outrage works. It gets people to the polls, and, more importantly, it convinces them to donate to politicians and their causes. Not many people will donate to defeat a “mediocre manager with left of center positions.” But make them believe that they are donating to defeat “the most liberal, tyrannical dictator in our nation’s history,” and they will take out a second mortgage to support you.

Actual political argument is hard, while recreational outrage is easy. As long as we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are participating meaningfully in the political process–when all we are really doing is stoking our own outrage and that of people who think exactly like we do–then we will be at the mercy of people who know how to use our outrage to their advantage and our intellectual sloth as a way to make sure that nothing significant ever changes.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Common Core opponents are irrational - and ignorant

Forgive me getting a little overheated about this.

Right now, it's fashionable to trash the Common Core State Standards Initiative - or Common Core, as it's more generally known. However, after having read a lot of anti-CC articles (and comments on articles) on the Web, I have reached an important conclusion. Two conclusions, as a matter of fact.

1. Common Core opponents are irrational.
2. Common Core opponents are ignorant.

To illustrate their irrationality, I will point you once again to "Frustrated Parent." He couldn't figure out his son's math problem, and so he and the entire world blamed it on Common Core. I looked at the math problem in question. It simply presented another way to learn subtraction. As I explained in my posting about it, there are many different ways to teach subtraction.

Common Core does not tell you how to teach subtraction, but it allows for all those different teaching strategies.

To underscore the irrationality, I have been following the comments in another article about CC. One of the commenters was bashing CC because, to quote his words as well as I can from memory, it doesn't allow for the fact that there are many different ways to teach a concept, and it requires that the concept be taught in one way. Um, (a) nothing could be further from the truth; and (b) this directly contradicts the underlying notion behind the math problem that "Frustrated Parent" was bawling about.

As for ignorance, when I say "ignorant" I mean "stubbornly unwilling to learn (more) about a subject." I've read lots of comments by people who are spouting off authoritatively about something they know nothing about, when the truth is freely available, and easy to read, at the Common Core State Standards website. All they have to do is look it up. But they prefer to go on blabbering ignorantly about what they perceive as Common Core and all its shortcomings, unencumbered by facts or the truth.

Why are college kids so intolerant? Part Two

I have noticed that stuff on the Internet doesn't really last forever. It lasts until the publisher, copyright holder, or server administrator decides it's time to get rid of it. The Wayback Machine helps, but I doubt it can capture everything. Therefore, I decided to copy Matt Bai's excellent column and paste it right here.

I don't know if I can claim "fair use" for such a blatant copy. But I will include a link to the original: http://news.yahoo.com/don-t-blame-college-kids-for-intolerance--blame-us-085916423.html . And I will rewrite this posting to reduce Mr. Bai's essay to a bunch of acceptable excerpts, if he or the Yahoo lawyers ask me to.

Here, then, are Mr. Bai's words on the subject.


Don't blame college kids for intolerance. Blame us.
By Matt Bai
May 22, 2014 4:59 AM
Yahoo News

America's college kids are back and resting at home this week, which is a good thing, because during the long months away they seem to have gone completely out of their minds.

Last weekend, The New York Times' Jennifer Medina reported on the latest bizarre demand on campus: "trigger warnings" to let students know if the text they're about to study will expose them to some version of misogyny or homophobia, so they aren't unexpectedly traumatized by visions of things that can never be unseen – like, say, every novel written by a white man before 1960. That followed the public floggings of several commencement speakers whose invitations had to be rescinded, including such evildoers as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

All of this has provoked a torrent of eloquent condemnation from pundits and academics, who worry that our elite universities, in the words of an editorial published in Monday’s Washington Post, are being "impoverished by intolerance." Which is a reasonable concern, except that it misses the point. It's not the students' fault that they expect to laze around in a world of ideological comfort. It's totally ours.

There's nothing new about the basic tension between speech and sensitivity on campus. When I was at Tufts in the late '80s, at the height of what we called political correctness, we argued fiercely about whether the military belonged on campus or whether certain faculty members were denied tenure because of their politics. But, by and large, we were primed to have the debate, not chill it.

We'd grown up with TV news that tried to get at complicated issues (Ted Koppel's "Nightline" was the single most influential news program of the era) and op-ed pages that crackled with competing arguments. I remember meeting William Colby, the former CIA director, at a symposium. A lot of us were disgusted by the role he had played in Vietnam, but it never occurred to us that he shouldn't speak or that his beliefs weren't at least defensible.

It was reasonable to hope, with the sudden explosion of what we called cyberspace a decade or so later, that this kind of exchange would become more commonplace and more enlightening, rather than less so. Only that's not what happened. Almost from the moment the first iteration of political blogs appeared, not long after the 2000 presidential election that exposed a deep cultural rift in America, like-minded activists began to wall themselves off from any version of reality they didn't like. They set about building ideological silos in the space where virtual town squares might have thrived.

Our political leaders and our media might have recognized the danger here and done their traditional duty, which was to ignore all the noise, and focus instead on explaining the complex realities of a country in social and technological transition. With some notable exceptions, that didn't happen, either. Instead, politics in the past 10 years has become a perennial contest of the already converted, a constant pursuit on either side of "base strategies" and data sets that tell you exactly which voters you need to turn out in order to get and hold power.

Those of us who cover and analyze the news – whose central purpose it is to challenge our own preconceptions about the world, and yours – haven't really performed much better, and I'm not just talking about the partisan rehashing on Fox News and MSNBC. Many of our most respected columnists and academics, too, occupy the predictable extremes, where they can always rely on the clicks of a comforted audience. They use a smokescreen of empiricism to prove to you, over and over again and without fail, that everything you already believe is borne out by some selective poll or study.

What's happened is that we've effectively left behind the Age of Persuasion and ushered in the Age of Confirmation. It sometimes seems the whole world exists to re-affirm our conceptions of it; you can get through days, even weeks, without being at all discomfited, if you know which sites to visit and which channels to watch.

This isn't confined to politics. We target self-help books and superhero movies at consumers whose habits we know, rather than do the hard work of trying to convince anyone to broaden their minds. (Did you like Sheryl Sandberg's book? Then you'll love Arianna Huffington's version, which is pretty much the same thing, right down to the catchphrase title and cover photo.) Log on to Amazon.com, the supermall of the confirmation culture, and you will instantly be introduced to all of the books, movies and songs that are exactly like all the others you've purchased recently.

We have more options and access to information than any society in human history, and less inclination to avail ourselves of it. Maybe we're just overwhelmed.

So tell me this: What exactly did we think the effect of all this was going to be on the generation after ours? Today's college senior was born around 1992 and developed a political awareness just as blogs and social media were bursting into the American consciousness. Did we really expect these kids to emerge from the moment with a sense of intellectual adventurism? Were they supposed to just know that the entire point of literature is to discomfort you with no warning at all?

Did we think the characteristic that F. Scott Fitzgerald cited as the hallmark of first-rate intelligence – "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain the ability to function" – didn't have to be taught by example?

Here's the good news. First, while the loudest students have been grabbing the attention lately, anyone who spends any time on campus these days (or who reads some of the better polling of the so-called millennial generation) can tell you that a lot of younger Americans appreciate that something is wrong with the way we talk to each other, or don't. They're distrustful of old political and media institutions and eager to build a more tolerant, less fragmented society than their parents have to this point. That's to their credit.

Second, it's worth remembering that for all the missed opportunity around us, we're still in the infancy of the Internet culture, a moment roughly analogous to where television was in 1960. Our instinct has been to retreat into safe communities online that reinforce our convictions and banish all doubt. But media evolves, and political dialogue with it, and I'm betting we will figure out how to hear alternate (and even odious) worldviews without need for a trigger warning.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of technology is long, and it bends toward enlightenment.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why are college students so intolerant? Why so closedminded?

It used to be that universities and colleges were intellectual greenhouses, where all sorts of ideas could be explored, and could grow and develop together - even opposing ideas. Now they seem instead to be intellectual concrete mills.

Normally, I don't find anything on Yahoo to be deep, well-written, or insightful. Also, normally, I find navel-gazing to be tedious and unproductive. Here's an opinion piece from Yahoo that is deep, well-written and insightful - also interesting and worthwhile.

It's a good read. It slaps down the narrowminded, shallow-thinking, intolerant individuals on both the extreme left and the extreme right. It frames the discussion by taking a look at the intolerance (what?!) manifested on college campuses today. It makes the intolerant students look like little kids with their fingers in their ears, chanting "Na na na na, I'm not listening, I'm not listening."

The scary part of the article is the thought that the closedminded individuals will grow up and run the country, and that they will marry and have children of their own. Let's hope that their children are more openminded than they are.

I'm not going to give Yahoo credit for this excellent piece of writing. Not yet. This is just one data point, and probably an aberration. I will, however, applaud the author, Matt Bai. I don't agree with everything he writes, but he's consistently thoughtful and well-written. Matt Bai is good; Yahoo is just lucky.

UPDATE: I was afraid of the article disappearing from Yahoo, so I reprinted it right here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This guy Evan is my hero

Soooo ... this guy, Evan? He's my new hero.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Common Core: the backlash against "Frustrated Parent"

Well, I'm not the only person who stood up in defense of Common Core, or who put "Frustrated Parent" in his place. The Huffington Post, which has admirably refused to jump on the anti-Common Core bandwagon,
published an article that I missed - way back around April 1 - quoting many of CC's defenders and calling out "Frustrated Father" for his lack of ... common sense? understanding? ability to follow directions? comprehension? The article also pointed out very clearly - yet again - the difference between Common Core and all the stuff being passed along by CC opponents and the popular media as "Common Core."

Actually, considering that my blog postings about "Frustrated Parent" and Common Core were published on March 26, and the HuffPo article was posted on March 28, it could be that they used my blog as uncredited source material. This is even more probable considering that the article says at the bottom, "This article has been updated."

I sort of jumped the gun (like, two months after the fact) and posted a comment to the article today without having read it completely. Shame on me. It's still a good article. I recommend it to you.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/28/viral-common-core-homework_n_5049829.html

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Donald Sterling's Rights Were Violated - No, Not Those Ones

In the recent Donald Sterling controversy, nearly everyone in the world (well, nearly everyone in the world who cares about it) has focused on the man's racist comments, and applauded the NBA for the way they rushed to judgement and punished the man.

But ALMOST NOBODY has raised a red flag about the invasion of this man's privacy that led to the airing of his racist comments. Sure, there's a right to free speech in this country, but there's also a right to privacy. This man's PRIVATE comments in a PRIVATE phone conversation were sold, without his knowledge or permission, to TMZ, who proceeded to broadcast them publicly.

I don't care how objectionable, racist, or misanthropic Sterling's remarks were. THEY WERE STILL PRIVATE.

Here's how two prominent black men weighed in on it: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/04/30/two-prominent-black-voices-offer-a-very-different-perspective-on-sterling-punishment-mob-rule-is-dangerous/

The great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of those men. The article in TheBlaze merely quotes from his guest editorial in Time magazine. The Time article is worth reading in full. In a nutshell, KAJ slaps YOU, the reading and reacting public, around for two very good reasons:

1. Sterling's racist actions have been going on for years, and they've been a lot more public, and a lot more damaging than this recorded-and-leaked private conversation. People were actually being hurt in 2006 and 2009. It was in all the papers. To quote the man: "What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?"

2. Recording and then publishing that conversation was, indeed, illegal. If we allow that act to go unpunished, then in the future none of us should expect anything we say to anybody to remain private and confidential. And didn't we just all get up in arms about the NSA snooping on our telephone and email conversations? Again, in his words: "I hope whoever made this illegal tape is sent to prison."

KAJ summarizes it beautifully when he says: "So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. "

Edit: And here's a lawyer's opinion on it. The lawyer also says that Sterling's rights were violated. Moreover, says the lawyer, the recording, sale and publicizing of Sterling's private conversation, without his knowledge and permission, was illegal. He does a good job of pointing out the danger to all the rest of us if leaks like this are allowed to go unpunished - in other words, he says, Sterling may have deserved his punishment, but Stiviano should have been pilloried as well. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/30/opinion/randazza-sterling-privacy/

Sidenote #1: Many people misinterpret this "right to free speech." The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ..." They think it means that you can say anything that you want, anywhere. That's not what it means. Objectionable speech still has consequences. Your employer can fire you; your coach can kick you off the team; your club can kick you out; your school can suspend or expel you. Get it? "CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW," but everybody else can make rules.

Sidenote #2: The "right to privacy," according to Wikipedia, although not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights, is recognized by most states and includes protection against "Intrusion ... into private affairs" and "Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts." This also gets into ambiguous areas, because again it seems to be talking more about governmental violations of the right, and not personal violations. However, recent court cases have upheld the privacy rights of individuals who have been wronged by individuals and corporate entities.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Windows XP discontinuance - AP's view

Here's what the Associated Press (specifically Bree Fowler, a particularly savvy reporter) has to say about "the end of Windows XP ." If the AP complains about my requoting their article in its entirety, I will edit this posting to simply provide excerpts. However, since AP articles don't last as long as this blog does, I'm going to claim "fair use" or "archival purposes" or something. And I'll provide a reference to the original article: http://news.yahoo.com/end-windows-xp-support-spells-trouble-192945132--finance.html

I particularly liked Ms. Fowler's description of Windows XP as "persistently popular," and the remark from one user, who summed up his alternatives this way: "I am worried about security threats, but I'd rather have my identity stolen than put up with Windows 8." That sounds an awfully lot like "I'd rather have my fingernals ripped out with a pair of pliers ..." :-)



AP article begins here

End of Windows XP Support Spells Trouble for some
by Bree Fowler

NEW YORK (AP) — Microsoft will end support for the persistently popular Windows XP on Tuesday, and the move could put everything from the operations of heavy industry to the identities of everyday people in danger.

"What once was considered low-hanging fruit by hackers now has a big neon bull's eye on it," says Patrick Thomas, a security consultant at the San Jose, Calif.-based firm Neohapsis.

Microsoft has released a handful of Windows operating systems since 2001, but XP's popularity and the durability of the computers it was installed on kept it around longer than expected. Analysts say that if a PC is more than five years old, chances are it's running XP.

While users can still run XP after Tuesday, Microsoft says it will no longer provide security updates, issue fixes to non-security related problems or offer online technical content updates. The company is discontinuing XP to focus on maintaining its newer operating systems, the core programs that run personal computers.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company says it will provide anti-malware-related updates through July 14, 2015, but warns that the tweaks could be of limited help on an outdated operating system.

Most industry experts say they recognize that the time for Microsoft to end support for such a dated system has come, but the move poses both security and operational risks for the remaining users. In addition to home computers, XP is used to run everything from water treatment facilities and power plants to small businesses like doctor's offices.

Thomas says XP appealed to a wide variety of people and businesses that saw it as a reliable workhorse and many chose to stick with it instead of upgrading to Windows Vista, Windows 7 or 8.

Thomas notes that companies generally resist change because they don't like risk. As a result, businesses most likely to still be using XP include banks and financial services companies, along with health care providers. He also pointed to schools from the university level down, saying that they often don't have enough money to fund equipment upgrades.

Marcin Kleczynski, CEO of Malwarebytes, says that without patches to fix bugs in the software XP PCs will be prone to freezing up and crashing, while the absence of updated security related protections make the computers susceptible to hackers.

He added that future security patches released for Microsoft's newer systems will serve as a way for hackers to reverse engineer ways to breach now-unprotected Windows XP computers.

"It's going to be interesting to say the least," he says. "There are plenty of black hats out there that are looking for the first vulnerability and will be looking at Windows 7 and 8 to find those vulnerabilities. And if you're able to find a vulnerability in XP, it's pretty much a silver key."

Those weaknesses can affect businesses both large and small.

Mark Bernardo, general manager of automation software at General Electric Co.'s Intelligent Platforms division, says moving to a new operating system can be extremely complicated and expensive for industrial companies. Bernardo, whose GE division offers advisory services for upgrading from XP, says many of the unit's customers fall into the fields of water and waste water, along with oil and gas.

"Even if their sole network is completely sealed off from attack, there are still operational issues to deal with," he says.

Meanwhile, many small businesses are put off by the hefty cost of upgrading or just aren't focused on their IT needs. Although a consumer can buy an entry-level PC for a few hundred dollars, a computer powerful enough for business use may run $1,000 or more after adding the necessary software.

Barry Maher, a salesperson trainer and motivational speaker based in Corona, Calif., says his IT consultant warned him about the end of XP support last year. But he was so busy with other things that he didn't start actively looking for a new computer until a few weeks ago.

"This probably hasn't been as high a priority as it should have been," he says.

He got his current PC just before Microsoft released Vista in 2007. He never bought another PC because, "As long as the machine is doing what I want it to do, and running the software I need to run, I would never change it."

Mark McCreary, a Philadelphia-based attorney with the firm Fox Rothschild LLP, says small businesses could be among the most effected by the end of support, because they don't have the same kinds of firewalls and in-house IT departments that larger companies possess. And if they don't upgrade and something bad happens, they could face lawsuits from customers.

But he says he doesn't expect the wide-spread malware attacks and disasters that others are predicting — at least for a while.

"It's not that you blow it off and wait another seven years, but it's not like everything is going to explode on April 8 either," he says.

McCreary points to Microsoft's plans to keep providing malware-related updates for well over a year, adding that he doubts hackers are actually saving up their malware attacks for the day support ends.

But Sam Glines, CEO of Norse, a threat-detection firm with major offices in St. Louis and Silicon Valley, disagrees. He believes hackers have been watching potential targets for some time now.

"There's a gearing up on the part of the dark side to take advantage of this end of support," Glines says.

He worries most about doctors like his father and others the health care industry, who may be very smart people, but just aren't focused on technology. He notes that health care-related information is 10 to 20 times more valuable on the black market than financial information, because it can be used to create fraudulent medical claims and illegally obtain prescription drugs, making doctor's offices tempting targets.

Meanwhile, without updates from Microsoft, regular people who currently use XP at home need to be extra careful.

Mike Eldridge, 39, of Spring Lake, Mich., says that since his computer is currently on its last legs, he's going to cross his fingers and hope for the best until it finally dies.

"I am worried about security threats, but I'd rather have my identity stolen than put up with Windows 8," he says.

___

AP Business Writer Joyce M. Rosenberg in New York contributed to this report.

___

Follow Bree Fowler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBreeFowler

Windows is dead. Long live Windows.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the impending death of Windows XP, arguably the best version of Windows we have seen yet. Well, today is the day that Microsoft pulls the plug on XP. Here is Microsoft's official announcement.

(I'm writing this on a Windows 7 computer. Windows 7 is a worthy successor to XP, and in many ways it improves on the XP, ahem, experience. But if Windows 7 is so good, then why does it have a "compatibiity mode" to enable it to run WinXP programs, and why did / does Microsoft have an official "downgrade path" for those who wished / wish to downgrade from Win7 to XP? Yeah. That's right.)

No matter how much you loved WinXP and want to keep it, it is now vital - critical - for you to switch to a modern operating system. With the end of official support, WinXP will become increasingly vulnerable to hacks and malicious programming. You need to protect yourself by switching to Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac OS X, or a recent flavor of Linux.

It's always tough to see an old workhorse retired, especially when there's so much work left in it. Windows XP wasn't perfect, and it was plagued with security holes its entire life, but it was the best operating system Microsoft came out with - better than any Windows OS before it, and better than any Windows OS that came after it for almost ten years. We bid Windows XP a fond farewell, and we park it next to the Big Boy locomotive, the Willys Jeep, the A-10 Warthog and so many other inventions that went obsolete long before they wore out or stopped being useful.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Common Core: It's Not Really as Hard as You're Making It

I'm afraid that, in this Common Core debate, the voices of reason (and the voices of the teachers, bless 'em) are getting drowned out by all the yelling and screaming. Adjectives like "shrill" and "irrational" to describe some of CC's vocal opponents come immediately to mind, followed closely by "stupid" and "morons," and then devolving into words not suitable for a G-rated blog.

Here's another attempt to inject some calm and rational input into the debate. A commenter to an article on Yahoo! Shine, an actual teacher, has this to say about Common Core:

Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum. I teach common core without a specific textbook or program. I look at the standard such as 7th grade geometry: 7/G.A.1 Solve problems involving scale drawings of geometric figures, including computing actual lengths and areas from a scale drawing and reproducing a scale drawing at a different scale. I find examples of the problem and worksheets to support practice. Then I assess as needed that the student has mastered the skill. The worksheets people refer to are from a private publishing company that has sold the school a new program. If you don't like the program your school purchased, let them know. Common Core hasn't changed the way I teach, it's just a different standard.

Unfortunately, her words will not be heard. They make too much sense, they do not convey an extreme emotion, nor do they convey an extreme viewpoint. In the long run, the bullies and the reactionaries will take down Common Core, just like they're doing with the rest of society's useful institutions. In the end, the Common Core standards will be subscribed to by a small group of exceptional schools who quietly turn out exceptional scholars, while the rest of society wrings their hands about the decay in public education, never realizing that they have brought it upon themselves.

Note: This posting is a follow-on to my previous posting  on the topic. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Common Core: Getting past the bullshit and the myths

(Please forgive me. I don't use profanity very much. But this time it was truly needed.)

I'm getting fed up with all the attacks on the Common Core State Standards Initiative (abbreviated herein as "Common Core," or "CC"). It seems like the anti-CC folks, and the anti-CC arguments, come from people who have no idea what they're talking about.

Some people misunderstand one piece of CC, draw an erroneous conclusion, and trumpet their conclusion as proof that CC is bad. An example of this is the myth that "CC will let a student say that 3x4=11 and get away with it, if his reasoning is good enough." I dare any of you to find the text in official CC documents that supports that statement. There isn't any. It's a myth - or, to put it more baldly, IT'S A LIE. It gains credibility through retelling, but it's still false.

Some people hear an anecdote about a bad experience somebody had with CC, and they repeat the anecdote. They tweet it; they put it on Facebook; they put it on their blogs and again, through repetition, the anecdote acquires enough credibility to be a powerful (but bogus) argument against CC. These bad experiences are usually based on a misunderstanding. One example of this is the recent story of Jeff Severt, the "Frustrated Parent" who couldn't understand his child's CC math worksheet and got his 15 minutes of fame by crafting a snotty response to the question on the worksheet. As I have shown in a previous post, the guy proved that, even with an engineering degree, he couldn't grasp an elementary mathematical concept and couldn't read or follow directions.

MOREOVER (and I added this on April 7 and put it in italics), a lot of people's complaints are not about the CC standards, but about curricula (that's a fancy word for "lesson plans") developed by textbook companies and sold to school districts, curricula which claim to be compliant with CC. If you don't like the curriculum, then complain about the curriculum, not the standards. Despite what you may think, THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

Some of you may take the lazy way out and say, "But the curriculum is written to comply with the standards; therefore the standards must dictate the way the curriculum is laid out." That's some kind of logical fallacy. I don't know how to label it, but only intellectually lazy people would believe something like that.

My question to my readers is this: with all the resources available from the CC initiative itself, why are you relying on distorted opinions and anecdotes about stupid people, to form and to reinforce your negative opinions about Common Core? Why don't you bypass all the bullshit and go directly to the source?

And Now, A History Lesson:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was started in 2009. It was a collaborative effort between state governors, school administrators, teachers and yes, those nasty old teachers' unions. The federal government was not a part of it back then - and the federal government is still not a part of it. Okay, I can hear you sputtering with exasperation back there. Hold onto your horses, okay? We'll talk about the feds in a minute.

Before CC came about, departments in individual schools tried to come up with a common set of goals or standards, to ensure that all the students in their school learned the same stuff. It was a collaborative effort, driven by teachers.

Then teachers at many different schools in the district realized they were all working on the same thing, so they collaborated to create district-wide standards. Their efforts were usually coordinated by a curriculum chair at the district level. This was not a bad thing. Don't get your shorts in a bunch.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind, state boards of education were responsible for coming up with a set of common statewide standards, against which all students could be evaluated. Whether you like NCLB or not (I don't), it doesn't matter. NCLB led to the creation of state standards, and the districts hustled to conform, because statewide standardized testing was next. The state BOEs (well, the smart ones) relied on the work that had already been done by the teachers in the school districts in their states.

In the field of mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recognized the major effort that these teachers were making, and so NCTM surveyed the teachers and developed a uniform nationwide set of standards for mathematics in all grades. I imagine that similar movements were happening in other subjects.

So in 2009, a bunch of governors and school district administrators had the bright idea to codify these efforts, and define a core of knowledge, the bare minimum standards that American students should learn. This core would be the same in all participating states or districts; hence it would be known as the Common Core, and the standards as the Common Core State Standards.

NOW, ALL YOU ANTI-COMMON-CORE LOUDMOUTHS: Notice that the CC standards were driven by the teachers - the ones doing the teaching - and fostered by the governors of some of the states in the Union. Not all of them.

Like all good things, the federal government got wind of CC, and they messed with it. They screwed it up. They didn't change the content of CC, but they took what should have been a teaching tool, to be handled delicately by skilled practitioners, and turned it into a club, to be wielded by clumsy politicians and inept bureaucrats. They made threats like, "If you don't adopt CC in your school, or district, or state, we will withhold federal education funding." You can blame it on the Obama administration if you want to. You won't be very far off. I wouldn't say it was Obama's doing, but the few times I've heard him speak about Common Core, it was obvious that he didn't understand CC any better than the anti-CC forces did.

A Special Message for You Mormons

The Mormon church has had to endure a lot of bad press in its 180-plus years of existence. It seems like the same lies, half-truths, and innuendo keep getting repeated over and over, in spite of the church's (and its adherents') attempts at rebuttal. In addition, it seems like everybody knows a friend of a friend who has a scare story about a Mormon, illustrating just how evil, terrible and bad the Mormons are.

Now, all of you Mormons know that the lies are just lies. You know that the anecdotal Mormons are either extreme fabrications or aberrations. Don't you wish that people would find out the truth about the Mormons by talking to a Mormon? or by reading the official Mormon website or something? Doesn't it really frost your cookies when people try to find out about the Mormons from somebody other than a Mormon, and they end up getting it all wrong?

So why the hell are you doing the same thing with Common Core? If you want to know the truth about Common Core, then go to the Common Core website. Read everything the creators have to say. Don't rely on CC's opponents to tell you the truth. Read the actual standards themselves, not somebody's interpretation of them. Use your own brain; don't borrow somebody else's.

Finally, a Message for Everybody

The Common Core standards were developed by teachers, for teachers. It was, and remains, a grassroots effort, with the students' best interests in mind. Although CCSSI itself was launched only four years ago, the groundwork for it was laid years before - by teachers.

This isn't something that was thought up by politicians, bureaucrats, administrators or union bosses. It came from the teachers themselves, because they cared about their students.

Don't believe the negative stuff in the press. If it's not outright lies, then it's distortions and innuendo. Even the anecdotes are suspect, as I've shown in the case of Jeff Severt. If you look behind the stories, you will see that they're based on misunderstanding, and sometimes on stupidity.

Finally, and I can't stress this enough: read the standards yourself. Go to the Common Core website and read them. Understand them. Make up your own mind. Use your own brain; don't borrow somebody else's.

Final final note: My wife says I'm ranting. Yes, I certainly am.

Update, April 7: I found a great explanation of the difference between Common Core standards and Common Core curriculum. I quoted it in my latest posting. Click here to read it. 

Dear "Frustrated Father": Stop acting like an idiot.

The Internet is all atwitter this week about a "Frustrated Parent" (Jeff Severt, by name) who couldn't figure out "his son's Common Core math assignment" (I put that in quotation marks, because that's what a journalist wrote, and journalists are not always accurate in their reporting. (Imagine that!)).

The father's version of the homework first appeared on a conservative Facebook page called The Patriot Post. It was picked up by TheBlaze, who published a breathless article about it. That article caught Glen Beck's eye, and he did an interview with the father. From there, it went viral. For example, Yahoo has been hooting about it for days.

So what was the homework assignment? Here's the photo that was posted on Facebook. (FB lawyers: I claim "fair use." Get away from me.)



There are a number of things that are just plain wrong with Mr. Severt's response. I don't know where to start. Let's start at the beginning.

1. He didn't read the instructions. The problem says, "Write a letter to Jack, telling him what he did right, and how to fix his mistake." Mr. Severt responds that 427 minus 316 is obviously 111, and that he could figure it out in under five seconds. Well, that's great, Jeffy, but that's not what the teacher was asking for. The fictional kid got 121 for his answer. What did he do right, and more importantly, what did he do wrong and how should he fix it? An engineer should be able to figure that out. (I'll tell you below.)

2. Mr. Severt, who is so proud of his Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering, who can do differential equations, and who (I assume) can read both an electrical schematic and an oscilloscope waveform, is unable to figure out a simple number line. I glanced at the diagram and figured out the problem almost instantly - in less than a second, anyway. (Wanna know the answer? Keep reading.)

For your information, Mr. Severt, we lose a lot of kids in K-12 when we try to teach them to do subtraction via the vertical method. Many students, like you and me, did just fine learning math that way. But a significant number of students are visual learners, some are kinesthetic learners, and some have dyslexia. For these students, it really, really, REALLY helps for them to use a number line to figure out the mechanics of subtraction. We teach them how to add and subtract on a number line, and then we show them how the number-line method corresponds to the vertical method. Eventually they have an "a-hah!" moment where it all makes sense, and then they can leave the number line behind.

It's like training wheels on a bicycle.

Or do you want an example from your Electrical Engineering curriculum? Let's talk about calculus. Do you remember L'Hôpital's Rule? Limits? Do you use those in your EE job? Well, you do calculus, right? When's the last time you actually had to use L'Hôpital's Rule? You spent a whole unit on it in Calc 1. It was on the midterm and on the final. Learning and understanding L'Hôpital's Rule was fundamental to understanding differentiation, and integration after that. That is analogous to teaching subtraction on the number line.

Five years before Common Core came about, I was teaching my seventh grade math students how to add and subtract positive and negative numbers, using a number line. It works.

3. "In the real world, simplification is valued over complication." Mr. Severt, I dare you to try to teach a second-grader about three-digit vertical subtraction, your way. Your explanation will be much more complicated, and less understandable by the majority of your students, than the number line.

4. About the number line, Mr. Severt says "The process is ridiculous and would result in termination if used." This is both arrogant and disingenuous. You know what? It's also a stupid thing to say. As I have shown above, the number line is a K-12 teaching tool, not a professional-level algorithm.

5. I will assert, with no data to back me up, that most of the anti-Common Core crowd are just repeating claims they've heard (like the silly "It's okay to say 3 x 4 = 11" claim) and anecdotes like this "Frustrated Father" one, and that none of these parrots have actually read the Common Core standards. If you think I'm talking about you, then, Dear Reader, you're probably right. GO READ THEM FROM THE SOURCE. What you are arguing against is not Common Core.

I think that this point, the point about learning about CC from the source, deserves another blog entry. Read it here.

6. For those of you still reading this, here's the answer. It takes longer to explain it than it does to comprehend it. To solve 427-316 on a number line, you start at 427. Take three 100-sized jumps to the left, one 10-sized jump to the left, and six single jumps to the left. You will end up at 111. The fictional Jack forgot the 10-sized jump and that's how he ended up at 121.

You're welcome.

(UPDATE! The Huffington Post published about this, two days after I did. Read their article here, and my observations about it here.)

(ANOTHER UPDATE! Seven months later, the Independent Journal Review has picked up on this, and published an article about it as if it were brand new. Seven months! Clearly, they're a little slow on the uptake. They also have problems reading for comprehension. Read their article here, and my further thoughts on the matter here. Too many people have forgotten the "slow" kids in their grade-school math classes.)