Thursday various

  • Oregon allowing spell-check on written school exams? I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, and I didn’t have the kind of knee-jerk reaction I might be expected to as an English major, writer, and editor. I think spelling is important, but not always critically so, especially on exams where spelling is secondary to whatever is being tested. I think spelling is less important, for instance, than reading comprehension and overall communication skills. Many great writers have been notoriously bad spellers; and outside of a spelling bee, crossword puzzles, and certain game shows, success in life rarely hinges on knowing when it’s “i before e” or the opposite.

    At the same time, spelling is important. An over-reliance on spell-check can lead to laziness, and not knowing how to spell can impede communication. Spell-check is far from perfect — their, there, or they’re, anyone? — and a poor substitute for really understanding why words are spelled a certain way. Further, many of the standardized tests these students will later encounter — like, for instance, the SAT — will not allow them use of a spell-check.

    I think, if the Oregon Department of Education really wants to help its students, it won’t just allow them to ignore spelling altogether. It will allow its teachers to grade spelling more effectively, more fairly; it will design standardized tests that weigh other, perhaps more important, factors, and look at spelling in a broader context. [via]

  • First they came for the ignorant news pundits and I stayed silent… Glenn Beck is quite fond of quoting Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the rise of fascism in Germany. (As well as of crazy-as-all-bugfuck conspiracy theories.) It’s quite telling which parts of the poem he always leaves out. [via]
  • Dubai’s archipelago of luxury islands, already something of a financial disaster, is sinking into the sea. [via]
  • Robotic ghost knifefish is born. Somebody should totally start a band with that name. [via]
  • And finally, Zack Handlen remembers Indecent Proposal:

    Yeah, the movie where Robert Redford turned Woody Harrelson into a pimp and Demi Moore into a, ahem, lady of the evening. It was a ridiculous movie, all slick visuals with no real soul or character, but the concept was so intriguing that it didn’t need to be good to be successful. Everyone was just so fascinated by the moral question at the heart of the story that everything else was just gravy. Stupid, stupid gravy.

    It’s all in the context of a Star Trek: The Next Generation review, naturally.

I’ll Fly Away

This past weekend was the busiest air travel weekend in the United States, because of the Thanksgiving holidays, and there’s been a lot of talk about the new security procedures put in place by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Here’s a round-up of some links, along with some thoughts on the whole mess. Mostly, I’m just glad I didn’t have to fly this weekend.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of Stacey Armato, a woman who was held captive by the TSA as revenge for her complaint against them? [via] I recommend you watch the entire video and read the commentary, although it mostly just served to make me angry.

Some have rushed to say that breast milk isn’t affected by these low-level x-rays, that the scans employed at airports don’t pose a health risk to the child who will eventually drink the milk, and that Armato had no cause to require the alternate screening. That may very well be, but it’s not the issue. The issue is, the TSA has made breast milk an exception, along with other “medication and related supplies” and done so in their publicly available guidelines for travelers. But when a woman asked them politely to abide by those guidelines, which she had printed out for them, they refused. When she insisted, they elected to exact revenge on her the next time she came through their security checkpoint, by again refusing, by threatening to have her arrested, and then by using intimidation tactics until she missed her flight. This may be an isolated incident, more mismanagement at the Phoenix airport than a systemic problem in the TSA. But it is indicative of the general attitude apparent in the TSA, the disregard or unfamiliarity their day-to-day employees have with their own organizations’ guidelines, and the general “do as you’re told or you’ll be lucky if all that happens is you miss your flight” mentality that guides them, with little if any genuine oversight.

Some people have also rushed to say, “hey, the TSA has never been anything but professional to me…” Which has to be one of the worst arguments ever. It proves only just that, and nothing else. I haven’t seen widespread abuse, so widespread abuse must not exist. I don’t have a problem with the new security measures, so everyone else must be over-reacting. Just because a small percentage of TSA workers have been nice to me, and they’re only doing a job, that does not mean they should be given carte blanche to do whatever they want.

In linking to that piece by Michael Kinsley, Mark Evanier writes:

I’ve long assumed that the reason they search old ladies and folks in wheelchairs and nine-year-old girls is that they think while those folks are surely not terrorists, some terrorist might have the idea to hide or plant a weapon on one of those folks, then reclaim it once they’re past the security checkpoint. It’s not that they think Grandma will knowingly have a gun in her purse but that it wouldn’t be that hard for someone else to stash one in there when she wasn’t looking.

Whereas I think it’s more likely they check little old ladies and people with children more often simply because those people are less likely to make a fuss.

Roger Ebert also acknowledges most of the TSA workers we see at airports are just average folks, looking for “a good job in these hard times of high unemployment.” They’re not evil. But that doesn’t mean we don’t ever draw the line at what they’re allowed to do:

Are we doomed to submit to humiliation every time we fly? Perhaps you can argue that the terrorists have won a victory just because of the cost and nuisance of airport security. Not exactly. They have generated vast numbers of jobs for security agents, and inspired millions of dollars in contracts for scanning machines and so forth. Indeed companies have spent frtunes to lobby for their machines to be required. One of the big supporters of scanners is Michael Chertoff. Under his face on the news it always says, “Former U.S. Homeland Security chief.” It should say, “Board Member of Companies Selling Scanners.”

I’d like to think, like Christopher Bellavita seems to want to, that all of this grumbling about the TSA, its new full-body scans and invasive pat-downs, was building to something, that it really does mark “the beginning of the end of complacency.” Because I agree with Bellavita that:

[i]t is now apparent to me that in the haste to ensure compliance with procedures that are inconsistent if not inarticulable, TSA has hastened the likelihood of failure. If we do not insist that TSA work to create articulable policies that make sense, procedures that are explicit and consistent and training that supports both, then we are complicit in what will inevitably be an ultimate compromise of TSA.

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a collapse of public support. Either or both are inevitable. Either or both are preventable. [via]

But I’m not so sure. The TSA has already exempted politicians from the new procedures, and President Obama is again displaying an unfortunate lack of spine when it comes to this and other important issues. It’s one thing to “understand our frustrations,” and I certainly don’t expect nothing to be done to ensure airport security. But the TSA isn’t doing that; it’s engaging in security theater and intimidation and sometimes borderline criminal activity, and that’s not just frustration at long lines and having to take our shoes off talking, Mr. President.

Maybe you’re wondering: has the TSA ever caught a terrorist? The short answer is: almost certainly not. [via]

At least Jet Blue hasn’t hired Steven Slater back.

Tuesday various

  • Paul, the World Cup predicting octopus, has gone to the great octopus’ garden in the sky.
  • Sony will stop manufacturing the Walkman. In other news, Sony was still manufacturing the Walkman. [via]
  • Further proof that science fiction is more about the time it was created than about the future: 5 Things ‘Back to the Future’ Tells Us About the Past. [via]
  • Meanwhile, Realms of Fantasy closes shop. Again, and this time it looks like for good. I’m really disappointed by this news, not least of all because I subscribed in their recent save-the-magazine effort. It raises questions about the viability of print magazines in general, which, as somebody who puts together a twice-yearly zine, is something I’m quite interested in. Realms was a good genre magazine, and I’ll be sorry to see it go.
  • And finally, kind of weirdly tying all of this together in a way: The Space Squid Cuneiform Clay Tablet.

    Of course, it’s not a real squid…and a squid isn’t the same thing as an octopus anyway…but there’s something fascinating about a zine (Space Squid) “printing one of their issues on the ultimate form of Dead Media: inscribed in cuneiform on a baked clay tablet.” Maybe that’s what Realms needed to do. Maybe that’s what I should do with Kaleidotrope. It’s a funny and clever stunt if nothing else. [via]

Monday various

  • Today is the first day of the online raffle in support of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series. There are lot of excellent prizes, from signed first drafts and story critiques to used keyboards (Neil Gaiman’s) and Tuckerizations galore, all for the cost of $1 each. I’ve not yet actually made it to a KGB reading myself — they’ve either conflicted with my schedule or I’ve been a little intimidated about going to one by myself — but I understand they put together a really great series. The raffle runs until October 25.
  • Today is also Columbus Day. (In America. Some people insist on claiming it’s Thanksgiving elsewhere.) After reading this article about the real Columbus, you may be wishing it wasn’t.
  • You know, there may very well be lots of edible mushrooms in NYC, but I think I’ll pass.
  • I was sure this was an Onion headline when I first saw it: Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic. But no, not in the least:

    The self-driving car initiative is an example of Google’s willingness to gamble on technology that may not pay off for years, Dr. Thrun said. Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away. [via]

  • And finally, I find the final word in today’s Writer’s Almanac just a little odd:

    It was on this day in 1975 that Saturday Night Live premiered….There was a fake advertisement for triple-blade razors, a product obviously considered ridiculous by comedians in 1975, just after the two-blade razor came out—the faux commercial ended, “Because you’ll believe anything.” These days, there are many more blades on razors—in 2006, Schickette announced plans for a nine-bladed razor—and Saturday Night Live is now in its 35th season.

Wednesday various

  • Six degrees of literary separation? [via]
  • If nothing else, I think this elaborte fake ATM is proof that you don’t need a carefully designed forgery to fool a lot of people. [via]
  • The Cracked Guide to Fonts [via]
  • You know, I’m sure Tin House‘s heart was in the right place with this prove you bought a book somewhere before you submit anything policy, but it’s not hard to see why it’s upset some people.
  • And finally, an interview with Michael Palin:

    I’m very proud of the fish-slapping dance we did in Python. We rehearsed this silly dance where John Cleese hits me with a fish and I fall into Teddington Lock. We were so intent on getting the dance right that I didn’t notice the lock had cleared and instead of it being a 2ft drop into the water it was a 15ft drop. I’m very proud of doing that.

    The rest of the interview is pretty interesting too — he didn’t think A Fish Called Wanda was a good script when he first read it — although residents of his “worst place ever,” Prince George, British Columbia, might not love it.