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Archive for October, 2005


Happy Hallowe’en!

Monday, October 31st, 2005

I have very happy memories of Hallowe’en as a kid. There was the time my brother Ian dressed as George Washington, with a white wig composed of rolls of surgical cotton (it rained that night, with predictable results). Mom always used to bake these jack-o-lantern decorated ground beef, velveeta cheese, english muffin thingos. Mom was also very handy with a sewing machine, so I got to wear cool skeleton costumes and such. We lived in a big, hilly neighborhood with lots of kids, so you could score some serious loot trick-or-treating, if you had the endurance.

I was born in 1971 so, when the Tylenol poisonings occurred in 1982, my best trick-or-treating years were already behind me. According to Barbara Mikkelson over at snopes.com that was the year when, on a large scale, fear won out over common sense. Sure, stories had already been around for decades about apples with razor blades in them, and poisoned candy. One parent deliberately poisoned his child, then blamed it on candy acquired trick-or-treating. In another case, a kid died after eating his uncle’s heroin, and the family tried to cover it up by sprinkling some heroin on the child’s Hallowe’en candy. Each of these, while tragic, turned out not to be the work of a malicious stranger, but a family member. Hoaxes.

With the vast majority of the other 90 or so incidents reported in the last 50 year, it was determined that the children had tampered with their own candy, then presented it to their parents. Whether done as a prank or for attention, these incidents are also hoaxes. Over the same period, there have been a handful of actual cases where someone put pins or needles in Hallowe’en candy and then gave it away. The most significant injury sustained required a couple of stitches.

So, the chances of your kid coming to harm from candy that a random madman has tampered with is virtually non-existent. The probability of a child getting hit by some idiot in a Suburban on Hallowe’en night is far, far greater. Yet, tonight, thousands of parents will go to their area hospital or sheriff’s office and have their kids’ candy x-rayed. It’s natural for parents to be protective of their kids, but this is an example of people being lousy at understanding threat vs. risk, then responding appropriately. Bruce Schneier writes about this kind of assessment in Beyond Fear.

In our example, candy which has been tampered with is the threat. The impact of the threat if it occurs ranges from minor (needle) to deadly (poison). The risk (probability) of the threat occurring is very, very low. The response to the threat is to x-ray the candy. The cost of this response is $0 to the parent, but offers no security against the part of the threat with the greatest impact, i.e., an x-ray will reveal glass or metal but not poison.

The big downside is that we’re teaching kids to be lousy threat/risk assessers, too. I’m happy that I was a kid when I was. In addition to treating today’s children like criminals (zero-tolerance policies, metal detectors, locker searches), we’re teaching them to be afraid for no good reason.


Daylight Saving Time

Sunday, October 30th, 2005

What kind of crank would I be if I didn’t publish a rant about Daylight Saving Time (DST)? My (four) readers have come to hold me to certain standards. Then again, two of them do nothing but this all day.

Before I start spewing vitriolic, uncorroborated bile on the subject proper, let me enumerate the devices in my life that know what time it is:

Coffee maker
Microwave
Cable box(2)
VCR (2)
Stereo
Xbox
Car (2)
Computer (4)
Palm
Alarm clock (2)
FTP server offset (12)

For those readers smearing feces on the walls of their cells, that’s 29.

I would admit that a significant minority of these devices were smart enough to take care of themselves, and the inconvenience of updating the others was minor, but I’m on an incoherent tear here, so let’s instead allow the list’s implications to loom ominously for themselves.

Okay, now with the ranting:

DST is of benefit to no one other than those who, arguably, should be bred for food. Courtesy of my brother Eric, I paraphrase the following letter-to-the-editor quote on one interesting virtue of DST:

“…my plants sure appreciate the extra light.”

This shit just writes itself, doesn’t it?

The cost of DST outweighs its benefits. Department of Transportation studies show that DST reduces U.S. electricity usage by 1 percent each day that it is in effect. What the DOT studies don’t address is the loss of workplace productivity because of disrupted sleep schedules, changes to commuter schedules and worldwide differences in observance of the practice. Nor do the DOT studies mention the increased traffic fatalities (disrupted sleep schedules again, plus it’s darker during the morning commute), or the IT hours squandered coding for the changes, especially in embedded systems, every time the rules change.

Recall with me, what was the reason that you were taught as to why we observe DST? Farmers, right? Turns out that most farmers don’t give a flying handshake about DST because:

1) They get up with the sun regardless of what the clock says.

2) Their animals don’t observe it.

With all of these compelling data, it should come as no surprise that our Commander-In-Chief (a reader), recently signed into law a change extending Daylight Saving Time by approximately three weeks, effective in 2007.

I encourage all four of you to visit Standard Time and end my madness.


Metaphors Be With You

Saturday, October 8th, 2005

I’m a sucker for idioms, colloquialisms, turns of phrase, the whole megillah. I use them in daily speech, because the good ones are colorful and richly descriptive. Coming across a new one is like receiving a little present.

A relatively recent subgenre of this little pasttime of mine is collecting that rare and beautiful gem, the mixed metaphor. Most of the ones I’ve collected are from work, which is not surprising, considering the sheer volume of metaphors that spew from any gathering of corporate types. Here are a few of my favorites:

Wanda Worker, faced with a looming deadline, confided that she was “behind the gun.” I can think of worse alternatives.

In a project kickoff meeting, Gil Golfshirt expressed the desire to “get the ball off on the right foot.” Wow. I…wow.

Perhaps Gil was trying to avoid the fate of his co-worker Steve Stockoptions who was recently “thrown to the lambs.” It was the cuddliest massacre ever.

According to Connie Cubedweller, obvious to all, “The writing is on the table.” And the food is on the wall.

Leaving no turn unstoned, Tom Toomuchcraponhisbelt encouraged others to “rattle the bushes” for solutions. Beating the cages would disturb their occupants, who are trying to work.

Last, my current personal favorite:

Polly Professional, responding to a little reflective listening on my part, shared, “Anthony, your head is totally in my shoes.” I apologized.

I heard each one of these. A colleague of mine, who shares in my amusement, claims to have heard someone refer to “low-flying fruit,” but I wasn’t there. A good thing, I guess. Taking a guava to the head is not my idea of a good time.



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