Thursday, September 24, 2009

gmail ads: cool or creepy?

I've been using hotmail for years. (I'm suevanhattum there.) I hate the ads that blink on and off, and the ads that suddenly take up more screen space if your cursor accidentally goes over them. I've also accumulated about 70 pages of old email in my inbox.

So when I needed another email account for the book I'm working on, I decided to try gmail. (I'm mathanthologyeditor there.) I have loved it. There are almost no ads. (None when composing a new message.) The interface is cleaner and usually quicker. I'm delighted.

The ads that do appear are one-liners at the top of the list of messages. They are targeted by what I'm interested in. When I first noticed this, I thought it was kind of cool. I saw an ad for a math camp, and it seemed like almost useful information.

But I just now realized that they use the text of my email to decide what ads to post. A friend mentioned playing guitar in a message to me. He mentioned it a bunch of times in the message (5 times, I just counted). I have never looked at a guitar site, or done a search using the word guitar. I've never written about guitars (until now), and it wasn't in the subject line.

But there it was:
3 Guitar Scale Mistakes - - ¤ 99% of guitarists make when they practice. Save years of p...

Yikes! What if someone sent me a message about guns, and I replied to them? I guess I'd get an ad for guns, huh? What if I wrote an intimate message to a lover describing something we might want to engage in? (I used to exchange some steamy messages long ago, with a long-distance lover.) Would Google send me ads for strange equipment? This 'feature' begins to feel creepy.

I experimented, moving from my inbox, to all messages, and then to a particular message. The ad changed depending on the location. (If you have gmail, try it.) Kinda cool (how do they do that?!), kinda creepy.

I have thought of the text of my email messages as private. This knocked that notion out of my head. Email. Is. Not. Private. (Repeat 100 times: Do not equate email with old-fashioned postal mail. They are not the same.)

I'm wondering what others think of this brave new world we're writing in. What do you think? Is this cool, or is this creepy?

...Not Always Right

As in, the customer is...

Maybe I'm up too early, and anything silly would be funny. Maria D pointed folks to this page, where a customer didn't know 5x7 was the same as 7x5. I've been reading the vignettes for 20 minutes now, and here's my fave so far:

On The Straight And Narrow (Minded)

Bar | Hertfordshire, England

(Note: I’m a female customer sitting in a pub. I’m approached by another male customer while I read a book.)

Male customer: “Hello, my name is ***.”

Me: “That’s nice.”

Male customer: “So can I have your number?”

Me: “Oh. Actually, I’m gay.”

Male customer: “You want to have sex with women?”

Me: “Well, not right now. Right now, I just want to read my book.”

Male customer: “That’s bulls***! If you’re a lesbian then you want to have sex with women!”

Me: “Honestly, I just want to read my book.”

Male customer: “You’re lying to me, that’s very rude! I’m going to complain!”

Male customer, to a waitress: “That girl over there is being really rude. I want you to do something, it’s disturbing my day. She just lied to me and told me that she was a lesbian, and now she’s mocking me.”

Waitress: “What am I supposed to do about that? Make her straight?”

Male customer: “Just do something about it!”

Waitress, to me: “Hello, there.”

Me: “Hello. I’m sorry about him.”

Waitress: “Oh, it’s no problem! So, can I have your number?”

Male customer: *looks horrified*

Me: “Er, yeah, sure. Here.”

(I write my number on a napkin and she takes it, still smiling.)

Waitress, to male customer: “See? She’s a lesbian.”

Male customer: “That’s not what I wanted you to do! I didn’t want you to ask her out, I wanted you to make her leave! I demand to speak to your manager!”

Waitress: “Oh, he’s just popped out. I can get his boyfriend for you though if you want?”

Male customer: *storms out cursing*

(It turned out that the waitress was kidding about her manager, but she wasn’t kidding about asking me out!)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Letter to the President

It's too long. He won't read it. But I wrote it before Ramadan was over, and I'm happy about that. I'm going to send it through the mail on Monday. Anyone want to recommend lines to ditch? I'd love to get it shorter.

Dear President Obama,

Alice Walker wrote you a letter early on. I’ll bet you read that one.
I don’t know if there’s anything I can say that will get my letter noticed.
But I’ve got to try.

Progressive leaders tell us you can’t do it alone.
You need us to pressure you.
Well, this is the most pressure I can offer.
I’m a single parent, working full-time and more, etc etc
No time for meetings with organizations to plan actions.
But I support Code Pink, in their protests of every war being conducted by the U.S. or its proxies,
Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, are there more?
And I support whoever is working for single-payer health insurance for all,
Including undocumented workers.
I support anyone who is telling you you’re not quite there yet in your understanding of education issues.
(You might want to listen to Deborah Meier,
Founder of a small public school in Harlem that has made a big difference in children’s lives,
Author of The Power of Their Ideas, a book about that school.)
I support whoever is pushing you to get serious about global warming,
Perhaps more important than any of my other (small? human) concerns.

And I support you, the most intelligent, well-spoken president I’ve ever had
In my 52 years as a citizen of this country.
I am deeply sorry that people of color are being subjected to such vicious racism lately.
On its surface it’s pointed at you, but it hurts millions.
You knew what you might face, and are strong enough to look beyond this.
My students do not have the resources you do.
Each sign that belittles you is a slap in their faces.
I am angry.

This letter is mostly about wars and peace,
About how democracy and empire don’t sit well together,
About how Greg Mortenson’s work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan will reduce terrorism,
Where U.S. bombs are likely to increase it.
But it’s also about health care and education, about racism and the health of the planet,
Because, on the small chance I’ve managed to catch your ear,
It’s all connected for me.
Racism keeps people divided, keeps the fear level high, fear is what feeds militarism, along with terrorism.
Those soldiers who’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan need better health care, just like the rest of us.
Young people whose education doesn’t numb them, who follow their natural desire to learn learn learn,
Will be smart enough to stay away from the military.
And of course, we can only stop global warming if we’re working together all over the planet.
We need to stop warring to do that.

You know these wars aren’t really about terrorism,
But more about oil and empire.
Please realize that it’s too expensive to keep trying to control half the planet, or more.
The expense isn’t only the billions or trillions being spent on weapons and soldiers.
There is also the goodwill lost, a huge expense.
Are we the world’s cop, the world’s biggest bully?
Or can we be a beacon of something good,
Of a country that can (sometimes) live up to its ideals?

Three years ago I had 6 Muslim women in my beginning algebra class.
When they talked about Ramadan, I asked them to explain.
I decided to fast in solidarity with Muslims,
Because there was too much hatred toward them,
And the wars…
Last year, I hoped I might be able to stop fasting each year.
I hoped you might stop the warring. Was that a silly hope?
President Barack Obama, I will continue to hope that your moral compass will steer you out of these wars.

Respectfully Yours,

Sue VanHattum

P.S. #1:
I know you got lots of money from insurance companies in your campaign.
Just about everyone who’s ever been elected to high office has.
But now, if you want to be able to hold your head up, you need to do what’s right,
Even if that makes them turn against you. Haven’t they already?
Everyone needs health care,
And it can’t come through the greedy insurance companies,
It needs to come through taxes.
This nonsense about being fined for not having insurance sure sounds unconstitutional to me,
Not to mention blaming the victim.

Mostly, I loved your first day of school education speech.
But it’s almost completely a Puritan work ethic sort of thing.
And really, we learn best when our learning is playful and passionate.
A good learning challenge sucks you in so that you want to work hard (really hard) to 'get it'.
I wish you would have addressed that.
I also wish you would have talked about how good it feels to accomplish something you've worked hard at. And my third wish is that you would have addressed what it means to think for yourself.
Learning should not be only about learning facts, figures, and procedures.
It should be about learning how to think about issues deeply.
My success has come more through following my heart than through the hard work you mentioned.
I suppose I work hard, but I’m having so much fun with my work that I hardly notice.
You said, “You won’t love every subject you study.”
I do think we should be able to love everything we study.
And I think homework should be inspiring.
(Doesn't have to be relevant, if the kid wants to do it anyway.
And if they don’t… Homework can mess with family time, badly.)
I like the message that we need to work hard.
But I want kids to work hard because they love it, not just for some future gain.

I’m a lesbian, and I’d like my people to have the same marriage rights straight people do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Peace in Afghanistan

Here are some links I got in an email sent to me by War Times:

United for Peace & Justice will have actions on October 7.

• Tom Hayden speaks internationally against the war. Here's an interview from a German site.

• Tom Engelhardt has a piece on Znet (new find for me) called Afghanistan by the Numbers.


On a more personal note, I just finished a great retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told from the point of view of the beast. The Persian prince Orasmyn is turned into a lion by a vengeful spirit (a pari). Only the love of a woman can turn him back. His Muslim faith permeates Beast, the story written by Donna Jo Napoli. Here's a passage (from Rumi, complete poem here) that moved me:

O Shams-e Tabrizi, you
Compassionately blend and renew
East and west through and through
And so we say, may it be so

Another book I'm happy to recommend to folks wanting good stories that include details of the Muslim world in a positive light, is The Man Who Counted, by Malba Tahan. Here's the blurb I wrote on it for Math Mama Writes: Written in Brazil, set in the Middle East, these stories follow the adventures of Beremiz, an accomplished mathematical problem-solver. He uses math to settle disputes, solve riddles and mysteries, and entertain his hosts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Philadelphia Library System Closing?

I want to think this is a hoax, like Orson Welles' broadcast in 1938 of War of the Worlds, but it looks like it's for real:

ABC's Lisa Chinn reports from Washington: The public library in Philadelphia may be closing its doors permanently. It would be the first closure of a public library in a major American city. The library is the sixth largest public library in the nation, and its precursor, the Library Company of Philadelphia, created by Benjamin Franklin, was the first public library in the United States.

Words fail me...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Britain Apologizes and Thanks Alan Turing

Dan MacKinnon (who writes the mathrecreation blog) alerted me to this moving news. The prime minister of the UK*, Gordon Brown, issued a statement today, apologizing for the terrible treatment Alan Turing suffered at the hands of British courts. Alan Turing was a computer scientist whose computer work helped decode the German Enigma codes (ciphers, really), which helped win the war. But he wasn't knighted, instead he was persecuted.

From the prime minister's statement:
In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

I am impressed at Prime Minister Brown's courage. I can't imagine Obama thanking LGBT activists as Brown does at the beginning of this statement.

* I had to look it up to know whether I should say Britain, England, or the U.K. Yahoo answers says: "England is a part of Britain. Great Britain is a large island and many smaller ones, off the north west coast of Europe. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the political name of this group of islands. Northern Ireland is composed of 6 counties at the north east of Eire in the island of Ireland." PM Brown refers to Britain at the beginning of his statement. I wonder if Northern Ireland feels left out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Obama Speaks to the Children

President Barak Obama will speak today, in about an hour, to the nation's schoolchildren. (Well, the ones who are allowed to listen, anyway.) My comments at the end...

Here's what he plans to say (From the White House website):

Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.
I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.
I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”
So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.
Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.
I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.
Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.
Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.
And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.
We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.
I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.
So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.
But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.
Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.
Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.
Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.
I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.
And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.
Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.
That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.
And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.
It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.
So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?
Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.
Mostly, I love it. And it seems to me that this is a speech conservatives would love too. Seems to me, they'd wish Obama had been one of Bush's speech-writers. (Because we know Bush didn't write his own speeches. And I'd bet Obama does...)

What I don't love is that it is almost completely a Puritan work ethic sort of thing. I think learning can be fun and playful, and a good learning challenge sucks you in so that you want to work hard (really hard) to 'get it'. I wish he would have addressed that. I also wish he would have talked about how good it feels to accomplish something you've worked hard at.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

My success has come through following my heart. I do think we should be able to love everything we study. I do think homework should be inspiring. (Doesn't have to be relevant, if the kid wants to do it anyway.) I like the message that we need to work hard. But I want kids to work hard because they love it, not just for some future gain.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Racism isn't pretty

I have been floored twice today by news everyone else probably heard a while ago. First the ridiculous to-do over the president's intended message to schoolchildren. Is this something new? If anyone doesn't want their kids to hear the president telling them to work hard, keep your kids home from school. But I think it's racism that they're all worked up about this.

Then I read just now that Van Jones is being attacked. Here's Starhawk's blog post about it.

She also links to this, on Color of Change:

As you may know, right-wing talk show hosts have been bringing race-based fear mongering into the mainstream, but FOX's Glenn Beck just took it to another level. On Tuesday, Beck said:

This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people... this guy is, I believe, a racist.
I signed the petition there.

I also wrote to the president, as she suggested. My connection got as slow as molasses, until I quit Fireforx and restarted it. I wonder if that's something to do with the number of people writing to the White House, or what...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

War Times

This is the website of a group that used to put out a paper version of their newspaper. All the back issues are there. One of the few ways I've been able to do a bit of activist work since becoming a mommy was to distribute their newspaper at the college I work at.

It's easier to 'distribute' it online. But I don't know if I'll reach as many people.

I really like what they have to say.