Monday, June 30, 2003
I remember my worst accidental e-mailing faux pas. It happened early in the dot-com era, so I learned my lesson early and well. I accidentally responded to a friend who had mass-mailed a group of us about getting together for dinner that night, without realising that my e-mail would go back out to the entire group. As I'm sure you've guessed, I expressed hesitation at meeting up with one particular member of the group (who had a nasty habit of popping pimples at the table and telling scatalogically-themed jokes during dinner), and that person happened to read my response, leading to madcap antics that included my listening to a very loud telephone tirade.

Well, at least now I pay attention to the 'From:' line in e-mails.

Here's another cautionary tale from the 'New Yorker', one where it's hard to feel sorry for either party, really.

Friday, June 20, 2003
The next time someone hassles you about drinking tap water, you ought to remind them that lots of bottled water is tap water, just in a plastic container. Some of it even comes from municipal water systems (I have seen this first hand, when the water utility I used to advise in Maryland was offered a contract by an unnamed bottler to sell its water). Some of it, sadly, is even worse than that.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Tiny, tiny changes today... mostly due to the fact that people with screens larger than 800X600 wouldn't see a banner stretching across the width of their screens. Well, now that problem has been solved!

Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Oh, this poor unwitting company... they should have just left it at '.it' or something. They do have an English version of their website, so clearly someone should have spotted the dodgy URL name.

Sunday, June 08, 2003
I just finished off Eric Schlosser's new book, 'Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market'. It's a triptych of essays about porn, pot, and strawberries that explores the connection between an underground economy and the social systems that support it.

Schlosser is a good writer, as anyone who's read 'Fast Food Nation' can tell you, but there's something slack about this current book. It's almost as if he had three discrete projects on the back burner and decided to finish them all off in one sweeping attack, never quite managing to explain to himself (or readers) how and why these topics belong in the same book. He does try, at the end, to pull all the loose threads together, but it's more darning than embroidery at that point. This really should be billed as a collection of extended-form essays rather than a book that works well as a unified whole.

But it's worth a read despite that. Don't go into it expecting another FFN and you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, June 07, 2003
Before my most recent visit to the US, I'd never seen people with 'Please Check ID' signed on the back of their credit cards. Then, suddenly, they were everywhere. Did Oprah do a show about this or something?

It got me thinking about the perfunctory signature check and whether it serves any real purpose. I'm not the only one who's been wondering, apparently.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003
In yet another example of how the reductivist media will spin this work as a declaration of true excellence, we have a ranking of the 'Top 750 High Schools in the USA'.

Theoretically, ranking all the schools America shouldn't be impossible, but it's important to remember that whenever you rank anything, you are necessarily using some particular criterion as a gauge of 'good' or 'better'. So really, what you end up with isn't the 'Best 750 Schools', but 'Best 750 Schools, As Measured By X Criterion'. Of course, the press leaves off the dependent clause, which alters the meaning entirely.

This particular study only included schools that (1) don't pre-select more than 50% of their students by grades or test scores, and (2) teach Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. This produces at least two serious methodological problems:

A. Magnet schools and most charter schools aren't eligible for the rankings. So if you were a parent, attempting to use this table to choose a school for your child, you'd easily miss out on some of the best schools in the US, simply because they require applications to attend from more than 50% of their student body.

B. The only measure of school excellence seems to be completion of courses which lead directly to high-level higher education. Most US college freshmen don't enter college with any advanced credit at all, so the study above becomes more a measure of the best schools for very-high achievers. It completely ignores the fact that the best education for the average student (by definition of the word 'average') isn't likely to be AP courses or an IB.

Please don't misinterpret this as criticism of AP or IB programmes; I think they're both invaluable. They're just not the best metric for ranking the 'Top 750 High Schools'.

Wash your hands, already!

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