Monday, September 29, 2008

TSA Permitted & Prohibited Items

I'm flying to WI later this week (roller derby Eastern Regionals, baby!), and—having recently started a new knitting project—was wondering what happens when you try to bring knitting needles through airport security. Even though you could do much more damage with a ballpoint pen than with a blunt knitting needle, I would hate to underestimate TSA's overzealousness in "protecting public safety" in a post-9/11 world.

So I found this useful list of what's allowed and prohibited on airplanes. It even breaks things out into what's allowed in carry-ons vs. what's allowed in checked luggage. According to the list, knitting needles and crochet hooks are allowed on the plane; however, this follow-up article isn't exactly confidence-inspiring ("In case a Security Officer does not allow your knitting tools through security it is recommended that you carry a self addressed envelope so that you can mail your tools back to yourself as opposed to surrendering them at the security checkpoint").

[ Edited 11/24/2010: Just looked at the knitting/needle-crafting-specific article and it now says unequivocally that knitting needles and tools are allowed in all luggage! No more "we may or may not take them away from you." ]

I was surprised to learn that disposable razors and scissors < 4" long are allowed in carry-on luggage. Happily, the list confirms that throwing stars, cattle prods, hand grenades and tear gas are not.

I feel safer already.

[Edit: Maybe I just need one of these. "Nothing to see here, folks!" (Hat tip to Nish.)]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Read a banned book

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week 2008. From their website:

Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities.

To my surprise, I discovered that a book I just started reading today (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I learned of through NPR) was one of the top 10 most challenged books in 2007. So I'll be celebrating Banned Books Week by curling up on the couch to finish it.

If you too value the freedom to access the literature of your choice—literature that may educate, entertain, shock, or open your mind—then check out this list of most frequently challenged books, visit your local library, and go exercise your First Amendment rights.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Thanks to beatnikside, I just stumbled across a delightful video which combines two very delightful things: roller skating and Flight of the Conchords! If you're unacquainted with either one, I highly recommend both. :-)

Friday, September 12, 2008

You could face certain death. Maybe.

Today the news keeps mentioning how Hurricane Ike is bearing down on the Texas coast. Their repeated quote is that

The National Weather Service warned residents of smaller structures on Galveston they could "face certain death" if they ignored an order to evacuate.

Why is everyone saying "could face certain death"? Shouldn't it be "will face certain death"? If you could face it (but maybe not), then it's not really certain, is it. And if they really do think it's certain death, they should probably be using more unambiguous language.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Robert Fulghum knows everything there is to know

Last fall our local NPR station (KUOW) did an interview with Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It sounds like he has a pretty sweet life these days—hanging out, writing books about being a good person and getting back to the basics of life. Being a nice guy. Talking on public radio.

One of the things that struck me was his comment about bloggers. He said that the web's full of bloggers these days and they're all trying to be gurus: specialized in one topic, authoritative, informative. In contrast, on his blog (he says) he just writes as if he were writing to a friend. Topic: whatever's on his mind. Tone: relaxed. No need for research or references. Just engaging in a bit of friendly conversation with no one in particular. It's like that crazy guy at your coffee shop who talks vaguely to anyone within a few meters of him, only when you do it in writing it doesn't make you look like a such a weirdo. :)

He said he tries not to "get into the guru racket" because all the good advice in the world has already been known for ages, so who needs a bunch of self-proclaimed gurus popping up all over the internet trying to say something new. He actually said, "...The good stuff has been there, we don't need any new stuff."

Now, I can see how that goes along with his whole philosophy of simplification. It's summed up in the idea that "all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten," right? He believes that there are some fundamental ideas that are easy to learn, and everything else is just a more complex version of those fundamental ideas. But I can't really get behind this idea that everything has already been said and that there's nothing left to be an expert in. I mean, honestly? What's the point of perpetuating the human race if everything has already been said and done and figured out?

Perhaps my perspective as a technologist colors my view on this; but it seems to me that there are tons of new things being thought up all the time, and that we do still have a need for experts in new fields—people who can speak compellingly and authoritatively. That's not to say that I think every random blogger is compelling and authoritative (far from it!); but I think it's overly simplistic to say that we don't need new thought leaders.

What do you think?

The relevant part of the interview starts around 14 min. into the audio file, if you're interested in listening.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Google Tech Talk: Hacking English

Since my last post on a Google tech talk was such a hit (well, as much as anything on a blog that averages 10 visits/day can be considered "a hit"), I've been meaning to blog about another great talk I attended. It was called "Wordmaking: What it takes to succeed in hacking English and invent a new word," and was much more light-hearted than the talk on plurilingualism. Here's the abstract:

Learn the basics of word formation in English, get "raw materials" for new words, and invent your own word (and have it critiqued) before you let it loose into the English language. The maker of the "best new word" (as voted on by the participants) will win a new dictionary.

The speaker was Erin McKean, a dictionary evangelist, lexicographer and editor of dictionaries. She's a very entertaining speaker, and even has a Murphy's Law-style law named after her:

McKean's Law: Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.

The talk was about the productivity of English (the degree to which it lends itself to making up new words that other English-speakers can understand), and the building blocks that make that possible. English has inherited a lot of words and grammar from various language families (principally Germanic and Latinate), so English speakers have a lot of morphemes (the building blocks of words) to play around with—prefixes, suffixes, different roots that mean the same thing.

I think my favorite part of the talk was the obvious glee that Erin took in playing with language, and all the new words I learned (both "real" and made-up) from her talk. Here are my favorites, which I encourage you to incorporate into your daily speech:

catachresis (n.)
A linguistic error that comes to be accepted as "correct," usually because it's so common.
Examples: apron used to be napron, but people heard "a napron" and started interpreting it as "an apron." Strait-laced is more commonly misspelled as straight-laced than correctly spelled; so who's to say how long the "incorrect" version remains incorrect, if a majority of people are using it?
epicene (adj.)
Example: English-speakers have been trying to invent an epicene singular pronoun for years, but none have ever really stuck so we usually end up saying "they" even for singular referents.
nonce (adj.)
A nonce word is a particularly time- or place-specific word (which is thus unlikely to catch on as a word that survives the test of time).
Examples: Excaliburger, comcastic.
pregret (n.)
The knowledge that you're about to do something you will later regret having done.
See also: prevenge.

The word that I'd like to get traction for is kez, meaning "fake cheese, or any plastic-like substance trying to pass itself off as cheese." Which brings me to this great website I heard of recently via Says You, a public radio show that every linguaphile should check out:, where you can make up words, vote on other people's submissions, or submit definitions in search of words. Go to Addictionary and vote for my word.

Have you coined any words?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Homeland Generation

I was recently filling out a survey and was asked to give my age in terms of what generation I'm part of. These were the options provided:

Birth Year
  • 2001-Present, Homeland Generation
  • 1982-2000, Millennial Generation
  • 1961-1981, Generation X
  • 1943-1960, Baby Boom Generation
  • 1925-1942, Silent Generation
  • 1901-1924, Depression/GI Generation

Homeland Generation?? Have you ever heard that before? That sounds so depressing to me. I mean, who wants to be part of the generation that grew up in a world in which you have to meet your friends at the baggage claim because you're not allowed to meet them at the gate? In a world in which the US is progressively more isolated and our constitution is being progressively eroded? I guess it is interesting to realize that there are now kids who've only known this type of world, though—it still surprises me that the Sept. 11 attacks were 7 years ago now. It's surprising that things have been going downhill for that long.

Hopefully we'll be able to turn things around so that by the time the Homeland Generation is old enough to be politically aware, we'll once again have a government that they can be proud of.

What happens at a caucus?

I'm cleaning out some old drafts I never got around to publishing, and thought this one was kind of interesting given that both parties have held their conventions in the last 2 weeks.

* * *

In February Washington state held its first round of Democratic and Republican caucuses for the 2008 presidential election. Having learned that the Democratic primary doesn't actually count for squat in selecting delegates, I decided to attend my first caucus ever in order to make my vote count for something. I'd heard that a caucus was an in-person event that fostered political discussion at a local level, where you could attempt to argue and cajole other voters over to your side; but beyond that I had a fuzzy idea at best of what to expect. Having now been through it, I can give you the down-low:

We showed up early. The caucus was officially scheduled to start at 1:00, but I had a suspicion it was going to be crazy, which turned out to be well-founded. Our caucus was held in the local school district office building, and the hallways were already crowded when we got there. We were just barely in time to fill the last bits of standing room in the back of a room fire-coded to hold 110 people... there must have been at least 350 in it.

As we entered we signed in with our precinct. There were ~10 different precincts at our caucus. Along with the usual (name, address, phone), the sign-in sheet had a blank for "Initial candidate preference" and "Final candidate preference." You have to fill in your preference at the start of the caucus in order for your vote to count; you can put "undecided" if you're not sure, but leaving the field blank means your presence at the caucus won't count. At the end of the caucus everyone filled in the "Final candidate preference" blank so that there was a paper trail of how many people changed their opinion during the course of the caucus.

The Pledge of Allegiance was said and several Required Documents were read (scripts for calling the caucus to order, explaining the process, etc.). There was general milling around, apologizing for the overcrowding, long periods of waiting and seeming disorganization (announcements had to be made twice, once in the main room and once for the overflow in the hallway), and widespread restlessness. Organizers announced that they were just volunteers and that they were doing the best they could. I think a lot of organizers were doing this for the first time.

Around 1:45 we broke out into precincts. Most precincts caucused in the parking lot or on the lawn due to the overcrowding. Our precinct was the largest at this caucus; 89 people showed up. We had 9 delegates to assign based on our precinct's size.

A frazzled-looking volunteer from our precinct filled out the delegate allotment paperwork while the rest of us sat around wondering what would happen next. I think the majority of voters had never attended a caucus before. There were a couple experienced folks there who explained to us what the process would be like, but mostly we sat around being 80% confused and 20% slowly figuring out what was going on. This would turn out to be a theme throughout the caucus.

The delegate allotment paperwork consists of a chart that helps you do the math to figure out how many supporters are needed to get how many delegates for each candidate. If my memory serves me correctly, it has the following columns:

  1. initial number of supporters
  2. total number of caucusers present
  3. each candidate's percentage of total supporters
  4. percentage × number of precinct delegates
  5. number of delegates allotted to this candidate (after rounding)
  6. final number of supporters
  7. total number of caucusers present
  8. candidate's final percentage of total supporters
  9. percentage × number of precinct delegates
  10. final number of delegates allotted to this candidate (after rounding)

The 5th and 10th columns get rounded down, which is part of where the discussing and cajoling is supposed to come in: say your precinct had 6 delegates to allot, and the values of the 4th column were 1.35, 2.35, 2.3. They'd all get rounded down to 1, 2, 2, and your precinct would only allot 5 delegates and would "lose" the 6th. So you want to try to get people to switch groups in order not to split those last fractions of a delegate.

At some point we broke into groups based on who our initial candidate preference was. I don't think the paperwork was done yet, we just got tired of waiting and figured we should get the show on the road. We needed to pick which members of our group would be the delegates that we sent on to the next round (if you ever wondered who the delegates are or how they get chosen, it's here at the caucus, by random folks like you and me). At first people were getting up and making impassioned speeches about why they believed Barack Obama was the best candidate for the presidency, but then someone said "Y'know, you're kind of preaching to the choir, since this is the Obama group," and Nick pointed out that we had 10 delegates to pick (5 primary and 5 alternates) and there were < 10 people standing, so instead of making speeches and fighting for the positions, maybe we should just see if we could get 10 warm bodies standing and then take it from there.

Turns out there were only 5 people who actively wanted to be delegates, and we were able to get 5 more to agree to be alternates, so that wasn't too hard (it just needed some organization). At that point we decided to send our delegates over the to the "undecided" group to answer their questions and try to cajole them over to Obama's side. But, although everyone was in agreement over who the delegates should be, our precinct chair said that the rules required a paper ballot to decide the delegates, so the rest of us sat around trying to decide the easiest way to do this and tearing up a legal pad into little pieces of paper. You'd think that if a paper ballot was part of the rules, someone would've brought ballot-sized pieces of paper to vote on... are you starting to see a theme of disorganization here?

After awhile the Hillary group sent cajolers over to the undecided group too, and it was kind of painful to listen to everyone arguing for their candidate. Clearly everyone believed in their candidate so strongly and felt this burning certainty in their stomach that it was critically important for the future of America that the other candidate not be selected. It's hard to watch when people fervently believe contradictory things and someone is eventually going to lose. Things went around for awhile (with both sides saying "But—wait, can you please let me speak? The reason that—excuse me, the reason—would you please let me speak??") and then the paperwork lady announced that she was done with the first five columns and we should wrap this up (it was probably nearing 2:30 by then).

Slowly the undecided group broke up and either joined the Barack or the Hillary groups. I talked later with a lady who'd been undecided, and she said that if they'd kept their undecided delegate it basically meant none of them had any control over who that person would vote for, so rather than making their vote essentially a wild card, most of them decided to pick one candidate or the other (even if they weren't 100% certain). Everyone reported their final candidate choice to the paperwork lady, who started working on the next five columns of the spreadsheet.

At this point most people thought their work was done, especially since there wasn't much left to do besides wait for the paperwork to be filled out. People started to trickle out of the room. The paperwork lady made some math errors even though she was using a calculator. I pointed out to her that her percentages added up to > 100% and she had to start over. When she'd finally tallied the delegates (and I have no idea why this all took soooo long), the Barack group had won an extra delegate (thanks to the undecideds who'd come over), so we had to scrounge around for another delegate and another alternate, and then alter the paper ballots to indicate that we'd appropriately voted for the 6th delegate. More and more people were leaving the room, so it was kind of funny that at the beginning of the delegate-choosing process people were grilling the delegates with all sorts of questions about whether they'd be a good delegate or not, but by the end I could just raise my hand and say, "I'll do it," and people were like "Okay, great; fill out this form."

So basically it was a big free-for-all, and there was far less "fostering of political discussion" than I had anticipated. Although I guess that's to be expected; since it's easier to vote than to caucus, a lot of the people who show up are probably there because they care so much about a particular candidate that they want to make sure their vote counts in the selection process. Meaning they're too passionate for anyone to change their mind. But it was certainly an interesting experience; depending on what the political scene is looking like in four years, I might caucus again and even consider being a primary delegate (if there's a candidate I feel passionately about).