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Month: June 2008 (page 2 of 2)

ubuntu linux for kids

My son Aidan has become rather interested in computers. Both my wife Chris and I work a lot from home, so he sees us plucking away at our computers quite often. He loves to play like us, so we’ve often found him plopped in front of Chris’ computer typing randomly into the login box, saying that he was busy working on his “computer system” and sending e-mails to his “students” or to his “girlfriend” (whom we’ve yet to meet, by the way). So, we finally decided to give Aidan a login of his own. Here’s a screenshot of his the desktop I set up for him:

I should also note that we’ve just completed full migration in our home away from Windows and Microsoft to Ubuntu Linux and open source software. This has been wonderful, liberating in so many ways, and for some reason it just feels good. Both Chris and I are able to fully engage in our work (including full and easy interaction with our Windows and Mac co-workers and students). This move, which started out of mere curiosity on my part, really got me thinking about the power of corporate branding through computers–especially the power of this branding upon children who are inculcated with this through their school experiences and in the name of education.

My 11-year-old niece recently completed a major “PowerPoint” project for her 5th grade class. It was a nice project, certainly; she’s a smart kid. However, everyone’s focus as I heard them discuss and later praise her on the project was regarding her use of PowerPoint–equating this with computer skill. Having talked to a number of elementary school teachers, I’ve seen this equating of computer skill with Microsoft product know-how time and time again. Despite the philanthropic efforts of Mr. Gates and his empire, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if Microsoft’s (and Mac’s) coziness with the education sector is less about meeting students’ needs and more about breeding a lifelong loyal consumer. That kind of insidious tactic gets me in the way that bright blue and red Pepsi machines in the school cafeteria get me. The power of mass media is everywhere, but to disguise it as honest (versus corporate) education is disturbing. To target elementary school kids who have yet to develop the necessary critical thinking skills to deal with these influences is damn-near unconscionable. Perhaps this is yet another argument for homeschooling–where education can be about learning to live a good life and not about learning to be a lifelong consumer. Anyway, I’ve digressed.

There is hope on the computer front in the open-source movement. Many folks out in the blogosphere have written on the merits of Linux for kids. One such blogger at FanaticAttack.com hits the point well as he writes:

The idea in technology (and education for that matter), is to teach concepts so the whole underrated independent thinking mode can kick in when little Johnny is tinkering with different programs. Then true exploring and true creating can occur and the operating system or program is of little consequence.

I am confident that Aidan can learn such creative tinkering and independent thinking through corporate-free, community-based software and generalize these technology skills to any platform. He’ll have plenty of time to fend off corporate influences a little later in life. At four, he should be able to play free of such things. Actually, shouldn’t we all be allowed to play free of such things?

vegetarians on the kill floor

What did you have for dinner? Do you know where it came from? Ok, from the grocery store (or the fast food restaurant). What about before that? Do you know where it came from before that? Do you know what it cost to get from there to your plate?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Richard Linklater film Fast Food Nation, which was an eye opening experience. Now, I haven’t read the book yet by Eric Schlosser, but it’s on my shelf. The film, however, got me thinking. Let me state for the record that I don’t eat meat–except for fish (if that’s meat), but I can’t say that I know where all my food comes from either. And worse yet, I can’t tell you the true cost of what I eat. You see, that’s what the film really hits on–that there is a hidden cost to America’s collective love of beef–a human cost. Now, I expected that this film would strive to gross me out a little with regard to fast food and the meat packing industry, but honestly, I thought the only victims in the story were going to be bovine. Instead, the film left me with a more unsettling reality. The meat packing industry as depicted in Linklater’s film lays waste not only to cattle, but people as well. The film focuses much of its attention on the plight of illegal immigrant workers from Mexico who make a long and dangerous journey for the promise of something better, but instead find themselves pressured into the perils of working at a meatpacking plant under the domination of a cruel boss (backed by a heartless corporation), who wields his power in truly despicable ways.

While the film never preaches, it does leave the astute viewer feeling complicit to these crimes. Isn’t it after all the consumer that drives the market? Here’s a clip:


There’s a real disconnect between people nowadays and their food. Now, this isn’t really something the film addressed directly, but it reminded me of an essay I read by Wendell Berry entitled “The Pleasure of Eating.” He asserts that there is a politics to food, but consumers, he argues, are not actively engaged here. Rather, they tend to see themselves as “mere consumers–passive, uncritical, and dependent.” This is what the food industry wants. A distance between food production and food consumption, as if the consumption is not part of this agricultural process but something detached altogether. We have been persuaded by the food industry to prefer our food already prepared, Berry reminds us; it is convenient after all, and less messy. However, it also works to further distance us from the origins of this food. Any work to make our food ready to consume subtly reminds us that it isn’t just food, but that it came from somewhere. The food industry, if possible, would like to blot this memory out of existence. “The ideal industrial food consumer,” according to Berry, “would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” What an image! Berry exaggerates but makes a strong point. We consume our food thoughtlessly. Sure, it’s true that more people are thinking about what they eat, as people are growing increasingly health-conscious. But health-conscious is selfish. I’m not talking about an awareness of calories, carbs, fiber, or fat. I’m talking about the people affected as my prepacked processed food doodle gets from the earth to the corporation to my shopping cart and eventually to my microwave. Who is hurt along the way? Were any lives ruined? I never think about that. I am disconnected. I am a consumer.

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