Sunday, June 25, 2017

Bring Back Home Economics!


Yesterday my younger daughter begged my wife to teach her how to use a sewing machine, so she could make a stuffed animal. This kind of “quality time” is a mixed bag for parents.  We love our kids’ enthusiasm and creativity, but sewing is really tedious. I thought, “Why hasn’t my kid learned this in home ec?” The answer, of course, is that home economics class is seldom offered anymore.  Wikipedia estimates that 5 million American students study home ec, only a tenth of the 50.4 million total elementary and secondary students tallied by the National Center for Education Statistics.

This begs another question: why the hell did we get rid of this?  Herein I provide a little history, and present my case for bringing home ec back—but in an improved version.

(By the way, here is the stuffed cat my daughter made.)

Why home ec died

The celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain explains the demise of home ec quite well in an essay titled “Virtue” from his book Medium Raw
Back in the dark ages, young women and girls were automatically segregated off to home-economics classes, where they were indoctrinated with the belief that cooking was one of the essential skill sets for responsible citizenry—or more to the point, useful housewifery. When they began asking the obvious question—“Why me and not him?”—it signaled the beginning of the end….  “Home ec” became the most glaring illustration of everything wrong with the gender politics of the time. Quickly identified as an instrument of subjugation, it became an instant anachronism.
The problem, Bourdain goes on to say, was the lack of any parallel effort to address the flip side of this sexism: the equally ignorant notion that men who cook or sew are somehow lame. (Similar to this was the stereotype I encountered in junior high about typing only being for girls. Typing class was thought to be solely for the future secretaries of America, so I was the rare boy who took it.  Needless to say this skill has served me very well.)

The solution to the sexism of the traditional home ec approach was all backwards.  Instead of killing home ec, why didn’t the education establishment simply make this class mandatory for both boys and girls?

My home ec experience

When I was in junior high, home ec was at least offered, and due to the way our curriculum dealt with electives, lots of students ended up in this class without having actively sought it out.  Thus, a lot of us were exposed to cooking and sewing who might not otherwise have been.  Were we happy about it? Not terribly, I’ll confess. I learned more about cooking from watching my mom, and meanwhile my home ec teacher was a total flake who kept forgetting (or perhaps “forgetting”) to buy the groceries we needed, so we wasted a lot of time with BS like home ec themed spelling tests. (I remember spelling lasagne “lasagna” and campaigning, successfully, to have my alternate spelling accepted. I’d have respected the teacher more had she stood her ground.) One thing I did appreciate was being taught how, when preparing a meal, to sync everything up, so the entrée isn’t getting cold while you’re making the salad, etc. I mocked this at the time as being so obvious, but actually it hadn’t occurred to me.

And the sewing lessons, I have to admit, were pretty cool. I felt a sense of accomplishment learning how to work a sewing machine, and made a pretty fair stuffed animal (though nowhere near as cool as my daughter’s creation above). My brother fell in love with sewing, and bought his own sewing machine so he could make cool parkas—first from a kit, then a pattern (both available, amazingly enough, from mountaineering stores) and then from scratch by copying commercial designs. I remember going to the North Face store with him to be his mannequin, standing there wearing a $300 parka while he sketched it out and noted all the measurements, wielding a tape measure as skillfully as a tailor.

Are home ec skills still germane?

No, I’m not delusional:  I’ll be the first to admit that sewing is pretty much dead. My brother was an anomaly and almost nobody sews anymore. It’s hard to justify the time you’d spend, when Chinese sweat shops turn out such great stuff for so cheap, and thrift stores sell perfectly good clothing for less than you’d pay for fabric. Even my talented and skilled brother rocks an authentic North Face parka these days … I’m pretty sure his sewing machine is just gathering dust.

But home cooking? As Bourdain laments, that really is a dying art, though we all still need to eat. I’m amazed at the growth of restaurants since I was a kid. Back then, going out to eat was a big deal—not just for my cash-strapped family but every family I knew (and this was in Boulder, Colorado, a fairly affluent community). Nowadays eating out is a regular feature of life, to the point that kids are downright jaded about it. The problem is, restaurant food is no good for you. As Bourdain pointed out in Kitchen Confidential, the calorie information provided on menus is pure hokum, based on some hypothetical version of the entrée and not accounting for lack of quality control. Line cooks use way more butter than you’d have the nerve to use at home. And the giant portion sizes are absurd.  I’m a notorious glutton possessed of a cyclist’s appetite, and yet I can generally get my fill at a restaurant via a single entrée. In a sane world, I’d need two entrees. Restaurants are teaching us how to overeat.

My kids are lucky: they have a stay-at-home mom who’s a great cook and happy to teach them.  But so often, this isn’t possible because both parents work and don’t have the time or patience to let the kids help (or often, to serve a homemade meal at all).  All the more reason to teach cooking at school—nothing fancy, no fois gras, no lobster foam, no standing rib roast; just the basics so that the next generation of adults isn’t completely hopeless at it, and kids are exposed to cooking as a legit, fun, salubrious thing to do. Exposing kids to cooking early might inspire some to develop a passion for it (like my brother going on to make those parkas).

So yeah, let’s bring cooking back.  And fine, we can jettison the sewing. So wouldn’t this just make it a cooking class? No, because I want to add something, which was theoretically a part of home ec all along but never showed its face in my class:  the economics part. (Bourdain doesn’t mention anything about this, either.)  I’m not just talking about how to be frugal, but a more fundamental understanding of how money works—how it shapes the reality of your household as much as your income level.

Putting the “econ” in home economics

I think this cooking/finance combo makes more sense than cooking/sewing ever did. Having serious, important instruction in basic finance might appeal to any boys who are still so insecure in their masculinity that they think cooking is for girls.  Meanwhile, adding the study of money ought to appease any girls who think this class is grooming them to be housewives. Switching between the two subjects would keep the class from getting too dry. And the knowledge imparted could change lives—far more than teaching our kids largely trivial stuff they’ll never use, like trigonometry.  (Am I calling for decreased math instruction?  Hell no! Keep that around too because it builds mental stamina, and because a few of these kids may actually go on to build bridges.)

For starters, some nuts-and-bolts book about building wealth, such as Rich Dad, Poor Dad, should be required reading. Budding adults need to learn about the miracle of compound interest, the meaning of opportunity cost, the real cost of consumer goods (i.e., the thing’s price tag plus the tax you paid on the income required to purchase the thing), and mortgage amortization. This isn’t hard math—it’s far easier than what you’re required to learn just to graduate—but it’s important math that can affect your daily life.

None of this is currently taught in my kids’ schools. You get the normal fundamentals without any context about how to use them (other than a few word problems), and you get some weird, abstract, theoretical math that you might use in your career but most often just forget.  What’s needed is instruction about how not to be a chump, with plenty of real-life examples.

Here’s one.  As I explained to my older daughter recently, I worked with a guy years ago who—though sufficiently strapped that he carried credit card debt—bought a brand-new SUV on credit.  I was dismayed, though to be honest, also a bit smug:  my dismay carried with it a certain amount of self-congratulation because of course I knew better. (I know I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ll do so in the service of promoting fiscal education.)

To increase my self-satisfaction, and as an exercise, I calculated the true, all-in cost of that vehicle: the delta between what it cost and what a used equivalent (with the same warranty) would have cost; the interest on the monthly car payment; and the impact on my colleague’s overall net worth of having bought a used car with cash and putting the savings toward paying down his credit card.  The punchline?  The real cost of that SUV, I calculated, was about $140,000.  This kind of waste explained why my colleague, whose income was similar to mine, carried that balance on his credit card (which of course led to even more money down the drain).

Wasting money like that doesn’t just lower your standard of living, but limits your maneuverability so you can’t take advantage of sudden investment opportunities. Here’s an example of the kind of opportunity I’m talking about. Many years ago, my mom decided to sell her condo and buy a smaller one. She was being sweet-talked by a mortgage broker into taking out a bigger loan than she needed, so she could renovate, etc. I recommended she borrow only what she needed, and offered to loan her money as needed for renovations. She decided on a nice, small mortgage.

I also counseled my mom on stipulating no pre-payment penalties, so she could pay down her loan’s principal faster. I used an online mortgage amortization calculator to model multiple scenarios for her, so she could appreciate the impact this makes.  Six months or so later I happened to ask if she was paying extra principal when she could. She replied, “No, because the bank makes it difficult. I have to mail the extra principal to a different address.”  Those thieving bank bastards! Clearly they’d created this obstacle deliberately, and it was working perfectly.  I decided to punish the bank, save my mom some money, and get some income for myself all at the same time. Being a frugal guy with a used car (and, if I recall correctly, in the process of saving for my own home), I happened to have a decent amount of cash lying around, and was able to pay off my mom’s mortgage in one lump sum, and then let my mom pay me back instead of the bank. I split the difference between her former interest rate and what I could get with a money market investment, so she saved on interest and I made some nice cash with virtually no risk.

None of this is rocket science—and yet based on articles like this one, it appears household finance is blind spot for many families.  My mom surely had home ec classes as a kid, but despite being a great cook and even sewing a lot of clothes and stuffed animals back in the day, she never got formal instruction in practical financial matters.

Think of all the classes you practically slept through in middle school or high school, that never captured your imagination … shouldn’t one or two of such classes be supplanted with something more useful? This revised home ec wouldn’t necessarily be a hard sell for students.  “It’s not actually liberating to be dependent on restaurants or Kraft mac-n-cheese,” we could tell our nation’s girls.  And to the boys we could point out, “There’s nothing masculine about being broke.”

I don’t know how to influence our school systems toward this end, and will leave that up to the administrative geniuses who (in my dreams) will take this essay and run with it.  But I do have a suggestion for a name for this reinvigorated class:  how about “home econ”?

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

What if Allegiant Air Pushed Things Further?


The name “Allegiant Airlines” is a bit of a joke.  If I were to swear allegiance to any airline, it wouldn’t be the one that dangles a cheap fare in front of me and then nickel-and-dimes me to death with extra fees.  These guys charge not only for carry-on baggage but for the privilege of selecting a non-middle seat.  In fact, they even charge extra for selecting which non-reclining middle seat I want.  Allegiant Air should be called Bad Meets Evil Air, after the Eminem song:  “I’ma put air in a bag and charge people to breathe.”

How would Allegiant look if they pushed things just a bit further?  This somewhat fictional post is intended to provide a comic balm for anybody who bemoans the growing number of companies that now charge for basic stuff that has always been free.

NOTE:  There’s a lot of joking around here, some of it concerning safety.  Please do not read this while aboard a passenger airplane.  You could get me in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration!


Carry-on bag fees apply.  Please see baggage table fee.  Oversized personal items will be assessed an at-airport fee.  Checked and carry-on bag fees are assessed on a sliding scale as described in the online baggage fee table.  An online tutorial on the baggage fee table is available for $5.  Classroom training is also available on a quotation basis.

The fee for seat selection varies with location, from the premium Giant Seats and Legroom+ ($$$) to the basic window or aisle ($$) to the middle seat in the  back row by the toilet ($).  If you skip seat selection you can avoid this fee, but you really don’t want to do that.  We know where the screaming babies and seatback-kicking children are on this plane, as well as the in-cabin pets (which are welcome on Allegiant for a $100 fee).  If you skip seat selection we will make sure you are punished for your insolence.

Allegiant Air does not allow bookings from any discount online travel websites, but we are pleased to offer you reservations by phone for a $15 fee.  You are encouraged to use our mobile app for your boarding pass at no apparent charge.  The mobile app is “free” (though you may reasonably suspect we are selling your personal information).


You may print your boarding pass at the airport for a $5 fee.  Chair and bench seating are available at the gate.  The cost is $5 when booked in advance, or $10 at the gate.  If you choose to sit down for free at an adjacent gate, please be advised that we do not employ a public address system and reserve the right to board the aircraft very abruptly.  Allegiant is not responsible for failures of the waterboarding process.  Did we say waterboarding?  We meant boarding.

Priority boarding is available:  $4 when purchased in advance, $12 at the gate up to an hour before the flight, and $20 if you waited to check the length of the line first.


As you board the aircraft, smiles and greetings can purchased from the flight attendants for $3 (male) or $5 (female).  There is no discount for smiling back at the attendants or returning their greeting.

Please take your seats immediately.  There is a $2 fee for asking the flight attendant why your seat doesn’t recline.  There is a $2 fee for each additional seatback inquiry (e.g., “You’ve got to be kidding me—no seat reclines on the entire plane?”).  Allegiant Air charges $3 for each snide comment (e.g., “I’m sorry, but a 90-degree angle does not count as “‘pre-reclined’”).

If you are seated next to an emergency exit, you will be asked to pass a written exam on the special procedures you may be required to perform.  A study guide is available for $3, and a self-paced online tutorial for $5.  The tutorial requires our Allegiant Air Exit Row app, which is available for an additional $5.  If you fail the written exam, or do not wish to take it, please ask a flight attendant to reseat you.  There is a $10 reseating fee, and the fee previously paid for reserving this Legroom+ seat is non-refundable.

Please stay in your previously selected or assigned seat.  If you decide to relocate to a better seat after the aircraft doors are closed, please note that a $10 reseating fee applies, and you will need to pay the difference in fee between your original and new seat, plus a $5 in-aircraft seat selection surcharge.  You must also pay a $10 restocking fee for the seat you vacated.

Beer and wine are available for purchase only when the aircraft has reached cruising altitude.  You may not bring your own alcohol on board. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires any alcohol consumed on board be purchased through and served by an Allegiant In-flight crew member.  To the passenger in 28E with the hip flask:  we’re looking at you.

Allegiant is a non-smoking airline.  Smoking is prohibited on the entire aircraft including the lavatories.  You may not bring your own nicotine patch aboard.  Nicotine patches are available for purchase by non-minors for $10 apiece.  There is a one-time age verification fee of $4.  Tampering with, disabling, or destroying the smoke detectors located in the lavatories is prohibited by law.  Charging of e-cigarettes, and use of the word “vape,” are strictly prohibited.  Any passenger caught smoking on board or tampering with the smoke detector will be asked to leave the aircraft.  Parachutes are available for purchase for $8,000.


Allegiant Air does not employ a video entertainment system, so please direct your full attention to the flight attendants as they demonstrate the safety features of this aircraft.  There is no fee for this demonstration but please note that our flight attendants rely on tips for their livelihood.

During takeoff, landing, or whenever the seat belt sign illuminates, you must fasten your seat belt. Insert the metal fittings one into the other, and tighten by pulling on the loose end of the strap. To release your seat belt, lift the upper portion of the buckle.  If you violate the seat belt safety policy during the flight, you will be cited and fined $35.  If you claim in your defense that you couldn’t figure out the seat belt, you will be fined another $35 for insulting the flight attendant’s intelligence.

There are several emergency exits on this aircraft.  Please take a moment to locate your nearest exit.  If we need to evacuate the aircraft, floor-level lighting will guide our Giant Seats and Legroom+ passengers towards their exit.  Passengers in other sections can use our online app to find their exit.  WiFi surcharges will apply.  WiFi is not available on Allegiant flights.  It is hoped that WiFi surcharge revenue will eventually fund this feature, pending approval from shareholders.

Cabin pressure is continuously monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically deploy from above your seat.  To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you and swipe your payment card at the armrest terminal.  Place the mask firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, secure their payment, and then secure their mask.

In the unlikely event of a water landing, life vests are available for purchase, as is your seat cushion which can be used as a flotation device.  Rates vary with the size of the device and the severity of the situation.  There are inflatable slides at each exit which double as life rafts.  Seating in the raft is metered at $10 per hour.

When the aircraft reaches cruising altitude the Captain will turn off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, and you may move about the cabin.  If you loiter in the aisle you may be ticketed.  Lavatories are provided free of charge for our Giant Seats and Legroom+ passengers in the dedicated Urinal+ lavatory.  Any other passenger loitering near these seats or attempting to use the Urinal+ lavatory may be ticketed or charged with trespassing.  Standard lavatories are available for $5 for lower class passengers.  A post-use cleaning fee may apply as assessed by the flight attendant.

Flight attendants will be passing around the cabin in a few moments to offer drinks and snacks for purchase, on approved credit.  There is a non-refundable credit application fee of $5.  Bottled water may be purchased for $2.  There is a $2 fee for asking the flight attendant, in vain, for a cup of tap water.  This is in addition to any beverage purchased.  Please note that the water in the lavatories is non-potable.

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.  Thank you.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

From the Archives - If I Had Defended Floyd Landis


Almost eleven years ago, the American professional cyclist Floyd Landis won the Tour de France, or seemed to until a few days later when it was reported he’d tested positive for testosterone. I immediately wrote a fake newspaper article advancing an alternative explanation for the high levels of testosterone in the rider’s blood. I considered submitting this story to the Daily Peloton, which has published a dozen or so of my articles. But I decided instead just to e-mail the story to my bike pals. My rationale was that until Landis’ guilt was firmly established, I didn’t want to make light of his situation in a public forum.

Two years later, when the last of Landis’ appeals was finally crushed out and it was pretty obvious he’d truly doped, I submitted my story to Daily Peloton with a timely new spin: “If I Had Defended Landis.” They ran the story (with a couple extra caveats). Years later I discovered that many of my articles are no longer available on Daily Peloton’s website due to some server problems. So, in advance of this year’s Tour de France, I have decided to give the story a new home on albertnet.

(Interesting side note: I discovered recently that most of my article, along with a PDF download, are available on the Kool ‘N Fit website. Kool ‘N Fit is an aerosol analgesic designed for athletes, and I’d mentioned it in my story. The Kool ‘N Fit marketing team posted my story here under the headline “Floyd Landis pouring KNF on his privates?” and commented, “LOL we did not see this coming.” I see on their website that their reprint has been viewed over 65,000 times, which is way more pageviews than any of my albertnet posts has received.)

If I Had Defended Landis – July 11, 2008

Now that CAS has dismissed Floyd Landis’s final appeal, it may seem as though his sad fate—to be the first cyclist ever stripped of a Tour de France title for a doping offense—was inevitable. But the law is complicated enough, and public opinion fickle enough, to have brought about a completely different outcome. If Floyd Landis had hired me to defend him, and had gone along with my unique defense strategy, things could have turned out much better for the hapless cyclist. Rather than lay out my approach in its entirety, I offer you here a snapshot, in the form of a hypothetical news story, of how I could have already begun to iron out his case, mere days after his positive test.

Landis’ Latest Shocker
Scandalized cycling star blames failed drug test on night of debauchery
July 29, 2006

The story of Tour winner Floyd Landis took yet another turn today when the cycling star gave a bizarre explanation for his failed drug test. “There’s no need to wait for the B sample,” Landis said at an impromptu press conference. “I can explain everything.”

Shyly admitting that he was just too embarrassed to come clean before, Landis read a brief statement declaring that his above-limit testosterone:epitestosterone ratio was the result of a night of debauchery with Phonak teammate Axel Merckx and two other Tour riders. “My religious upbringing resulted in increased physical response to unclean images. A night of shameful behavior pushed my naturally high testosterone levels past the legal limit. I did not behave in a manner befitting a professional athlete, but I did nothing illegal.”

While Landis elaborated as little as possible during the press conference, Merckx seemed to bask in the limelight, providing a flurry of lurid details. “It all started the night after his disastrous ride on Stage 16,” he explained. “My dad [cycling legend Eddy Merckx] called me and said, “‘Axel, you gotta do whatever it takes to wake that guy up.’

“First we had a couple of beers. One thing led to another and next thing you know we’re looking at Internet porn. Like most of the guys, I’ve got bookmarked, but Floyd had never even seen it. I guess with his [Mennonite] upbringing he got into computers a little late. Anyway, he got more excited than I’ve ever seen him in a bike race. He got so embarrassed he went into the bathroom and poured a bunch of Kool ‘N Fit on his privates.”

Kool ‘N Fit, an obscure sports product developed in the early nineties comprised of equal parts alcohol and marketing hype, is not on any banned list. “It wouldn’t have given Floyd any performance advantage, but it did keep him awake after his second fifth of Jack [Daniels],” Merckx laughed. Too worked up to sleep, Merckx and Landis and two other Tour riders, José Rujano (Quick-Step-Innergetic) and Juan Miguel Mercado (Agritubel), drove two hours to 17 Etapes, a strip club in Grenoble. “I told Floyd, ‘Before you come out swinging tomorrow in Stage 17, you’re gonna go out swinging at 17 Stages,’” Merckx quipped. “It was quite a scene there. At the door they asked Floyd for ID and he couldn’t understand why. Dude’s been asked to piss in a cup hundreds of times but he’d never been carded in his life.”

Merckx was quick to point out that while they saw some graphic acts at the club, Landis managed to behave himself. “He broke some new ground for himself, sure, but he steered clear of the Champagne Room,” Merckx said. “As always, he was the consummate professional cyclist and obeyed the age-old rule of no sex during a grand tour.”

Merckx explained that the four stayed until the club closed and returned to their hotel mere hours before the start of Stage 17. Rujano passed out on the floor of his room and missed the race entirely. Mercado, reeling from a terrible hangover, dropped out 30 kilometers into the stage. “It was a rough morning, that’s for sure,” Merckx said. “Poor Floyd was still sporting a Woodrow at the start line. I was really worried until he spotted Pereiro in the yellow jersey. Then, man—I could hear the blood rushing out of his member.”

Asked how it was possible for him to channel his pent-up sexual tension into improved athletic performance, Landis replied, “Aw, hell, I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager. Don’t forget, I went to a public high school.”

To investigate whether or not suggestive images could really account for such a swing in testosterone:epitestosterone levels, the Daily Peloton contacted Professor Guido Norbiato of the Faculty Of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Luigi Sacco University Hospital, Milan. Norbiato explained, “I’ve been looking through the medical literature on this, and there have been a few studies. A 1998 study found that static pornographic images drove the T:E level up anywhere from 1.14 +/- 0.07 to 1.52 +/- 0.09 in normal ‘red-blooded’ males. The increase ranged from 30% to 90% in the different subjects studied with an average of 43%. Live sex shows drove it up further, anywhere from 1.21 +/- 0.08 to 1.68 +/-0.10, or 40 to 93% with an average of 55%. This still wouldn’t be quite enough to explain Landis’ increase, but then, the study didn’t include any Mennonites.”

The question is, will Landis’ defense put the issue to rest? Reached for comment, WADA president Dick Pound, whose name takes on new significance in light of current events, was unsure. “It comes down to the definition of ‘natural,’” he stated. “We’ve confiscated Merckx’s laptop and will investigate every cached URL to see what websites these guys visited. I’ve seen stuff out there that’s clearly unnatural.” Pound then flushed bright red and refused to take any more questions.

UCI President Pat McQuaid expressed grave concern about the impact Landis’ revelation will have on cycling. “We’re having to scramble now to develop an Internet ‘acceptable use’ policy before the sport’s reputation is tarnished further,” he lamented. But the ultimate impact of this development has other media entities increasingly optimistic about the sport’s future. “Already the doping story was increasing interest in cycling,” said Outdoor Life Network producer Ralph Edwards. “Drugs represent about the only nexus between cycling and more mainstream sports like baseball. Linking a Tour champion with booze and women may be our best way to reach other OLN viewers, like those who tune in for our Bull & Rodeo shows. Landis may have just blazed a trail between cycling aficionados and the NASCAR set.”

While Landis’ account of his positive A sample has met with widespread skepticism, it has helped to explain circumstances following his incredible comeback victory in Stage 17 from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Morzine. “His post-race behavior did reflect something closer to, well, outright horniness than the effect of a doping product,” said Phonak team physician Dr. Denise Demir. “Just talk to the podium girls.” Sure enough, when the Daily Peloton contacted Stage 17 podium girl Evette Bellefemme, she told us, “You know, it really was weird. The podium routine is always the same—the winner gets three kisses on the cheek from each of us. I’ve never had somebody kiss me back before. And then he asked for my phone number! Mon Dieu!”

The next step in clearing his name will be for Landis to submit to a battery of tests designed to establish the effect of lurid images on his natural testosterone levels. Dozens of fellow Tour riders, in an act of apparent solidarity with Landis, have signed up to participate in the study as a control group. “It’s a completely new test, of course,” said Pound, “but the medical community has been very responsive and our panel is already complete. We should have an answer within a few weeks. Landis may yet be innocent, regardless of the results of the B sample.”

Whatever the outcome of Landis’ doping investigation, chances are good that he will be fighting a difficult public relations battle, and has more than a little explaining to do at home.

For a spoof on how I’d have defended Lance Armstrong, click here.
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Family Internet Use Policy


Generally, parents don’t go snooping around in their kids’ laptops or phones.  We want to respect our kids’ privacy.  And yet, these devices are like mega-megaphones, capable of blasting our kids’ unbridled ideas and photos all over the Internet.  Privacy in this realm is an illusion:  even with peer-to-peer online communication, kids cannot prevent their supposedly private content from being posted publicly or forwarded.  I describe here a way for parents to put much-needed limits on our kids’ online autonomy.


My community has been through a serious scandal.  Some high school kids formed a secret Instagram group and, over a period of weeks, posted a lot of racist and misogynistic content (e.g., doctored photos and hateful sentiments).  Only a couple of kids were actually contributing content, but 14 or 15 others followed along, on an ongoing basis, instead of leaving the group.  What’s more, a number of these followers posted supporting comments and/or “likes.”  (It is widely hoped, but impossible to establish, that peer pressure was a stronger force here than bigotry.)  Finally one kid blew the whistle, and the whole thing unraveled, to the great shame of the students and families involved.

This episode has engendered a lot of soul searching among us parents.  We like to think we are instilling proper values in our kids—that we really know these people—but how can we be sure?  It’s easy to appraise the benefits of private music lessons, great schools, and organized sports teams, but how do we measure character and virtue?  At a minimum, how can we feel confident that our own kids won’t be embroiled in the next Internet scandal?

In this post I describe a solution.  It isn’t complicated, but it’s difficult.  I propose that every family establish and enforce a family Internet use policy.  The idea is to put limits on the secret online life that modern kids have, that gives them total freedom of expression with no parental supervision.  If we fail to instill the values and character we’re looking for, at least we can safeguard our kids against shaming themselves, their families, and their community.

A sample family Internet use policy

My family Internet acceptable use policy is based on the one my employer uses.  To wit, “[Company] monitors employees’ use of [Company’s] communications devices, computer systems and networks.”  I have told my kids up front, “I know your computer password and network logins, and reserve the right to read any of your online correspondence.  Consider nothing on your computer to be private.”  (If my kids had phones, those would be fair game, too.)

The premise here is that kids are less likely to post or consume offensive content if they know their parents can see it.  If this seems Orwellian to you, remember than in 1984 it was the government snooping, not parents.  I have a right to know what my kid is doing on the Internet, just as my employer has a right to know what I’m doing with the tools they give me.

Your policy doesn’t have to be this restrictive, of course—but you should have a policy, and something with more teeth than “Do whatever you want and we’ll hope for the best,” or “If you do something bad we might take away your phone.”

Do my kids tolerate this?  Yes, though of course they’re not thrilled.  Fortunately, I got an early start with this policy.  I introduced it before my kids were even online, so they were fine with it initially.  In fact, as they hadn’t yet developed the recklessness of teenagers, they were rightly concerned about accidentally stumbling on gross stuff online.  As they’ve reached their teens, their feelings have changed, but my wife and I won’t budge and they know it.  At least they’re used to the constraint.

So is this a perfect fix?  Probably not, but I’m sure it helps.  Without parental oversight, a kid is bound to be more bold and less inhibited with his or her expression.  I guarantee that the kids in my community who posted offensive photos to that Instagram account would not have printed hard copies and left them around the house.

Isn’t social media visible to parents anyway?

Kids might have you believe you can keep an eye on their virtual life via the public nature of social media.  But this isn’t true anymore.  Snapchat is all about messages and photos that are designed to be temporary. (Of course they’re actually not; your kid’s blunder can be captured for eternity by another kid’s screen grab.  It’s true, though, that once that transmission leaves your kid’s device, it’s too late for you to see it.)

Do parents grasp this?  Not always, as I learned from a workshop given by My Digital TAT2, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote responsibility in the digital era.  The lecturer quoted a teen correspondent as saying, “My favorite thing about Snapchat is that my parents don’t understand it.”  Most teens using Snapchat and Instagram have two accounts each:  one that their parents know about, and one that they don’t.  Many have a third account with which to assume a fictitious identity, which they use for retaliation and/or catfishing.  With all this subterfuge about, doesn’t it make sense to have access to the source of our teens’ online content—that is, their devices? 

Again, the point isn’t that you’re always snooping—it’s that your kids know you could, and behave accordingly.  As I candidly told my older daughter, I have peeped at her online correspondence exactly twice so far.  I explain to my kids that I generally don’t bother checking up, because I trust them—but I have to reserve the right to do so, or my policy goes up in smoke.

A kid’s right to privacy

Is my stance fair and reasonable?  Or am I violating my kids’ right to privacy?  That begs another question:  do kids even have a right to privacy?

Of course they do!  When one of my daughters was ten, she kept a diary.  Although I was sorely tempted to read it (because it was surely very cute), I honored my promise not to.  Likewise, I wouldn’t eavesdrop on my kids’ face-to-face conversations or phone calls, and I wouldn’t read a letter they got in the mail.  But the Internet is a game-changer.  It gives these kids the capability of broadcasting their ostensibly private communications to 3 billion people.  Mistakes are made, due to these kids’ own poor judgment, that of their friends (or “friends”), and by sheer accident.  I consider it irresponsible to give kids total autonomy online.

Setting limits isn’t just a parent’s right—it’s our job.  Are adults allowed to keep loaded guns around the house?  Unfortunately, they are.  Is it a good idea to give kids access to those loaded guns?  Of course not!  But think about Internet platforms like Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter:  they’re dangerous too, in their own way.  You almost couldn’t devise a more efficient way of giving teens new ways to screw up; of catching them in the act of screwing up; of widely publicizing the screw-up; and of documenting, time-stamping, and definitively establishing the fact of the screw-up, and the identity of the perpetrator, for all time.

Consider this scenario:  the year is 1980.  Teen 1, who is stupid and ignorant, tells Teen 2 a racist or misogynist joke.  Teen 2 laughs (maybe not because he even thinks the joke is funny; maybe because he’s uncomfortable).  Teen 3 overhears this exchange, and tells Teens 4 through 20 how racist/misogynistic these two are.  The damage is limited, because it’s all hearsay.  Teen 1 denies telling the joke, Teen 2 denies hearing it, Teen 3 is largely ignored, and Teens 4 through 20 shrug and move on.  Years later, Teen 1, who has become less ignorant, is privately ashamed of having told that joke, and Teen 2 is privately ashamed of having laughed.  They were just stupid kids, and thank goodness they can put that joke in the past and move on.  That’s pre-Internet.

Today, a couple dozen parents in my town—good, respected people, contributors to our community—are suffering deep shame because there is irrefutable evidence that their children consumed and in some cases “liked” racist and/or misogynist online content.  There is no way to repudiate the evidence; about all these beleaguered parents can do is assert that their kids aren’t actually hateful, that they were just swept away by a hateful meme.  That doesn’t go very far … not with the victims, and not with the community. 

Of course this isn’t an isolated case; these scandals are popping up everywhere.  And yet we parents have been standing back and allowing our teens unfettered access to these volatile Internet technologies.

The crux of the matter

Whether or not you agree about the non-sanctity of a teenager’s connected device, we need to help our kids understand something fundamental:  there’s no such thing as Internet privacy.  Once a photo or sentiment leaves your kid’s device, it’s a short step away from the great unwashed Internet.  If copy-and-paste isn’t available on the app that was used, screen grabs always are.  Any content that touches the Internet can be posted publicly and/or forwarded, whether by a recklessly playful or vindictive pal, or by mistake.  And we’ve seen that the law does not uphold the anonymity of Internet haters; consider this landmark case.  If a kid (or adult) thinks he or she can safely communicate his or her darkest thoughts via the Internet, even under some kind of shadow identity, he or she is mistaken.

Why isn’t it considered bad parenting to give these kids unfettered access to fun, easy, powerful online tools capable of permanently disgracing themselves and their families?  Probably because the beloved tech companies behind this Internet revolution are having their way with us.

The Internet and FOMO

I can’t think of a parent who hasn’t complained about his or her kid being glued to a screen all day, but nobody seems to know what to do about it.  In many cases parents are afraid of what would happen if they took away a kid’s phone or laptop.  (Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt,” published in 1950, was eerily prescient in this regard.)  The Internet and its addictive social media trappings weren’t dumped on us; they evolved so gradually we never saw the danger coming.

Meanwhile, to push back against technology is to seem backward, unsophisticated, and out of touch.  Society expects all of us, including students, to use the Internet daily.  As we adults suffer our own insecurity around keeping up with the rapidly evolving online culture, we are tempted to celebrate and emulate our kids’ prowess.  We blithely accept this totally separate virtual world, which becomes a constantly growing blind spot, like a locked door between ourselves and our kids.  In the process we lose touch with our kids’ morals, standards, and character.  Kids are typing things online that we’d shudder to hear them say out loud, and sharing photos that might shock us.

So if parents aren’t policing this, who is?  The Internet platforms themselves?  Yeah, right.  Remember, Mark Zuckerberg’s first online venture was a site where you rated your fellow students in terms of who was hotter than who.  He and his ilk most certainly do not have your kids’ backs. 

Consider this excerpt from a New Yorker article, which describes the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s misgivings about the Enlightenment, and how it threatened the idea of a universal moral code: 
It becomes impossible to settle moral questions or to enforce moral rules; the best we can do is agree to disagree. Such a world falls into the hands of managers and technocrats, who excel at the perfection of means but lack the tools with which to think deeply about ends.
I don’t have strong opinions about the Enlightenment, and MacIntyre was writing in the ‘80s, but that last sentence fits social media companies to a T.  The means of capturing and directing people’s attention are being perfected, but the impact on society is being largely ignored.  Venture capitalists are backing the companies best poised to monetize this stuff; they’re not throwing money at watchdog outfits like Digital TAT2.  Popularity—measured by the number of eyeballs on your app, the number of “likes,” and the number of links to your content—comprise the currency of our era.  (We parents are somewhat complicit here.  I’m sure many a parent dreams of his kid becoming the next Zuckerberg.  I doubt many are hoping their kid becomes the next great moralizer.)

Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have our kids’ attention.  To an increasing degree we parents do not.  The scale is tipping increasingly toward a peer orientation where our parental influence is marginalized.  Only by reigning in the access to this virtual world can we hope to maintain our crucial role in guiding our children.  Failing that, the least we can do is limit the damage they can do online.

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