In recognition of Choose Privacy Week (although it’s almost over), here are some recommendation and tips for making your online life a little more private.

For search engines, ditch Google and start using DuckDuckGo. The latter doesn’t track you, doesn’t store any of your personal information, and you don’t see annoying sponsored content sites popping up in your search results.

Ghostery is a browser extension that identifies web bugs, objects embedded in web pages that track your online activity. Ghostery tells you which companies own them and gives you the option of blocking them. Ghostery is available for Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Google Chrome (ironically) and Safari.

Cryptocat is a chatting and filesharing app that encrypts your online communications before they  leave your phone or computer. Note: anyone you’re communicating with should have the app as well.

And Over at ZDNet, Violet Blue has a guide to all the ways companies monitor our online shopping and what we can do about it.

 

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moon-mineretJoin us at the Central Library on Thursday, May 7th at 7:00 p.m. for “I Am Neither of the West Nor the East: What Islamic Spirituality Can Offer the Secular West,” an exploration of aspects of Islamic tradition, philosophy and culture that have inspired members of the secular and Christian worlds. Poet, filmmaker, and Harvard doctoral student in Religion Kythe Heller will give a talk on the critically acclaimed memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, the story of G. Willow Wilson, a secular American woman who converted to Islam, and discuss the work of Rumi (1207-1273), a Sufi mystic who is currently the best-selling poet in the United States.

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william_shakespeare_1609April 23 is traditionally considered the birthday of William Shakespeare. So Happy Birthday, Will. In addition to writing some of the most beloved works in the English language, he also coined over 1700 new words, make nouns into verbs, combining words never combined before, adding suffixes, and sometimes just outright making up words. His contributions to the language are monumental, you might say.

I hope the above factoid leaves you in a state of amazement. Myself, as a former English major and lifelong language geek, I’m a little jaded when it comes to literary trivia. And you probably think I’m a pedant for writing about this. In any case, it’s laughable to think anyone reads or goes to Shakespeare plays for vocabulary lessons. We go to Shakespeare for the madcap comedy of Twelfth Night, the cold-blooded butchery of Titus Andronicus, the lustrous poetry of The Tempest. In his plays we hobnob with Falstaff, delight in the radiance of Beatrice and marvel at the savagery of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s imaginative worlds are as varied as they are majestic.

I’ll stop now because I’ll bet you’re tired of this rant.I honestly don’t know why I keep blogging about Shakespeare. He has countless other champions.

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When Wikipedia first appeared in 2005, the excitement of Internet culture pundits was almost palpable.  An online encyclopedia that shared the knowledge of countless people from all over the world embodied the democratizing spirit of the web. “Behold the power of the people,” gushed Wired.  And the idea behind  Wikipedia is inspiring: it’s no respecter of persons or credentials. Wikipedia contributors just have to be willing to  do some work.

But as many of us foresaw from the beginning, the best thing about Wikipedia is also the worst thing about Wikipedia: if anyone can contribute, the door is open to a world of  biased editing and misinformation. In 2005 someone deleted paragraphs from Diebold’s Wikipedia entry that were written by a critic of the company’s voting machines. This anonymous editor left a digital trial that led back to the IP address of a computer in Diebold’s offices. Last month it was discovered New York City cops were  editing Wikipedia entries on cases of police brutality, including the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was choked to death by NYC cops. The account of the police confrontation with Garner was re-written to make Garner sound more physically threatening. And recently the estimable Jessamyn West investigated the veracity of a Wikipedia claim that Louisa May Alcott had disparaged Henry David Thoureau’s personal grooming choices (she hadn’t).

This isn’t to say that Wikipedia is worthless. Some of its contributors do great work. In 2007 Noam Cohen of The New York Times praised Wikipedia contributors for the “polished, detailed article” they wrote and edited on the Virginia Tech shooting in the hours immediately following the event.

However, don’t trust Wikipedia uncritically. I always tell people to use it as a starting point for learning about a subject, but check the citations and external links that usually accompany an entry. If there aren’t any citations, be suspicious. Whenever possible consult more than one source when trying to learn the facts about a subject.

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lincolnYesterday was the 150th anniversary of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot in the head in Ford’s Theater, where he was watching the play Our American Cousin. A century and a half and three presidential assassinations later, it’s impossible for us to comprehend what a national trauma it was.  It was the first time an American president had been murdered.

Ford’s Theater has put together an online exhibit on national reactions to the assassination. It’s a fantastic example of how the Internet can be used to teach history. I’ve been a history geek my entire life. I wish the Web (and sites like this) had been around when I was a kid. Among the most instructive aspects of the exhibit are the indications that many people welcomed Lincoln’s death–and not just in the former Confederacy.  The site has an interactive map where you can see reactions to the assassination in different parts of the country. In San Francisco some people were apparently quite happy about it: Major General MacDowell ordered that anyone celebrating Lincoln’s death be arrested. To characterize the war as “North against South” is clearly an oversimplification.

The site has an additional collection of written reactions to Lincoln’s assassination, including Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain, My Captain!” and diary entries by Emilie Davis a free African-American  Philadelphian who wrote in her diary, “everything assumes a solemn aspect the streets look mournful the people more so.”

freedomThe anniversary is related to two popular subject areas at SPL: the Civil War and true crime. The Battle Cry of Freedom is a compulsively readable one-volume history of the Civil War.   I’ve also enjoyed another book by the same author: For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.

For those fascinated by presidential assassinations, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Destiny of the Republic, an account of the shooting of President Garfield and the attempts to save him. It’s a gripping read: not only does the author vividly recount the life of an almost completely forgotten president, she also tells a fascinating story of nineteenth-century medicine. Alexander Graham Bell was summoned to Washington and asked to invent a device that could find the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body (no pressure). But the effort to create an X-ray machine was the only part of the president’s treatment that resembled modern medicine. In fact Garfield probably would have survived if he had been kept away from his doctors, who poked and prodded in his wound with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments.

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As security goes, passwords aren’t that great. Most of us can’t think of an alphanumeric code that would stymie password cracking software.

However, you’re still going to need passwords for the foreseeable future.  Your ability to use the Internet is extremely limited without them.

Edward Snowden himself has been taking some online flack for telling John Oliver that “MargaretThatcheris110%SEXY” is a secure password. Sure, it’s a long(ish) phrase as passwords go, and the opinion expressed is perhaps not one widely shared, but it’s an English phrase, and recognizable as such. Password cracking programs have algorithms that are capable of recognizing patterns from human languages.  And as Joseph Bonneau, a cryptography researcher interviewed for the linked article above, said, “People are bad at producing randomness.”

So what can we do?

Adding characters to phrases can certainly help. For example, substituting a  with @  in Snowden’s phrase, resulting in “M@rg@retTh@tcheris110%SEXY,” makes it less predictable.  But what’s really best, Bonneau says,  is something truly random.  Take a phrase you can remember that doesn’t make any sense, such as “potato_goatdrive fish’s_neck.”

What I’ve written sums up the high points of the Wired article in the above link, but you should really read it in its entirety.

And if you’re still interested in learning about passwords and security, read this blog post by security expert Bruce Schneier. And read this piece from RaiderSec about how browsers store passwords.

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…for April 9, 2015

Grant150 years ago today Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, bringing an end to four years of war that caused 600,000 deaths.  The generosity and forbearance of the victors in the American Civil War has no historical precedent: there were no executions; Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their property; Confederate prisoners were released as soon as they swore an oath to never again fight against the U. S. government. When Union soldiers began to fire and cheer in celebration, Grant ordered them to stop: “The Rebels are now our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after victory will be to refrain from all celebrations.”

The war inspired a vast body of written work, including novels, cold Mountain Book Coverhistory, memoirs and poetry. My favorite novel set during the Civil War is Cold Mountain by James Frazier, the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier making his way back home to North Carolina and to Ada, the woman he loves. While Inman does his best to stay alive in a war-ravaged land where all order has broken down, the once-wealthy Ada has to re-learn how to live, how to grow her own vegetables, raise livestock and make her own clothes. This winner of the 1997 National Book Award is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read in that I could actually believe the characters were from the nineteenth century, that I was experiencing a world I knew about, but that was at the same time profoundly alien.

One of my favorite works of Civil War history is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s focus on so short a time period enables him to give his readers a sense of what it was like to live, work and fight in 1865. We follow Lincoln’s secretary John Hay as he walks to the telegraph office in the evening to wait for the latest reports from the front. We sit in on the deliberations of the Confederate government as they realize time is running out. And agonizingly, we walk with John Wilkes Booth into Ford’s Theater up to the President’s box where he commits one of the greatest crimes of all time. But this book is more than an epic retelling of events in the lives of famous men. Winik never lets you forget what the war was really about, and the greatest good that came out of it. He recounts the ex-slave Houston Holloway’s memory of becoming free in 1865: “I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

goreFor an overview of the cultural and political world of America in the 1850s and 60s, you probably can’t do better than Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Literature of the American Civil War. Wilson discusses, analyzes and dissects the writing of the period: travel accounts by Northerners in the South, diaries of Confederate ladies, memoirs by Union generals. He also reflects on the work of post-war writers who were shaped by the conflict, such as Kate Chopin and Ambrose Bierce.

If you’re interested in learning about the Civil War but none of these titles sound appealing, come to the library and ask me or one of my co-workers for help finding something. That’s why we’re here.

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Painting of Romans CelebratingThe cruelest month (as T.S. Eliot called it) has officially begun, and many people will doubtless play silly pranks on others today. But why? Nobody really knows  the origins of April Fool’s Day. But we do know that holidays associated with jokes have been around a long time. In Ancient Rome the December festival of Saturnalia was distinguished by a Carnaval-like atmosphere in which tricks and hoaxes were par for the course. As for modern April Fool’s Day, one of the earliest mentions in English is by the antiquarian John Aubrey, who in 1686 wrote “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.”

April Fool’s Day went with English settlers to the American colonies, although my cursory research hasn’t turned up any examples of colonial pranks or japes (I can’t imagine the Puritans would have gone for that sort of thing). The earliest mention I can find of April Fool’s Day in America is in the April 1, 1870 New York Times, which warned its readers, “Today is April Fool’s Day. We hasten to inform the people of this great City of this fact, and to put them on their guard at the earliest hour practicable. If anyone is imposed upon before they have read the Times, it is because they have not a due sense of what should be the first duty of the day, and it serves them right. ”

Well then.

April Fool’s Day has occasioned some truly inventive pranks over the past century or so. Here are three of my favorites:

Fake photo of pasta being harvested from treesIn 1957 the BBC news program Panorama broadcast footage of farmers gathering what appeared to be long strands of pasta off tree branches, while newscaster Richard Dimbleby informed viewers that Swiss famers had “an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop that year.” Hundreds of people called the BBC wanting to know where they could buy spaghetti bushes.

Well into the twentieth century many Europeans still rode horses into cities. In 1961 an Italian newspaper announced that horses would have to be outfitted with signaling and brake lights just like cars. Many horse owners showed up at mechanic’s garages with their horses, to the bewilderment of the mechanics.

In 1998 Burger King announced the introduction of the “Left-Handed Whopper.” According to the ads, the new whopper contained the same ingredients as the original but all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the convenience of Burger King’s left-handed customers.

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panel of Calvin and Hobbes cartoonOn November 18, 1985, people across the country opened their newspapers (this was back when most people read newspapers) and met a sandy-haired six-year old named Calvin and his stuffed (but sentient) tiger Hobbes.  Calvin was every babysitter’s nightmare, the bane of his teachers, Dennis the Menace on speed (but with a much better vocabulary and a more interesting mind). He was a source of nonstop stress for his parents and a constant torment to his neighbor Susie.

Of course readers fell in love.  During its 10-year run, Calvin and Hobbes was ultimately carried by 2400  newspapers around the world and translated into calvinchineseapproximately 40 languages. Then on New Year’s Eve 1995, surprised readers saw the strip’s abrupt end as our boy and his tiger rode a sled into a snowscape of possibility.

Unlike many cultural artifacts of the late eighties and early nineties, Calvin and Hobbes are still with us and still loved.

220px-Dear_Mr._WattersonHow beloved? Last month when rumors of a new Calvin and Hobbes book got out, the barrage of hits crashed the publisher’s website, and  the hardcover collection The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is currently sold out at Amazon.

If you’re a Calvin and Hobbes fan, come join us at the Central Library, 79 Highland Ave., on April 8 at 7 pm for a screening of Dear Mr. Watterson a documentary exploration of the genius of Calvin and Hobbes, their creator, Sam Watterson, and the love that readers have for them to this day.

This critically acclaimed documentary is a love letter to the last great comic strip.

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Portrai163 years ago today Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in two volumes by the Boston firm John P. Jewett. The book had initially appeared in serial form in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. 10,000 copies of the two-volume set were sold in two weeks and 300,000 in the first year. Jewett himself said, “Three power presses are working twenty-four hours per day, in printing it,…and still it has been impossible…to supply the demand.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the first American novel to sell a million copies, and is considered the most influential book of the nineteenth century for its role in turning public opinion against slavery. Related reading at SPL: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz and Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter.

On this day in 1841  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue poeMorgue,” which is considered the first modern detective story, appeared in Graham’s Magazine. Certain aspects of the story became long-lasting conventions of detective fiction, including the brilliant detective with the less-than-brilliant sidekick who serves as narrator, the police who aren’t quite up to the job, and the clues that are hidden in plain sight which only the detective notices and understands.  Arthur Conan Doyle called Poe’s work “a model for all time” and based Sherlock Holmes in part upon Poe’s fictional detective, C. Augustin Dupin. Related reading and viewing at SPL: the Library of American collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 30s and 40s, the nonfiction work Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries and the Revolution in Forensic Science, and the incomparable BBC television series Sherlock.

 

 

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