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Sometimes I think people who remember the meaning and spirit of the
First Amendment are such a vanishing minority in this country as to
possess a virtually negligible influence over the public discourse. href="http://www.censorware.org">Censorware.Ørg is a highly welcome
suggestion to the contrary. It’s a site dedicated to fighting that genre
of software created for the purpose of censoring the Internet. Software
filters, such as NetNanny and href="http://www.microsys.com/cyber/">CyberPatrol, are generally
touted to concerned parents as a quick and easy fix to the ready
availability on the Web of pornography or undesirable information, like
bomb-making instructions.

The desire to protect one’s children is nothing that I’m prepared to
argue with in itself, believe me. Nevertheless, I don’t recommend or
endorse content-blocking software. Why? Two main reasons. The first is
that it doesn’t work. The algorithm has not been invented that will
successfully catch and block every single undesirable site on the
Internet. The Web is crafty and proliferative, and kids are curious and
resourceful. You’re paying for a sense of security that is, I’m sorry to
have to inform you, utterly false.

The other, stronger reason is that when such software does function,
it often — not rarely — functions in the wrong ways, blocking
perfectly innocent, and often valuable, websites. That can mean children
find themselves barred from getting legitimate information. An
11-year-old girl, desperately shy about speaking to her parents of
puberty, yet conscious of her changing body, may want to look up
“breast” on the Web. If she finds that information unavailable thanks to
the officious work of anonymous corporate censors, she’s not going to be
much better off than her friend across the street who happens upon a
site containing pictures of naked women. The proper approach to these
situations is not the installation of a mindless, prefabricated
artificial nanny. It’s an engaged parent with the time and understanding
to take the initiative and locate an appropriate and informative book,
or, yes, website for the child to look at, if and when she wants to.

Fine, you may say. That girl might have to bite the bullet and –
horrors! — talk to her mom about sex. At least her sensibilities won’t
be coarsened by inadvertent exposure to smut. I won’t argue that point
any further, although I might. But do consider that pornography is not
the only category of concern to filterware makers and users. Parents
using filterware without doing considerable research beforehand (and
isn’t such software an excuse to avoid that kind of work?) are at the
moral and ideological mercy of the software developer. They may find
sites representing their own most cherished values on that software’s
blacklist — whether those values are embodied by href="http://www.family.org/">Focus on the Family or by href="http://www.hrc.org/">Human Rights Campaign. Too bad for
parents with minority political views — but that’s what happens when
you sign over the crucial job of parenting your own child to the
commercial, automated proxies of total strangers.

There are caveats with regard to the Censorware site itself. This is
a project that operates on absolute and uncompromising First Amendment
conviction. These folks know in absolute clarity what they believe, and
they don’t spend any time trying to make nicey-nicey with their
perceived enemies. As a result, their manifesto expresses a disrespect
verging on contempt for people with, for instance, strong traditional
religious concerns — an attitude I find, at a minimum, crass.
Nevertheless, and overheated though their rhetoric occasionally waxes,
the plain fact is that on the issues at hand, they are right, and the
censors, however well-intentioned, are wrong.

Hard driving

Those of us who were beginning, ever so slowly, to relax in the
pleasant delusion of enjoying a particularly mild and gentle winter this
year have been poleaxed by reality over the last week. On the hill where
I live there are still five inches of fluffy-looking snow underfoot,
except that it isn’t fluffy at all, but brittle and crunchy underfoot,
on account of recent wind chill factors in the neighborhood of 20
degrees below. Mild and gentle, my foot. Of course, once Old Man Winter
has awakened with a vengeance like this, the daily commute becomes a
crapshoot. It’s a good idea to bone up on proper car care and safe
driving techniques in icy or snowy conditions, so scan href="http://cartalk.cars.com/Info/WinterDriving/">Car Talk’s winter
driving tips and the href="http://www.csaa.com/about/education/winterdrive.asp">AAA’s briefer
checklist.

Test your instincts with this terrifying quiz and be
prepared for the worst
by learning — well in advance — what to do
if you and your car get stuck somewhere out on the road when the
Blizzard of 2000 hits. I was vaguely worried when my trusty search
engine turned up Colorado’s Bridgestone Winter Driving School, which will formally teach you,
not only safe driving techniques, but snow-and-ice driving as a
recreational performance sport. They have an ice track. This is,
apparently, a thing people do for fun. Other, odder people.

Wu are you?

I have, really, no idea what the thinking (if any) is behind href="http://www.recordstore.com/cgi-bin/wuname/wuname.pl">WuNames.
They baffle me utterly, and I shrink from the task of trying to explain
them in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, I and all of my friends have
been having a simply marvelous time playing with them. You will, too.

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