Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gareth Eats, Ryan Bakes, Erin Programs

After deciding a couple of months ago that he only required breakfast and then a few bites of either dinner or lunch to keep him going, Gareth finally decided a couple weeks ago to eat again. He certainly has made up for his lack of eating previously! He's had a few days where he's eaten non-stop, asking for "munch" (lunch) just a few minutes after finishing his breakfast, eating two or three snacks and a full lunch and dinner as well. After a couple weeks of that he seems to be tapering off a bit, but he's still eating well at meals, so I guess he's decided moderation between the two extremes would be best. He's starting to hit the "terrible twos", throwing little tantrums complete with lying on the floor leg-kicking and he's getting more intentionally mischievous. But with that comes his greater attempts at communicating with real words. He will often repeat the last word of any sentence I say and is getting more willing to try out new words. Here are a few new pictures of him:

Wearing the hat Grams made for him.

Another (shorter) haircut.

A sweater from Grams.

My mom's been having fun knitting things for Gareth (and even for Ryan!). We've appreciated them a lot since we've had such a cold winter and had to keep our house on the chilly side to keep the electric bill reasonable. We've even been able to use the sweaters in the cold mornings of the past few days. Thanks, Mom!

And now on to the second part. Ryan really likes German Chocolate Cake. A lot. I made one several weeks ago, but he wanted more last week. I was busy cleaning up the kitchen from dinner, so he went ahead and baked the cake himself! (We make it from scratch, so it really is an accomplishment.) All I did was take the cakes out of the oven and put it together (which I messed up by not putting enough frosting between the first two layers - oops). He made the cake and the frosting all by himself! I was very impressed and, aside from my mistakes, it turned out perfectly.

The unfortunate thing about this cake is that it never lasts as long as it seems like it should...

To complete our role reversal, I'm letting Ryan try to teach me how to program. I'm having him teach me Java, figuring I'd rather learn that first and Ruby or Python later rather than the other way around. After hearing him talk about the students in his classes at school, I'm hoping my ability to grasp the subject doesn't disappoint him. It'll probably be a long process since we're both quite busy, but I'm enjoying learning so far - it's good to be cleaning some of the rust out of my brain!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Thoughts on Internet Filtering

The explosion of information and media brought about by the Web presents some serious problems for anyone with even a remote sense of decency. No one defines decency in the same exact way, but I believe there is useful commonality. Some people don't believe that there is such a thing as decency or don't care for the notion. If any such person has stumbled upon this blog post, I invite them to leave.

Among those who do believe in varying levels of appropriateness of content online, there is disagreement about how this problem should be solved. Let me venture to say first that forced Internet filtering is not the correct answer.

What I mean by forced Internet filtering is something akin to what you would see in the HBLL library at BYU. Internet filtering software is installed on a separate computer, called a proxy, and every other computer has to connect to the Internet through that proxy. The filtering software restricts access to a list of sites, called a blacklist, that are suspected to contain objectionable content. The software also analyzes the content of each website that is requested by every computer and determines automatically whether that site is appropriate or not. If you try to navigate to a website that is deemed inappropriate, you instead get a webpage that effectually says, "Shame on you. Your attempt to look at pornography has been logged and reported."

Why doesn't forced Internet filtering work?

Forced Internet filtering, in its present form, does not work for the following reasons:

Too ambitious for a packaged software solution

Automatically categorizing all web sites as appropriate or inappropriate is a lofty goal - a worthy goal, even - but there are so many different types and degrees of inappropriateness on the Web in so many formats that a single packaged piece of software cannot provide a satisfactory filter without a great deal of human oversight.

Technical solutions give non-technical parents a false sense of security

The technical boundaries that most parents place on their children are easily overcome. I speak from close personal experience. My parents thankfully did not attempt to use an installed Internet filter, but I'm sure it wouldn't have mattered much. Instead, there was an Internet password. You might be surprised to hear this, Mom, but learning that password was easier than taking candy from a baby, and I never had to watch you type it in. The BYU Internet filter is trivially easy to circumvent. It's useful too, as I'll explain in the next section, because BYU blocks practically half of the Internet.

Not only can geeks like me get past a typical filter, but so can inappropriate content. It's not very much trouble at all for the content to evolve into a format that makes it past a filter. If you filter out all swear words, people will come up with new ways to spell or abbreviate them that are easily readable and understood. Media can be encoded, encrypted, and compacted in all kinds of different formats. Websites can be accessed through other websites. It's almost like the illegal drug trade. If you outlaw it, it will move underground.

Sometimes there is no easy way to get around the filter. This can be the case if you work in a large corporation containing an entire IT division with the primary mission of locking down and restricting everything you do and touch while on the job. Even if you do break through the Iron Wall somehow, you might later get sacked like the little expendable peon that you are. I don't recommend working in such places for various reasons, but this is not really the environment I'm talking about anyway.

Unacceptable amount of false positives

False positives are incidents when the filtering software falsely classifies a website as containing inappropriate content. While working at BYU as a web developer and as a research assistant, I constantly ran up against the "shame on you" page when trying to access legitimate websites. Colleagues of mine all had the same experience. Since I don't access pornographic websites (not even accidentally - imagine that!), from my point of view this filter did nothing other than prevent me from getting information I needed at inopportune times. There is no explanation for this sort of thing other than an inhuman automated declaration that you have accessed a site that you shouldn't have. You might as well be talking to a phone rep at an electric company.

If you think it's bad at BYU, try going to someone's house where they've installed some shrink wrap web filtering software - the kind that's marketed to the same kind of suckers who will install "anti-virus software" from a pop-up window. If you try to browse the web, you'll soon find that, little did you know, up to this date you've been swimming in the eternal lake of fire and iniquity and your all-but-lost spirit is shrouded in a ponderous chain that you have labored on every time you logged onto your computer! Never again shall you roam the wicked shores of the Island of Phelps. Let the heavens have mercy upon your soul.

Terrible granularity

When I talk about granularity, I'm talking about the smallest unit of information that can reliably be blocked by an Internet filter. Up to this point that unit has been entire domains. A domain is the first part of the URL for a website, like BYU blocks YouTube (at least they did when I was there). Every single thing on YouTube, no matter how vile, or how enlightening, is blocked. That rules out a gigantic chunk of useful information on the Web as we know it today. It just so happens that it rules out a lot of cat videos and completely inappropriate videos too. I suppose the existence of the latter category and the collective IQ score of the associated comments for every video (-493e233) was the reasoning behind blocking it. It sounds like there's a good case to be made to someone high up at BYU for blocking the entire Internet. Some Internet filters block entire blogging domains like and

All complaining aside, the fact is that the terrible filtering software can do absolutely nothing about separating the good videos from the bad because they're all technically on the same website: YouTube. With such a great software tool like that, your choices are: ban everything or allow everything. Dealing with the comments is a trivial matter: they're all stupid, so just delete them from the page. Yet the web filtering software can't even do something as simple as that! Why not? Well frankly it's too much work for the developers of a packaged piece of software to put in special features for blocking specific parts of a lot of different domains. The software would have to detect the stupidity of the comments and delete them automatically, and while there's work being done in that direction (, there is still a long way to go.

Inhibits accountability

Finally the most important reason why forced Internet filtering does not work is simply because it's forced. The CS department at BYU used the Blue Coat web filtering software. We made up a slogan for it that we should have put on a T-shirt or something:
Blue Coat: Satan's plan for web filtering

When you forcefully take away the choice of what you can and cannot access online, you create a sort of prisoner culture. Within such a system, it is easy to feel that you are justified in getting away with whatever you can within the constraints of the system. Not only have the parents left the policing up to the Internet filtering software, but so have the kids. Getting to a website without being blocked by the filter must mean it's okay. Everyone is absolved of responsibility. It becomes a game almost: my parents installed a forced filter; therefore they don't trust me; therefore I feel no obligation to keep their trust; therefore it's simply their will against mine. Pretty soon I'll have found a way to get the content I want and I think, "Hah! I win this round! Bring it on Mom and Dad!"

Now obviously there are varying levels at which you can trust a child with the responsibility of browsing the Web depending on the child's personality and age, but strict, parent-controlled Internet filtering is not going to grow or adjust well for teaching different levels of accountability, and I've explained why a typical Internet filtering solution does not work even if it isn't parent-controlled.

Now that I've talked about what doesn't work, maybe we can start thinking about what might work...

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Usually I post recipe stuff on my sister's blog, but decided that I'd stick this one here just for the fun of it.

Ryan and I tend to make the same few treats over and over again, only trying new things around the holidays. But the other day Ryan decided he wanted something new so I delved into the cookbooks to see what might catch my eye. This is the recipe I decided on, from my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook:

Chocolate-Caramel Bars

1 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
1 cup flaked coconut
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 tsp. vanilla
20 vanilla caramels, unwrapped
2 tablespoons milk
1 cup milk or semisweet chocolate pieces

1. For crust, in a medium bowl stir together the flour and brown sugar. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press mixture into the bottom of an ungreased 13x9 baking pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle pecans and coconut over hot crust.

2. For filling, combine sweetened condensed milk and vanilla; pour over pecans and coconut. Bake for 25-30 minutes more or until the filling is set. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan combine caramels and milk. Cook and stir over medium-low heat just until caramels melt. Drizzle caramel mixture over filling. Sprinkle with chocolate pieces. Cool completely. Cut into bars.

I'm pretty certain this was the first time I've ever used sweetened condensed milk. I remember it being on the shelves at home growing up, but I can't ever recall using it for anything. What did you use it for, Mom?? These are delicious, but you definitely don't need more than one after a meal! The nuts, coconut, caramel, and chocolate make for one rich treat.

Another good snack to try is this one that we've been using in Nursery the past few weeks:

Pretzel sticks
Banana chips
Butterscotch chips

Just mix it all together in whatever quantities you desire. It's marvelous - I have a hard time not snitching some myself!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Can't Think of a Good Title

I'm not very good at titles. I never have been. I hated being required to have titles for English papers in middle and high school. And I don't like spending hours trying to come up with a title that will very likely only be mediocre.

Over the past several years I've spent a fair amount of time considering my chosen degree/career and whether it was a good choice or not. I decided to major in music in 7th grade. Thankfully I was intelligent enough to re-evaluate this decision towards the end of high school. And, despite liking some other things as well, I didn't like them enough to want a career in them. I loved performing, so I continued on in music.

But after I got married and had graduated I sometimes felt badly that I hadn't majored in something where I could graduate and get a typical full-time job and make lots of money while Ryan finished up. Even the FAFSA forms seemed to assume that this was what I should have done, so Ryan didn't get a Pell grant that last year. During the same time I was teaching private lessons, which I liked decently enough, but didn't feel like I wanted to do forever. After all, my dream had been performing, not teaching. So it was easy to feel, despite knowing since 7th grade that I'd wanted to do music, that I'd made a poor decision. (Of course, if I considered my other interests, none of those were particularly lucrative either, so I'd probably not have been any better off.)

Then I had Gareth and we moved. And we knew we'd only be in VA for a year, so it didn't make sense to teach there. And Gareth hated me practicing. And I almost went crazy. Sometimes I really did wish I'd done something where I could go get a 9-5 job so that I could choose to go back to work.

The year ended and we moved here. I've been surprised by all of the musical opportunities in the community, especially considering that the music program at the university is non-existent. I've realized how much I loved and missed teaching. Private lessons are still preferred, but my sectional teaching is (usually) enjoyable for me as well. I've discovered that everyone needs an outlet to re-energize them. For me, I've got to get out of the house without Gareth and teach and play and bring in some income. The everyday grind is more easily faced as long as I have this outlet. (Thankfully Ryan is incredibly supportive of this. I don't think he enjoyed the almost-crazy me.) And now I'm so grateful I chose the career I did. Because I don't really want to be working a 9-5 drone job. With my degree I have so much flexibility. I can choose to be involved in as much or as little of the music community as I would like. I've spent most of the school year working 3.5 hours per week. I can't think of many other jobs where I could do that. In whatever community we end up in I can find local performance opportunities. I can go back to school and get a MM or a DMA if I want or ever need to. Wherever we go I can teach. And I can teach from my home if I choose to (right now I teach at the high school). It is so easy for me to have a career and a family life with my degree. I feel like, if I needed to, I could do a decent job of supporting a family with my career. And the best part: I love what I do!