Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Letting boys be...girls? (citations probably needed)

Over the past few days, I've read some come across some pretty interesting things on the internet that have really got the brain churning regarding the topic of growing up as a guy in today's society.  Among them:
The second and third brought out some memories of elementary school (not always good ones) and the first one brought to light a potentially damaging mentality that may explain the challenges that modern boys (and to a lesser extent girls) face as they are growing up today and what they can look forward to.

Carr-Chellman's talk about the modern school system sounded like a accurate recollection of my elementary school days, even though they are many, many years apart.  As she describes, there is not much that young boys can relate to in the modern classroom.  She argues that the dearth of male teachers (and other male role models), draconian enforcement of zero tolerance policies, and being made to express themselves about things that are simply not relevant to them have driven them away from academics into a world ruled by Orcs and Elves.

That was my childhood.  I wasn't particularly good at sports, so relating to my peers was difficult. Reading was made into a chore, so rather than disappearing into books, my world was a virtual one.  It would probably account for a lot of my current level of social skill and why I'm not as good with talking to people as I'd like (especially members of the opposite sex), but whatever.  It's done.  But, what I had back then that boys do not have was the ability to express myself in writing.  This probably explains why I do what I do.

During my formative years (and for those who I knew back then can attest), I wrote some pretty horrible stuff.  Not necessarily poorly written (although some of it likely was), but the kind of stuff that would get kids in a lot of trouble today.  One collaborative fiction assignment I was particularly proud of initiating was a story about Barney the Purple Dinosaur being captured by a team of scientists that used gene splicing to turn him into a blood-thirsty killing machine and the ensuing massacre that took place.  After the story was handed to one classmate to continue, he immediately "ended" it, evidently too disgusted to continue the story.  A female classmate got a hold of it and the violence and bloodshed continued on paper.  I felt slightly vindicated after that.

Another classmate initiated a story which depicted me attempting to kill the English teacher's cat.  And yes, I probably had way too much fun continuing the blood and carnage and making it even more violent (I actually compared an exploding skull to the microwaving of a raw egg).  The teacher in question actually read that one and nobody got in trouble for it.  In the wake of the Columbine massacre, the result today would've been suspension and a meeting with the school counselor.

As to the increased attention given towards the unhealthy amount of time that boys are spending on video games, it's entirely possible that these worlds are the only thing that allows them to get their aggressive tendencies out.  Over the years, political correctness and the need to be nice to people who aren't particularly nice to us has made for a lot of frustration without any healthy means of dealing with it.  During my childhood, it was bad enough dealing with bullies, as I was given the constant message that it was wrong to hit back and sure enough, I didn't.  And of course, telling on bullies will make the problem worse, so that didn't happen either.  Not being equipped to deal with it, I took my bruises which I still remember, and probably affects me today (although I'm working on that).

It's worse for kids now, when retaliatory actions, even when in self-defense, will land the victim in more trouble than the bully, leaving the "weaker" boys (note the use of quotation marks) in an environment where they don't feel like they belong.  Forget about "play"fighting (which was grounds for punishment when I was in elementary school).  Nowadays, if a child brings an action figure to school carrying an accessory that no sane person would perceive as a deadly weapon, that child faces disciplinary action.

The fight club incident in Washington state is indicative of the problem and represents a very significant opportunity.  The reality is that most boys do have tendencies towards aggression.  Mine didn't manifest physically, but it was still there.  But simply ignoring them will not make them go away, and it needs to be channeled in a positive way.  We've evolved past the age where there would be maximum benefit for it on a regular basis (we don't have to hunt for buffalo anymore, we just go to the grocery store, and there's no way that checkout lines require that much aggression in order to survive), but it should be realized that "aggression" is not necessarily synonymous with "violence."

As barbaric as it might sound to our PC sensibilities, an after school fight club could have some potential benefits to it, provided that it's done within a controlled (read: supervised) and safer environment.  After essentially being reduced to caged animals in the classroom and not being allowed to be "boys", there's a lot of pent up frustration and aggression that's built up.  If it's released in an environment like this, boys can get their physical activity (a must in the light of cuts to physical education programs) and also just as important, they learn to stand up for themselves.  And as much as these "nice guys" are pleasant to have around, the world is relentlessly cruel to them.  They will miss out on countless opportunities, they will have their hearts broken countless times over, they will never have respect, and they will never reach their full potential.

But given the pacification of people today (and the fear of lawsuits), it's extremely unlikely that something like that would ever be sanctioned by parents or educators, which is unfortunate.  Parents will always want to protect their kids, and now with GPS tracking devices and the ability to (ab)use the legal system, they can do that.  But that's also doing a significant disservice, and it's ultimately futile, as kids will get hurt.  It's part of growing up.  The only thing a parent can (and should) actually do is equip them so they can protect themselves.

This generally isn't happening either.  This is a world where men are becoming increasingly obsolete, regardless of what the glass ceiling might say about income disparity.  Certain male roles (e.g.: hunting down buffalo) have been outmoded by industrialism, and as Barbara Kay's editorial indicates, largely suggests that to a certain degree, men have been reduced to providers of sperm. Indeed, with fathers increasingly out of the picture (working extremely long hours to support the family or being reduced to weekend parents after the custody battle left the children in care of the mother), boys are going to be left behind a lot more until the problem is recognized and dealt with, or we pull our collective heads from our asses and realize that it's not about us, but for our children's futures.

And for the women that say that there are no good guys left?  You're exactly right.  And there is a reason for it.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Comparing Apples and Android-anges

A friendly letter to Steve Jobs
"ATTN: Steve Jobs.  Suck it!  Your pal, A. Droid   Sent from an Android device"

The competition between smartphone manufacturers is a particular interest.  With smartphone functionality approaching that of a personal home computer at a fraction of the size, it's no surprise that smartphone sales have outpaced PC sales for the first time late last year (of course, there are other factors, such as the replacement rate and upfront costs of a computer vs. a smartphone). Smartphones have also become a lot like home computers in that consumers have largely been "encouraged" to pick a side. And, much like the Windows/Mac rivalry, Android/iPhone also have their respective cult followings.

Flashback, 2009. I was in the market for a new laptop computer and I had a certain amount of money I was willing to spend. I asked for recommendations on my Facebook wall and was greeted with, "Get a Macbook if you don't want a virus-ridden piece of junk." While I've been a Windows PC user for over 20 years, I don't completely disagree with this very common perception from Mac users. Microsoft constantly updates Windows as security exploits are discovered, and indeed, the vast majority of viruses and malware are written specifically for Windows systems. However, those with that perception also conveniently ignore the fact that Mac OS makes up less than 10% of the total market share, whereas the last three versions of Windows make up a total of over 85%.  If you're the type of person that would want to cause the most damage, you'd go for the biggest target.

But as for "better"? I generally argue that there is no such thing as a "better" system, rather a "more suitable" system. I use a Mac at work and a PC at home and I get good use out of both. My Windows 7 PC takes care of my everyday stuff like games, browsing, and Adobe Creative Suite reasonably well (I'm still running CS2), while I've become accustomed to doing graphic design realted stuff with my work Mac. And contrary to what the Mac pundits say, programs DO crash on a Mac, arguably just as often as PC. I do not notice an appreciable improvement in performance or stability when going from PC to Mac, so for my money, I'm still pretty content with my PC, at least for my usage patterns. If I choose to go into serious video editing, I could probably consider a Mac (Final Cut Pro is a lot better than Adobe Premiere, or at least the versions I've used). But given that Adobe CS is available on Mac AND Windows, I'll stick with Windows for now.

Back on topic. I tried to keep fanboyism at bay when choosing a new phone, as my choice largely boiled down to iPhone, Android, or Blackberry. All three platforms have a lot going for them - Blackberry has wide adoption for business use and has their own dedicated messaging network, Apple for their large marketplace of applications, Android for wide variety of hardware. Nokia was briefly a consideration, mostly due to the fact that the last four phones I owned were Nokia, although given their reduced presence in the North American market and lack of decent products, brand loyalty suddenly ceased to be an issue.

Between the various phone types, I ended up with the HTC Desire Z (the phone that's pictured above, which the Android mascot is using to send a little "friendly" gesture to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs).  Among my many reasons for picking this phone in general...
  • Key features missing from iPhone 4: physical keyboard, expandable memory, replaceable battery.  The last one is important, because you don't have the option of swapping out the battery in a pinch.  If it dies, it dies.
  • Key features missing from Blackberry: comfortable physical keyboard. 
  • Virtually unlimited customizeability
  • The fact that just about everyone else has an iPhone, which is a little bit funny to me considering that the stereotype of Apple users is that they are trying to be individuals.  By all getting the same phone. 
  • Price.  Buying an iPhone with a similar configuration will be $150+ more.  And that's if I can actually get one.
After getting my phone unlocked for my network (originally purchased under Bell, unlocked for Fido) and working out all the kinks, so far I'm pretty satisfied with my phone, but also realize that there are some drawbacks to being on the Android system.

While Android is open source, it essentially ceases to be that after phone manufacturers get their hands on it.  Phone manufacturers and carriers put on a customized version of the user interface, which heavily contributes to the fragmentation issue. Because the phone is running a customized version of Android, getting an update to the next version of the operating system has to go through the phone manufacturer first, THEN your carrier.  With the multiple versions of the UI across different manufacturers and models, you can expect to wait a really long time for your upgrades, if at all.  HTC supposedly has the best track record for upgrading their phones (average wait to upgrade phones running Android 2.1 to 2.2 was 2 months), the latest version of Android (2.3) won't be officially available until the Summer.

This is akin to one of the issues faced by PC users when it comes to software compatibility, which is something touted by reasons to switch to Mac.  With the infinite possible hardware configurations of Windows-based PCs, there will be a chance that your setup will not be 100% compatible with the latest game or the productivity suite.  This doesn't happen on Macs, at least not as often.

Overall, I am pretty happy with my phone, although my biggest gripes are to do with Bell than with Android or HTC, which has prompted me to consider rooting the phone (similar to jailbreaking an iPhone), although not for the purpose of installing unauthorized apps, but for getting rid of the preinstalled apps that I will never use.  Unlike a Windows PC that comes preinstalled with demos and programs that you can get rid of at your leisure, the applications that come preinstalled on a smartphone require a bit of tinkering that will end up voiding the warranty. After a while, though, I kind of just ignore the apps I don't use anyway.

And about battery life, it will always depend on your usage patterns.  I know of people who can go for several days without recharging a Blackberry even with heavy use, whereas I can usually get max two days out of my phone (less if I'm playing a lot of Angry Birds, as the display accounts for most of the battery consumption).  While Android has gotten flack for high battery drain, iPhone users can experience the same.

In the end, don't believe the hype.  Pick the phone that suits YOUR needs, not just because everyone else has one.

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