Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Banning & hacking

Lifestyle/Technology | Palin controversies raise questions about propriety, privacy

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

Banned Book Week observances early this month gave libraries and bookstores a chance once again to raise fears about book-banning-a desire lurking in the heart of most conservatives, according to left-wing bloggers incensed about reports that GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin queried the Wasilla, Alaska, librarian about the nefarious practice.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), one of the sponsors of Banned Book Week, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom received a total of 420 challenges last year. The most challenged books included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple, And Tango Makes Three, The Chocolate War, and The Golden Compass. The ALA acknowledges that none of the books on its list is actually banned: "Although they were the targets of attempted bannings, most of the books featured during BBW were not banned, thanks to the efforts of librarians to maintain them in their collections."

The ALA continues: "Imagine how many more books might be challenged-and possibly banned or restricted-if librarians, teachers, and booksellers across the country did not use Banned Books Week each year to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature."

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Imagine: What will the ALA say about a successful campaign by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) to pressure the Scholastic Book Club to drop sales of Bratz books at its book fairs. The CCFC boasts on its website, "We Did It: Scholastic Expels the Bratz From Schools." A week before Banned Book Week began, The New York Times reported on the CCFC success: "The group's members had sent 5,000 e-mail messages to Scholastic protesting the highly-sexualized images in the Bratz books and products." The story went on to say that Scholastic withdrew the Bratz books because of declining sales, the influence of the campaign, and input from "editors, teachers and librarians to help choose the titles included in the book clubs and fairs."

Which leads to some questions: Who is allowed to challenge books without getting on the wrong side of The New York Times? Librarians? The CCFC, because its members are "a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, parents, and individuals who care about children"? Opponents of "a marketing-driven media culture [that] sells children on behaviors and values driven by the need to promote profit rather than the public good," as CCFC describes its mission?

While some people worry about banned books, many more are concerned about illegitimate looks at their email accounts. The news that someone hacked Sarah Palin's Yahoo account and posted her emails and photos at the Gawker website made many people think about the security of their own emails.

The anonymous Palin hacker used web browsers to discover her zip code and birth help function at Yahoo, he was able to get her security question (where did she meet her husband). As the hacker explained online: "I found out later though [sic] more research that they met at high school, so I did variations of that, high, high school, eventually hit on 'Wasilla high'." The hacker was able to reset her password to "popcorn" so that fellow mischief-makers could access her account.

The website Lifehacker.com explains that the resetting password function is necessary (we all forget passwords) but that it is also the weakest link in email security. To protect the security of your accounts, Lifehacker recommends choosing to answer the most obscure question-but even that probably doesn't go far enough.

Instead, Lifehacker suggests using a formula to answer security questions. For instance, if the security question is favorite sports team, instead of just answering "Tigers," use a formula: [Snarky Bad Attitude Phrase] + [Core Noun Phrase] + [Unique Word]. In the Lifehacker example, the bad attitude phrase is "stupidquestion." The core noun phrase is "favorite sports team." The unique word is "booyah." So the answer to the security question "favorite sports team" is stupidquestion favoritesportsteam booyah." Not likely a hacker will figure that out.

It's also important to have a secure password, which means using upper and lower case letters, dropping numbers and symbols into the middle of the root word-and somehow remembering the result.

Paper backed

According to a recent Random House/Zogby poll, 82 percent of readers still prefer to get their pleasure the old-fashioned way: from a book. Only 11 percent were comfortable using an e-book reader or other electronic devices.

Murder map

The CBS affiliate in Chicago has put Google Maps to powerful use by plotting all the shootings that occurred in Chicago between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2008. Using red and blue push pin icons to differentiate between fatal and non-fatal shootings, the map shows precisely where each murder occurred with block-level specificity when zoomed in close. Each incident is hyperlinked to the map, with details-the victim's name, age, date and time, and supposed cause-available with a click. The bad news: 123 people died from gunshot wounds in Chicago over the summer, nearly twice the U.S. combat death toll in Iraq over the same period.

Learning online

The internet provides opportunities to learn and practice foreign language skills. Here are three suggestions:

Busuu.com combines language learning with social networking. Users signify the language they speak and the language they want to learn and can chat with people in either language. The site is still in its development stage, which could explain why its graphics (which seem aimed at children) and content (aimed at adults) don't sync. During registration, the website asks for age, a photo, and relationship status, which suggests that Busuu.com will appeal primarily to those who desire social networking rather than intense language learning. During Busuu.com's beta phase, membership is free. After that the site plans to offer a free basic membership and a paid premium membership.

Mangolanguages.com is a better bet if you're interested in actually learning a language. The website offers a free "discovery" membership as well as paid premium memberships ranging from $65.00 for one month ("learn enough of a language to satisfy the most basic of communication requirements for light travel abroad and impressing your friends") to $345 for a full year ("develop a powerful edge in native conversational fluidity"). The site provides easy-to-understand lessons, pronunciation help, and lots of repetition.

Listening to and comprehending native speakers is difficult. Oculture.com provides a directory of many foreign language podcasts, including fairy tales in Spanish and slow German from "Sleepless in Munich," which can be downloaded for free.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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