June 29, 2010

A Creative Inkling

Category: General — Oisín @ 3:02 pm

For anyone who’s interested, I’m running an online course on Writing for Children with Creative Writing Ink from the 19th of July.

Creative Writing LogoThe course will cover the basics of storytelling and some specific aspects of writing for children and young adults – including: how to generate ideas; how to use observation; describing characters and setting; using dialogue and ensuring a good pace and plot, and how to tailor your writing for different age groups.

There is a limited number of places, so if you want in, book now!

How to Lose Trust and Alienate Customers

Category: General — Oisín @ 2:36 pm

Anyone who knows me or follows this blog will know that I am all for using technology to improve our quality of life, and to make our increasingly complicated lives more manageable. But technology should be used for our benefit. I have a major problem with the way customers of all ages are being treated by the businesses we give our money to. And this normally applies to the ones we have to give our money to, either because they’re the only ones providing the service we need, or because all the companies offering this product or service are the bloody same, so taking our business elsewhere makes no difference.

You’re warned, this post is going to be a bit of a rant . . . More than a bit, actually.

No business should be allowed to sacrifice good service by shoving a technological interface between itself and its customers in a way that inconveniences the customer. On the contrary, they should be punished for it.

Alienate 1-New RulesThese days, it seems that instead of training staff to provide a service, many businesses prefer to train their customer to service themselves, and then charge them for the pleasure. Let’s pick an example that’s particularly relevant to teenagers first.

Ticketmaster have become infamous in Ireland for their online booking charges. Put simply, if you save them or their agents the hassle of having to deal with you in person, or on the phone, you are hit with  ‘a per ticket convenience charge and a non-refundable per order processing fee’. By convenience, they presumably mean their convenience. So even if you’re booking several tickets for a gig in one go, requiring their computer to deal with you only once, you pay an extra charge PER TICKET.

But the other day, my wife went into a music shop which was a Ticketmaster agent, to buy a ticket for a football match for her nephew. She had the option of buying it online, but that would have taken more time than going to the shop. If you buy the match ticket online, you don’t actually get a ticket to print out. You have to queue up at the ticket office at the football ground, on the day of the match (assuming it isn’t convenient to travel there on an earlier date) to collect your ticket. And you pay an extra euro for that service.

Supermarkets stopped packing your shopping for you some time ago. Tesco’s have gone one further; they now have you scanning your own shopping and paying a machine. This seems like a good idea, until you think about it. I’d rather they just opened another of the many closed tills with a human being who can work a cash register, and then I wouldn’t have to wait for the people who don’t know how to use the system (which sometimes includes me), or can’t get some troublesome item to scan. But opening up another till would require another member of staff. The company reduces its costs by training its customers.

Next up: Tech support. You need it to fix your computer, your MP3 player, your mobile phone, or any other handy piece of technology you count as an essential part of your lifestyle. Maybe you’ve got a parent or sibling or friend who handles this stuff  for you, but chances are you deal with it yourself. The more technology you use (and you’ll be using more all the time), the more tech support you’re likely to deal with.

For a start, a lot of the time, you have to pay an extra charge for the calls. So you pay to call them so they can tell you how to fix a problem on your gear. If the gear has more problems, you pay more to have it fixed. If they get money from the calls, they earn money by creating a crap product. They get you to waste your time and spend your money so they can tell you how you can fix something that they didn’t make properly.

That’s assuming you can even get them on the phone. First, they’ll try and get you to use the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ page on their website, sites I’ve frequently found to be bugger all use. Next, you’ll call up and be met by a call routing message, which will try to a) send you back to the website, and then b) make you waste more of your premium rate call listening to options regarding your inquiry, while you’re pleading for help or snarling expletives down the phone (For quality purposes, this call may be recorded . . . Good! Record this: SHOVE YOUR ****ING CALL ROUTER UP YOUR ****!).

Alienate 2-Speaking ClockBut sending a customer to a website or bombarding you with pre-recorded messages doesn’t cost anything; having someone to answer a phone – particularly anyone with the kind of expertise and experience you’ll need to solve anything out of the ordinary – that costs money.

If you get frustrated enough with an ongoing problem, you’ll probably buy a whole new piece of kit. They’ll no doubt hope you buy another one of theirs.

The barrier toll plaza on the M50 (the Dublin orbital road, for all you non-Irish) was removed because it was causing massive traffic jams. You were paying to get caught in traffic. Now, the barriers are gone and cars are being photographed as they drive past. You have to pay in certain shops, though I’ve never seen any signs in shops. So you go online to pay your toll. This takes up your time, but doesn’t cost them anything. They make millions every year on fines that are charged for people paying later than the time allowed. The cost escalates very quickly.  I pay on a one-off basis. You have to go online and volunteer the number of tolls you want to pay; they don’t show you how many are owed. If you get it wrong and underpay, they don’t tell you until you get the letter informing you that you’re being fined for late payment. If you get it wrong, and overpay, they keep the money. Instead of telling you you’ve overpaid, they put you in credit. If you never use the M50 toll road again (or maybe just ‘again that financial year’), you don’t see that money again. Their system has got my charges wrong on more than one occasion. And there is no way to prove you haven’t used the toll road.

I didn’t sign up for an account for the M50, but my wife did. Her credit card was charged over a dozen times for using the M50, when she hadn’t driven past the cameras once. All you can do is call up and argue your case; you may or may not get off. Their system doesn’t work properly, so they make more money.

Banks are probably the worst culprits though, because of how they treat us when their entire business relies on the lumps of money we store in their vaults. A few years ago, most of the banks started introducing this policy where you couldn’t phone your local branch any more. You had to phone a central number and go through a menu of options (****ing CALL ROUTERS!) before dealing with someone who didn’t know you from Adam. They’d much rather you did all your banking online, even if you sometimes need a human being to respond because the things you can do online are limited (especially the access you have to recent details of your account going back more than a month or two) or the service you need doesn’t appear under the available automatic options on the phone.

Having to deal with normal customers like you and me is a real drag for a bank. People have resisted the central phone line thing, because it’s the kind of move that really pisses off customers who want to keep tabs on, and control of, their money. But the banks don’t really worry about pissing off people, because all the banks do it, so there’s nowhere else you can go.

My local branch have decided to strengthen their defences against their customers by installing an airlock system on the entrance to the bank. This means you have to press a button to open one door, step into a sealed room, press another button and enter by a second door. The second door will only unlock once the first door is locked. Apparently, no bank with this system has been successfully raided by armed robbers. They say this new control over the front door is as much for customer safety as it is for keeping the money safe. Never mind the fact that this futuristic new entrance is incredibly difficult to get through if you have a baby in a buggy, or if you’re disabled – especially if you’re in a wheelchair. If you are one of these people, it’s an inconvenience you’ll just have to bear. Newly-installed technology that makes it harder for customers to get into the building.

Alienate 3-Toxic HazardTo take their logic to its ultimate conclusion, if their bank has no doors at all, and the customers have no way of getting in, the money will be completely safe. In fact, they should bury it in the ground in a vault in a secret location, and surround it with nuclear waste, just to be sure.

Still I’m sure that all this poor service will change, now the banks have realized how their poor judgement has plunged the country into disastrous debt and billions of euros of our tax money has been used to haul their asses out of the fire. They’re bound to treat people decently now . . . right?

Well, no. The airlock thing was bad, but National Irish Bank have gone a step further in their branches. They’ve just decided to stop dealing with cash altogether. If you want to lodge cash, or withdraw it over the counter, you’ll have to go to the post office. I pity anybody who has their accounts with that company. Service? What service? Vote with your feet, people. Close your accounts.

This is a business culture that we are being forced to accept. But I don’t want to. I’m more than willing to serve myself to speed things up, and fix things myself when I can, or find things myself if the means are there. But these should be options, not standard operating procedures. This process of training the customer to pay to obey is an insidious one, and needs to be defied in any way we can. It adds more demands, complications and paperwork to our everyday lives. It often makes things less efficient, instead of more so, by standardizing systems across different markets with a single process that doesn’t work for everything, but suits the companies who buy into it. Most call centres work on contracts from a range of different clients. They could be doing tech support for an mp3 player on one call, while on the next call they’re talking about washing machines. A piece of software is really dealing with the enquiry, resulting in a less-than-supportive tech support.

We are learning to pay for services that lack quality, expertise and reliability, because we are growing ever more distant from the people who provide them. It’s not good enough. In fact it’s a disgrace.

Let’s make them work much, much harder for our money. Buy something else, somewhere else, until they get the message.

June 22, 2010

Queen of Teen

Category: Check This Out,Publishing Views — Oisín @ 10:24 am

It’s a constant refrain of mine that there’s a problem with the way boys read. Girls have their own problems too (and delight in discussing those and many other problems at length). But when it comes to reading across the full range of fiction, lads are bit, well . . . squeamish.

This is a particular problem as boys become interested in girls. In order to go beyond the ogling stage, one needs an understanding of how girls think. Boys, who are, for the most part, quite straightforward in their reasoning and motives, find themselves emotionally confused when faced with the tangle of desires, insecurities, passions and complex motives that is the mind of the teenage girl. Frankly, adolescence is a bewildering experience for both sexes and from the boys’ point of view, it’s all the fault of the fairer and more capricious sex.

Having said that, if teenage boys were completely open about their motives and drives, they’d probably make the girls gag with disgust, send them into peals of laughter or scare them shitless.

But at least lads are easier to understand.

Amy Green-Boy TroubleA really, really handy way of understanding the mind of a teenage girl is to read the kinds of books that teenage girls read. Boys may recoil in horror at the thought, but let me say this: Girls talk about everything – and some write it all down. There’s a treasure trove of insight and useful facts – vital intelligence in the war of the sexes – just lying beneath all those pink and glittery, or black and broody covers, just waiting to be exposed. If you want to get off with hot girls, do some research.

And I don’t just mean books that are written by female writers, or books that have a girl on the cover. I mean books that are marketed specifically at girls, and are adorned with covers that boys would run a mile from. The books that are no-holds-barred girlie and proud of it. That’s where you’ll find the useful stuff. Outlandish as it sounds, if you want to get past first base with girls, you have to say the right things to them – and definitely avoid saying the wrong things.

Lads, you’ve got to read some girls’ books. And girls, if you want the types of guys who know the stuff you need them to know, you have to give them the right incentives to read.

So, on that note, there is currently an uninhibitedly pink website asking for you to vote for the Queen of Teen. I’m voting for Sarah Webb because she’s a friend of mine, she’s a great writer with a lively style, and because the Amy Green series is the kind of mine of information that boys need.

And ‘cos she’s Irish, and we need to stand up for our own. Vote for Sarah Webb now!

June 21, 2010

Way Out West

Category: Check This Out,Weird-Wide News — Oisín @ 2:08 pm

LlamaSome time ago, Weird Wide News alerted the public to a fiendish crime – the disappearance of five llamas (and three goats) from a circus in Meath. I wondered if it could be the work of the Kleptoes, who had been spotted in Galway, headed east. Lo and behold, one of our roving reporters (our shortest one, in fact) discovered a llama wandering around a field in a place called Turoe Farm near Galway.

As it turned out, they had a good reason for keeping a llama. This was a pet farm – an excellent one, which also had: Shetland ponies, donkeys, rabbits, and a bunch of different types of goats and sheep. And an aviary (which isn’t an animal, it’s a place where you keep birds). They also had the biggest bouncy castle we’ve ever seen, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a football pitch and a cafe.Cucumber-Mint-Geranium Drink If you have a toddler who has a passion for wandering over large areas of grass, and is fascinated by animals, this is the place for you. They cater for many other types of offspring too.

Galway had more oddities to offer. In one shop, we found a bottle of drink made from mint, cucumber and geraniums. We didn’t know you could juice a geranium, but you learn something new every day. What was even odder was that it actually tasted very nice.

If you’re going to do some roving, there are few better places than Connemara. You could climb some of those stony hills – we recommend Diamond Hill in the Connemara National Park or, if you’re an experienced hillwalker, you could tackle Mweelrea,the highest mountain in the West of Ireland. Don’t go climb alone, don’t go unprepared! Our Irish mountains might not be the Alps, but they can be difficult buggers all the same. And please leave the place as you found it. It’s amazing the number of people who go to all the bother of getting out into some beautiful, quiet and isolated spot . . . and then leave their rubbish behind when they head home.

Pig Sand SculptureFor an easier time, you can take a boat trip out to Inishbofin. Or just hang out on the streets in Clifden, soaking up the pure Oirishness, trying the local fish and shopping for woollen sweaters if you’re that way inclined.

On the streets of Galway city, we discovered what we thought was another out-of-place animal. Or animals. One does not expect to find a pig suckling her young in a city street. We didn’t. You couldn’t pet this particular animal, because it was a sand sculpture. It was so realistic, however, that a passing dog stopped to smell the pig’s crotch. Surely, there can be no higher praise for a sculptor.

June 18, 2010

Exposing Yourself Online

Category: General,Publishing Views — Oisín @ 1:11 pm

Much more of this and I’m going to start sounding like a conspiracy nut.

All right, most people would have to admit that the school library fingerprinting kids was a bit creepy. And my piece on Google a while back was not wholly paranoid, given that they have flaunted copyright laws and it has taken numerous countries and one almighty court case to try and get them to behave. So I’m not quite in Jim Corr territory yet.

Yet.

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions why I don’t have a Facebook page. I did briefly have a MySpace page a while back, but gave it up almost immediately for a few reasons. The main reason was the lack of control I had over the content. This might sound odd, coming from someone who has a pretty extensive website and a regular blog, all of which can be read and seen by anyone on the web. I don’t use Twitter, but I wouldn’t rule it out. But on a social networking site, you can choose what level of security you have, and what people can see the content, right?

Here’s what PC World’s website had to say about the privacy settings Facebook was using up until the end of May this year:

‘Achieving maximum privacy on Facebook now requires you to click through 50 settings and more than 170 options. And even that won’t completely safeguard your info. To fully understand Facebook’s updated stance on privacy and your personal data, you’d have to wade through the company’s 5,830-word privacy policy. That, as the astute crew from The New York Times noticed, is 1,287 words longer than the United States Constitution

Faced with millions of pissed-off users, Facebook have caved in and apparently made their privacy controls tighter, and more simple to use, but the reviews are still mixed.

To put it plainly, the security measures you might be counting on to keep complete strangers from seeing personal stuff about you or your friends probably isn’t  secure enough. Whatever you do, you are publishing your private life online, and it’s dangerous to assume that you can stick personal stuff up there and keep it hidden from the rest of the world.

In my opinioin, it’s dodgy to put up pictures anywhere of your kids. Where I show my kids on my blog, you can’t see their faces – that’s deliberate. And the site that’s hosting your page may not be telling how it’s using all the handy info you’re posting about the things you like and the things you do and what your friends like and do. Losing Your GripAre all those neat little boxes you fill in treated with the same level of privacy, or are some more public than others? The company may not get rid of your information if you close your account, and they may not tell you how long they’ll be hanging on to that personal data.

And information on the web is a bit like a virus. Once it’s out there, there’s no getting it back. You can’t jump back onto the cliff. And all that loose information can start taking different shapes and doing things you – or even the host companies – can’t predict.

On Saturday, the 28th of May, ‘The Irish Times’ ran an article by Karlin Lillington about Google and Facebook. It highlighted the lack of control people have over the personal information they put online. Many people kid themselves (consciously or subconsciously) that they’re a different person on their Facebook page than they are in real life. But there’s still a lot of you there, and I’ve always been very wary of what I do and don’t make available to the public.

It’s simple. You have to assume that anything you put on the web without serious encryption can be nicked. In fact, serious encryption still might not keep your information safe.

By having a website and a blog, rather than a networking site, I’m not fooling myself about what people can and can’t see. This way, I won’t be left with my virtual arse hanging in the breeze when all my embarrassing stories and photos go global. That’s the theory anyway. I could just add the same stuff to a Facebook page, but that’d be another platform to maintain, and I’d have to put up with another inlet for junk, including things like companies that mine the profiles of Facebook users.

You might or might not be aware that Google has cars going around the country, taking photos of streets to put online for their Street View project. They are not asking permission to show you if you appear in any of the photos. Not so bad, really, as this happens on television all the time. What I didn’t know until I read the ‘Irish Times’ article, was that they were also scanning wireless networks:Alien Eyes

‘This month Google confirmed it had been collecting data sent over Irish wireless networks – the network name and equipment serial numbers – as part of its Street View process, to see which homes and businesses were using Google Maps on mobiles. The company also confirmed more generally to European data-protection commissioners that it had collected any unprotected data being sent across networks at the time its Street View vehicles were in the area but that this process had ceased and was “a mistake”. All Irish data collected was said to have been destroyed.’

So they’ve got cars going round like TV license inspectors, scanning for signals. If you have a wireless modem, and they drive past, they can pick up on the signal. And they’ve been recording any unencrypted information (such as the bits that identify the signal and the equipment) that they pick up. So . . . paranoid yet?

And in case you think there’s nothing potentially toxic on your networking site, here’s another quote from that article:

‘Consider the case of Stacy Snyder. This 25-year-old American student and mother finished her studies to become a school teacher in 2006 – and then was refused her certificate by university authorities because of behaviour inappropriate for a teacher. That “behaviour” was a picture of herself at a party, dressed as a pirate and holding a plastic cup, which she had uploaded to her MySpace page with the caption “drunken pirate”. Her case went to the courts – which upheld the right of the university to deny her teaching credentials [my emphasis].

‘Many people do not realise that, once posted online, information is almost impossible to obliterate. Many social networks allow a user to cancel their profile – but retain the data in case they want to re-establish them later. As new data goes online, search engines such as Bing and Google permanently archive billions of bits of that information daily.’

This complete disregard for privacy is worrying, but in some ways it’s the way this information is just taken and filed, often to be sold or just passed on, with little or no consideration about the future consequences that’s far more insidious. Above all, it’s just plain carelessSuspicious Old ManIt’s not a New World Order that worries me so much (it does worry me a bit – but I’m not joining the X-Files yet, Jim) – it’s more the idea of a completely disordered world, where information is collected without any real necessity, and stored just because a company can, rather than being driven by any deliberate motives. As users of the web, we have to be more careful with the information we let out there. There are too many companies who want to take it and use it, and sell it or lose it. And you can never tell what’ll be used against you or when.

Companies of this size are enormously powerful, and it’s healthy to be a bit suspicious of anyone with that kind of power. But it’s not a conspiracy I’m most worried about. It’s that, at the heart of all these incredibly complex information gathering systems, there are human beings who are bound to screw up. And  when they do, they could be doing it with some essential piece of me.

June 16, 2010

Manga Newspapers

Category: General,Weird-Wide News — Oisín @ 12:48 pm

This is a Weird-Wide News post about a weird way of presenting the news. The Japanese read more newspapers than we do in the West, but like our kids, the Japanese kids are reading much less news than their parents. The response to this has been to launch newspapers in a Manga style.

Manga NewspaperOne of the points I make in my kids’ sessions is that we have a crap attitude to illustration in Ireland and the UK. We tend to think of pictures in books (and that includes comics) as an aid to reading. They’re like the stabilizers on your bike. Once you can read, you can unbolt the pictures and throw them away, as they are no longer needed. Grown-up books don’t have pictures.

Could that possibly have something to do with the fact that, while the Irish are world famous for turning out novellists, poets and playwrights, we are not known across the globe for our contribution to the visual arts?

And yet we think nothing of reading newspapers and magazines that are full of pictures. Unlike someone who is reading a book, an adult is not considered dim, or illiterate, because they read an illustrated newspaper. And some of the pictures in those papers are in colour!

The Japanese do value illustration, it shows in their media and in their culture. So it makes complete sense, in an online world where it is obvious and easy to show the news in pictures as well as words, that they should start providing illustrations for the news. I should say ‘go back to’ illustrating the news – before photography, this was exactly what the newspapers used to do. They drew pictures to illustrate their stories.

Producing the news in comic book form is a brilliant idea. Not only could it get kids more interested in events that are going on around them (if done right). But it would also show those outside the children’s books industry how, in a world full of computer generated images and stock photography, there is still no substitute for someone who can draw a story.

June 10, 2010

Sound Effects

Category: General,The Work — Oisín @ 3:19 pm

When I was a kid, I used to make sound effects while I drew pictures. I don’t know if all budding artists do this, or if it’s a wannabe-illustrator thing or what. But I know some of my friends did it then, and other illustrators have told me they did it too, when they were young. The thing is, I still do it sometimes, when nobody’s around.

When I’m writing, I also practise lines of dialogue out loud on occasion too – but that’s a practical thing. It can often be the only way to see if it works. It’s important that one is never caught doing this kind of thing. Particularly if one is putting on a funny voice or a dodgy accent at the time.

Music GardenAnyway, now I have a baby, and looking after her needs is a varied and challenging job  (probably the most grown-up thing a guy can do).  And I’m starting to make sound effects again. Everything seems to have a sound effect now; from changing a nappy to putting on her little shoes; from tickling her to washing her face and hands. I didn’t really start this on purpose, it just sort of happened along the way (the sound effects that is – the baby was deliberate).

I can see her years from now, having to walk around with earphones permanently plugged into her head, with sound effects accompanying her every move. Or maybe she’ll just make them herself. Her brother already accompanies his footballing with an ongoing commentary, but I think that’s pretty normal for a boy his age, dreaming of playing alongside his heroes.

Every now and then, I’ll catch myself sounding like a cartoon soundtrack, and I’ll think back to those days of drawing pictures while I made the sounds of jets or explosions or cars or monsters. Art held a joy for me then that I struggle to recapture, when drawing was as much a way of giving substance to what was going on in my imagination, as it was about making a good picture. Back then, just as I try to apply it now, the whole point was to be involved in the making of the thing. The picture at the end was the equivalent of the photos you take while you’re on holiday. When I look at my pictures, I recall the experience of creating them. And sometimes I hear the sound effects too.

June 9, 2010

Mental Examinations

Category: General — Oisín @ 11:10 am

Today, the exam silly season got started again. It’s exactly twenty years since I did my Leaving – twenty-two since my Inter (what they used to call the Junior Cert). People in the media are offering a lot of advice on how to handle the ordeal, trying to reassure everyone who’s heading into those exams. But with the best will in the world, it’s hard for those who’ve left it far behind to remember the pressure those exams put us under. Some of the stuff you hear or you read just sounds so meaningless, or irrelevant, or just plain patronizing.

The WriterBut us old folk did do these exams – and important though they were, they did not define our lives. They did not decide who or what we were to become. Life’s more complicated than that.

There were some subjects I was confident about, others that I absolutely dreaded doing. I actually enjoyed the art exam in my Inter, though there was a lot more theory in the Leaving, which made it feel more like an exam and less like a drawing session.

But there was a spirit there too. People who hardly knew each other in school, or sometimes were even enemies, had a mission in common. It made that awful pressure a bit easier to bear. And finally getting started on those bloody exams eased it even further.

For those doing the Leaving (and some doing the Junior Cert), that very last month you spend in school will show your classes at their most focussed, their most united. Like any test in life, the excitement and the atmosphere will get to you. You’ll look at your school and your teachers differently. Possibly for the first time, you’ll realize that you’re all on the same side. And the feeling when it’s over will be like nothing you’ve ever had before (unless this is the second time you’ve done the Leaving, in which case you’ll know what I’m talking about).

So all I’ll say is, try and find a bit of time to chill and veg after each exam. Let your systems reset. Look at the students around you. They’re all going through the same thing. Everyone in Ireland does at this point in their life. The years in school have left their mark on you; you’re educated, whether you feel it or not. Whether you like it or not.

Good luck. And good luck with what happens afterwards.

June 4, 2010

An Open Letter to the Government

Category: General,Publishing Views — Oisín @ 3:35 pm

This letter has been sent to my local representatives, to the Minister for Education and Skills, to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

I am writing to you to protest at the potential loss of an absolutely vital programme for young people, not through cuts but through simple inaction.

The Junior Cert Support Programme is one of those rare projects that has been properly planned, properly implemented and properly monitored, and it has been famously successful in saving thousands of youngsters from early school-leaving and the appalling cultural and economic consequences.

As an author and illustrator, I have visited, and worked, in hundreds of schools and libraries across the country. I have seen firsthand the benefit of having a JCSP library in a school – and the queues of young people waiting to get into them when they open each day. Imagine that – teenagers queuing to get into a library. This is a brilliant programme, one that has helped to make up for Ireland’s woeful cobbled-together system of school libraries. They are a model for a programme that should be rolled out to every secondary school in the country.

A full-time librarian is key to these projects – and I have found every one of them to be competent, enthusiastic and committed individuals. The libraries cannot operate properly without them. They need to be recognized as the front-line staff that they are.

Now, because of a bureaucratic fumble, most of these librarians are facing the completion of their contracts at the end of August. Because of the public services recruitment embargo, their contracts may not be renewed. Without these people, the libraries will be slowly gutted and die a slow death as their resources are absorbed into the normal school system.

The Junior Cert Support Programme is something this government got absolutely right. How many other projects can claim the same? To build a smart economy, we’re going to need a high quality education system. This is no time to be sacking librarians, or closing libraries. Our young people need all the help they can get. Let’s give them everything we can.

Regards,

Oisín McGann.

June 1, 2010

Fingerprinting Kids

My Weird-Wide News posts are normally aimed at my younger readers. So I’m going to try and keep this simple, even though it is one of the weirdest posts I’ve done. But it is real. And yet it’s hardly made the normal news at all. I got it from the UK newspaper, ‘The Telegraph’.

Britain has a much better system of school libraries than we do in Ireland. But a school in Manchester is fingerprinting children so that they can use the school library. Seriously. After reading this article, I’ve found out that it seems to be happening all over the place.

FingerprintPolice can use fingerprints to identify criminals, and to find out who has touched an object or surface in a crime scene. Here’s a simple explanation of fingerprints for all you kids out there who are wondering how it works:

If you look really closely at your fingertips, you’ll see that they’re covered in tiny little lines – ridges in your skin. They help us feel things and help us grip things. These ridges are different on every finger, and the ones on your fingers are different to everyone else’s. These are your fingerprints and, apart from getting bigger as you grow, they stay more or less the same all the way through your life.

Now, if you’ve been eating chips, you’ll know how you leave greasy marks on anything you touch, right? But because of the natural oil in your skin (everyone has oil in their skin) these ridges leave marks on the surface of a lot of things you touch even when your hands are clean, especially anything with a smooth hard surface. A lot of the time, it’s hard to even seen these marks. Adults (including teenagers!) have oilier hands, so their fingerprints are easier to find and they last longer.

Because everyone’s fingerprints are different, the marks you leave are different. The police can find fingerprints left at a crime scene. They can compare any of these prints with millions of pictures of people’s prints that they have on computer. If your prints are on file, and they match prints found at a crime scene, the police come calling and ask you questions.

That’s basically what fingerprints are, and how they work.

But your prints should only be on the police computers if you’ve been arrested for a crime. People touch stuff all the time, every day, and fingerprints can last on some surfaces for a long time, so most of the fingerprints the police find at a crime scene have absolutely nothing to do with the crime.

Imagine all the fingerprints that have been left by all the people who’ve been through your school. If something really valuable was stolen in your school, would it be fair to think you did it just because you have spent time inside that building? No. The police would have to have other reasons for suspecting you too. And they have to assume you didn’t commit the crime, until they can prove that you did. That’s the law. It’s a law to stop the police from putting you in prison for something you didn’t do. And even though the police are normally the good guys, this does happen.

So the police can’t just fingerprint everyone in the country, even though it might help them solve some more crimes. They can’t, because they’re not allowed treat you as a criminal until they have a very good reason to think that you are one. It is their job to protect you, as well as catch criminals.

Fingerprint ScannerSome school libraries are now using scanners to read children’s fingerprints and identify who borrows what books. You don’t have to leave a mark – they have a machine that takes a picture of your finger or thumb and matches that photo to the prints they have on file (like the one in the picture). Is this borrower who they say they are? Scan their fingerprint . . . Yes they are. It sounds like a good system. But there are some things about it that worry me.

This system saves the school from having to pay a proper librarian to be there; one who knows the kids and what they’re reading and can help them in lots of ways that a machine can’t.

It means a private company has the fingerprints of hundreds, probably thousands of children in their computers. Ask your parents why they don’t like strangers having their phone numbers, or their address, or even their email address. But fingerprints are a much more personal, more valuable kind of information. And they will be even more important in the future. We don’t know what those companies might do with all those children’s fingerprints. Who’s checking on these people? How carefully are they checking on them?

Those computers can also be hacked by people who can steal stuff off any computer connected to the web. So, if you’ve borrowed a book from a certain school library, your fingerprints could end up in the hands of criminals if somebody hacks into those computers. This is really useful for anyone who wants to pretend they’re someone else – normally so they can steal something.

And it also means that children are being trained very early in life to hand over information about their identities and their bodies to anyone who asks. And that’s a reFingerprinting Childally dangerous habit to get into. But then, they can trust the staff in their schools to take care of what’s really important, can’t they?

I particularly like the line that’s just kind of dropped in at the end of the Telegraph article, as if it’s hardly worthy mentioning: ‘It comes after schemes to fingerprint children as part of payment for their school dinners was introduced around the country.’

Oh, school dinners are something else we don’t really do over here in Ireland.

So kids, if your school ever says they’re going to start fingerprinting you for your school library – that’s if you have a school library, of course – ask your teacher to tell you about a thing called ‘civil rights’.