Need a Hug? Wear the Like-A-Hug Vest

Originally published on the Laughing Stalk humor blog.

I’m a hugger.

I like hugging people when I greet them, assuming I know them fairly well. People I know less well get a firm, but warm handshake. I appreciate physical contact among friends and family. The pat on the back. The reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. The high five.

And the hug.

I believe that nothing can replace the warmth of physical contact, and even in the growing world of social media — online networking, remote relationships, and video phone calls — physical touch is very important. It’s what makes us feel loved and special.

So I was more than a little disturbed by the story in The (London) Guardian about the new Like-A-Hug vest invented by a group of MIT students who apparently never got enough hugs when they were kids.

Like-A-Hug Vest

Like-A-Hug Vest by Melissa Kit Chow, melissakitchow.com

Whenever you get a “Like” from someone on Facebook, the Like-A-Hug vest will inflate like a life jacket and “hug” you. When a friend likes a status update you made, a comment, a photo, or a video, you’ll “feel the warmth, encouragement, support or love that we feel when we receive hugs,” team member Melissa Kit Chow told the Guardian.

The team developed the Like-A-Hug as part of an exercise in tactile shape display, technology that lets you feel a touch normally given in a virtual or online environment. In other words, if someone “touched” you online, you’d feel it in the real world.

“We came up with the concept over a casual conversation about long-distance relationships and the limitations of video chat interfaces like Skype,” said Chow. “The concept of telepresence arose, and we toyed with the idea of receiving hugs via wireless technology.”

The team is still working on what the vest will do for other Facebook interactions, like when your status updates and photos are “shared.” What happens if someone “follows” your status updates? Do you get a tingling up your spine? And what happens if you get “poked?”

If you’re like me, you just started giggling about “poking.”

And with Facebook’s proposed new “want” button, just what exactly would that entail?

Many social media haters have complained that social networking is taking the place of good old-fashioned human interaction, and secludes us from each other. While social media has actually had the opposite effect — by deepening relationships much faster and creating new ones that never would have existed — I have to admit the Like-A-Vest is a big weapon in the haters’ arsenal. A big, warm fuzzy weapon that cradles you in its warm embrace.

It’s not lost on me that the people who developed the hugging vest are probably among the same group of people — computer nerds — who are renowned for avoiding real-world human interaction, and instead flock to their computers for emotional support and human companionship, and end up secretly, desperately craving physical human contact.

So instead of spending time in a coffee shop, bar, networking group, or social event trying to meet real people they can get to know in real life, they instead spent all their time in a lab creating a vest that simulates the warm huggy feeling everyone else gets because they spent their time meeting people in coffee shops, bars, networking groups, and social events.

Irony, thy name is Like-A-Vest.

But while I think the whole idea of getting fake hugs from a puffy vest is silly, especially when I get real hugs from real people, I do like the idea of clothing where the wearers can get tactice feedback remotely.

For example, football players can receive a congratulatory pat on the butt from a coach with their Pat-A-Butt pants, without the coach ever having to actually touch a player’s sweaty butt. Dogs could wear little vests called Pet-A-Dog, which allergic people could use to still own dogs. And mama’s boys could wear it on their honeymoon so their moms can continue to maintain a stranglehold on their man-child, protecting him from that “evil harpy.”

While I would never begrudge anyone a hug — assuming they weren’t, you know, icky or anything — or even the technology to simulate hugs, I would like to encourage anyone who is considering the Like-A-Vest to go outside. Talk to some real people. Make some real life friends who will give you real life hugs.

Because the ones called @HawtPartyGurl93 don’t seem like the kind of people you want to hug in real life.

Zero Tolerance Bullying Withers Under Scrutiny

Zero Tolerance is a festering mold that’s destroyed when its putrid nature is exposed to the disinfecting power of the sun.

We saw that festering mold destroyed this past week here in Central Indiana, after an outrageous suspension of more than 50 high school students was lifted, following protests, laser-guided media scrutiny, and national mockery of the situation.

This past Tuesday, in the town of Clayton, west of Indianapolis, six Cascade High School students were suspended after a prank of decorating their school with 11,000 Post-It Notes the previous night.Post-It Notes fill Cascade high school door

District superintendent Patrick Spray, who has apparently forgotten what it was like to be in high school, was outraged — OUTRAGED! — that students would pull such a prank. So he suspended the kids, including the valedictorian, salutatorian, and senior class president, for trespassing, entering the school without permission, and for being unsupervised while on school grounds.

Actually that’s not true, said the students. They got permission and a key from a school board member, who’s also one of the students’ mother. And they were supervised by a school janitor, who’s also the mother of one of the students.

Oh really? said Spray, and then fired the janitor, Kim Rouse.

Dude, it’s Post-It Notes. It’s 11,000 Post-It Notes that the kids paid for themselves. They even made sure to pull a prank that wouldn’t damage school property. It sounds like he was just upset because he looked like an idiot when the kids pointed out that they never actually violated those rules.

The following day, after 57 more students peacefully protested the suspensions, Spray realized he overstepped his bounds and behaved irrationally, so he apologized to everyone, and promised Rouse she could have her job back.

Just kidding. He suspended every protestor. And with 460 students in the high school, Spray — an education professional who probably uses phrases like “disrupting the educational process” — disrupted the educational process of more than 10 per cent of his students, thus ensuring the rest of the school wouldn’t pay attention either.

Even on my best day as a fourth grader, I could only disrupt the educational process of 20 other kids. This guy managed to do it to an audience 23 times the size of mine with slightly less dramatic histrionics. Trés impressive.

Because if there’s one lesson we want to teach our children, it’s that the only way you can assert your power is to be a petty little tyrant who throws a big hissy fit when he’s made to look like a bigger idiot than he was the day before.

But bullies, like festering molds, cannot stand the harsh sunlight of public scrutiny and awareness. And as the outrage grew, and a lot of media people and concerned parents began to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions — like “Really?” and “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” — Spray backtracked, and lifted the suspension of the Post-It Six. He also removed the suspension from their academic records, and they were allowed to return to class.

He was originally going to reduce the suspension of the remaining protestors from two days to one, and let them serve it during school. But by Thursday, Spray said he would vacate their suspensions as well, and the suspensions would not be placed on their academic records either.

Do you remember that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when Principal Rooney was facing complete and utter failure to catch Bueller skipping school, and instead had to ride the bus home with a bunch of mouth-breathing kids?

Yeah, I’ll bet it was kind of like that for Spray. I can’t imagine the bitterness he had to swallow when he met with the concerned parents who thought he was a bullying little tyrant overstepping the bounds of decency and sanity.

Spray has said he will still recommend to the board that they fire Kim Rouse, the janitor, but from all reports, the board has indicated they won’t go along with that, which will be one more feather in Spray’s Big Cap O’ Failure.

While all hindsight is 20/20, it looks like Spray should have just forced a grudging smile, lectured the kids about respect for property, and let them clean up the mess, like they originally offered. Then none of this would have ever happened.

Instead, for the next several years, Patrick Spray will be remembered as the Zero Tolerance despot who was beaten by a small group of thoughtful, committed high school kids who did the one thing that many schools still don’t teach:

To stand up to bullies on behalf of those who can’t.

Schools Cancel Bake Sales, Fun

School after school are overstepping their bounds, interfering in people’s personal lives and liberties, practicing the dark art of behalfism.

Behalfism is when a small vocal group tries to speak on behalf of another group that really doesn’t want or need it.

In this case, schools are canceling their bake sale fund raisers, because administrators are concerned about childhood obesity. According to a recent story on National Public Radio, schools are so concerned about childhood obesity, they think that if they can cancel their once-a-year bake sale, they can somehow overcome it. In fact, schools in California, Texas, and New York are limiting bake sales to only healthy food.

Collection of cakes

Aww, I can't stay mad at you.

Because if there’s one thing parents want to buy to help their child’s school, it’s a low-fat vinaigrette salad and organic gluten-free organic soy milk muffins. With raisins.

Before I go on, let me say that I recognize the seriousness of childhood obesity. I’m not “for” it, or arguing that it’s not a problem. I believe kids should go outside and play, not eat junk food, and limit their TV and video game time. So I believe it’s serious.

But I don’t think one bake sale a year, where parents will buy one cake or one plate of cookies, is going to result in obese children.

What I do object to is when the very group of of people that cancel a bake sale to keep kids from getting fat also cut PE classes and recess, which also kept kids from getting fat. While most schools still have PE classes and recess, many of them are reducing the amount of time they last, and are not allowing kids to ride their bikes or walk to and from school.

When I was a kid, we had two recesses a day, PE class two to three times a week, and I rode or walked to school nearly every day. There were no rules about riding or walking (not like the schools where I live), gym was considered an important part of our education, and we played outside without any rules against running or playing certain types of games.

It’s rather disingenuous of a school to cancel a bake sale in the name of childhood obesity, when they also eliminated and overturned the opportunities for the kids to get exercise.

“Oh, but the kids can exercise at home,” say the childhood obesity behalfists. “The parents should be encouraging their kids to play and get exercise.”

Yes, they should. They should also be the ones to tell their kids not to eat an entire cake or plateful of cookies. The schools either need to butt completely out of kids’ personal lives, or they need to be completely involved. They can’t pick and choose based on the hot button issue of the day.

When you look at the number of times parents take their kids to McDonald’s, let them play video games for three hours a day, and don’t let them play organized sports because they’re worried their precious snowflakes might get hurt, I don’t think an extra piece of cake is going to do much harm. It’s a veritable drop in the lard bucket, and they’ll be no worse off than they were beforehand.

On the other hand, the kids whose parents actually make them eat healthy food and play can afford to let their kids have a once-in-a-while dessert, even if said dessert is not made with wheat germ, low-fat yogurt, and carob.

What makes matters worse is that these bake sales are a direct benefit to the schools that sponsor them. According to the NPR story, a school in Maryland was able to generate $25,000 in sales, while a New York mom usually raised $50,000 through bake sales.

That’s enough to pay a PE teacher’s salary to get all the fat kids outside running around for 30 minutes a day to work off the piece of cake and the Big Mac they had at dinner the night before.

If a school wants to get involved in whole child growth and development, which is the argument for sticking their fingers in their students’ pies, then they need to do two things: 1) teach the kids that dessert, like anything else, should be consumed in moderation; and, 2) they should use the money raised from a proper bake sale to fund more physical activities, which will teach the kids physical wellness.

Until then, school officials need to find a new way to raise the lost funds. Maybe a casino night with a cash bar.

Photo credit: tannazie (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Google IDs Newspaper Editor Jon Flatland as Serial Plagiarist

It’s a weird badge of honor in the humor writing world to be stolen from. To have someone else take your work, stick their name on it, and claim they wrote it. To tell the world they thought of that story, spun the words together, and made those jokes about the Mayor’s wife’s nose job.

It’s a strange mix of emotions when it happens.

On the one hand, there’s red-faced anger. Many of us make a mere pittance from our work and to have it stolen by someone who financially benefitted from it is an outrage.

On the other hand, there’s pride. Pride that someone thought my work was funny enough to steal. That, of all the humor columnists to rip off, my work made them laugh enough to declare, “THIS! This column is so good, I must steal it.”
We get special privileges when this happens, like openly mocking humor writers who were not ripped off.

I got to experience all this last Thursday, when I received an email from another humor writer, David Fox, telling me and several other writers, that a newspaper editor named Jon Flatland, of the Blooming Prairie Times in Blooming Prairie, Minn., had been stealing our columns for several years.

Jon Flatland, former editor of the Blooming Prairie (Minn.) Times

Fox had contacted Flatland’s boss, publisher Rick Bussler, and let him know what had happened. In the meantime, one of the writers contacted Flatland directly, and told him we were on to him. According to Bussler, Flatland resigned via email and admitted to the plagiarism, all before Bussler got to the office that day. Last we heard, he had left town almost immediately.

As we started searching for more evidence, we added more victims to the fold. At our latest count, at least 12 of us had been ripped off.

My friend and fellow humorist, Dick Wolfsie, wrote that his wife had said, “Are you telling me that he could have stolen from any of hundreds of humor columnists in America and he picked you?” which helped him experience a new, third emotion.

To make matters worse (or better) Flatland had won a few humor awards from the North Dakota Newspaper Association over the years. The author of one award-winning column has already been identified as blogger Jason Offutt. The rest of us are holding our breath to see if we won any others.

The “real” winners will get to re-experience the joy and anger of having his column ripped off yet again, but secretly we’re more worried about what might happen if it wasn’t ours. Or worse, if our columns were used in the years he lost.

The Internet has already started exploding with stories about Jon Flatland’s thievery. Minnesota Public Radio and some area TV stations are reporting the story, as are several newspapers around the Minnesota and North Dakota area. I was even interviewed by the Poynter Institute, a well-respected journalism school in Florida, and the story was online less than 18 hours later.

If you’re interested in seeing the fallout, you can Google Flatland’s name and see pages and pages of stories about his shameful acts.

And that right there — the ability to go online and find this information in mere seconds — is what’s most surprising about this entire story.

We live in the 21st century. We have technology that lets you find things on the Internet. Type in a word, name, or phrase, and you can find nearly every web page that contains it.

That’s how David Fox tracked Flatland down. He Googled a phrase from a column, and found it had been stolen. He Googled some of “Flatland’s columns” from the Blooming Prairie Times, and found that they had all been stolen. And that’s when everything fell down around Flatland’s ears.

How someone can steal from other writers for years and years without thinking he could be caught is astounding. It’s second only to the fact that it took years and years for the rest of us to figure out he did it.

The end result is that the same tool he ignored is now doubly responsible for making sure he never works in journalism again: it’s how he was caught, and it’s the first place potential employers are going to check when they search for his name.

Guess what they’re going to find.

But maybe he won’t even look for a job. Maybe he’ll turn to novel writing instead, and make a living writing books. I can just imagine it:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

This post was originally published on Erik Deckers‘ Laughing Stalk blog.