Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The case for free software in the classroom

Many years ago, my Dad told me that when he got married, the priest who performed the ceremony said to him, "Bring 'em to us between 2 and 5 years old and we got 'em for life." In other words, bring them in early for indoctrination and they will believe in and honor the church. He never brought us in.

It appears the same strategy has been applied to our schools, but here, in an entirely different context. Since about 1997, kids have been treated to schools with a computer at the desk, and from the beginning, they were running Windows.

This must have seemed like a coup for Microsoft. First, they can ensure that kids are familiar with Windows and that since they are familiar with Windows, they will seek out Windows when they buy a computer. Businesses already running Windows will be happier knowing that kids in school are learning something that they are already using.

Microsoft has worked very hard to earn the free promotion of Windows that they receive when schools run Windows. With early exposure, Microsoft found a ready market of kids and young adults who wanted Windows on their computers.

Unfortunately, this is not what public schools should be doing. Public schools should not be in the business of picking winners and losers to be sure. But they should never be used as a platform for promoting proprietary software.

A number of schools are now finding that not only can they save money by eliminating Windows in the classroom, they are finding that it is easier to manage and maintain Linux in the classroom. As more classrooms adopt Linux, it is becoming easier to weight the costs and benefits of migration to and using Linux compared to Windows.

Removing proprietary software from schools will, if used properly, encourage kids to learn how the technology works. Allowing kids to tinker with the software running on their computers, even to make mistakes that cause problems on the computer, provide learning experiences that they can't get on a system that is locked down - the path that the Apple crowd is on. They have nice shiny technology, but they never really learn how it works. Kids on Linux will be able to see what is under the hood at any time - to make it, to break it, to get to know it.

I know from personal experience. My trip on Linux has proved to be far more interesting than any experience I have ever had on Windows. In 2007, I switched to Linux and never went back. I started with the intention of seeing how long I would last on Linux without Windows. As the operating system matured, so did I. Eventually, I reached a point where I no longer needed Windows and I shudder at the thought of ever going back. I am confident that my kids will never see Windows or iOS running in our home. They see plenty of Windows and Mac out there, but here, at home, they will have a chance to know how their computers work.

This is the difference between Windows and Linux. Windows teaches kids that you don't really need to know how your computer runs. Software comes on a CD, or as a download, and that you pay for the license to use it. Actually learning how software works seems verboten with Windows and Mac.

Linux and other open source software is the opposite. Linux encourages me to tinker with the computer, the software, and sometimes, the hardware. The source code is there for me to read and learn how it is done right. The community of Linux users is there to help me find my feet, my arms and then to eventually coordinate them while using Linux.

This trend with technology has not gone unnoticed:
"We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster." -- Carl Sagan
When we allow proprietary technology into our classrooms, we must ask a simple question: "Are we promoting the ignorance of the technology we use?"

The simple answer is yes. The solution and the alternative? Linux and open source software.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A thought experiment: The case for drug tests for business licenses

I'm writing this article as a thought experiment. I will start by saying that I am totally against the war on drugs and I see the current regime of severe punishment for mere possession of drugs counterproductive. The harsh sentencing guidelines that judges have to deal with provide no latitude for treatment over prison and seem almost uniquely designed to keep our prisons full.

The evolution of the war on drugs has led to drug testing in the workplace, a practice that is now common and even traditional for large firms. Government agencies routinely test for drugs for their employees. But they don't seem to test for drugs for most benefit programs, you know, like the TARP program, a part of the bailout plan for the big banks after the collapse of the housing bubble. What I offer for consideration in this article is drug testing for a business license. The regime is as follows: all persons named on the license must submit to an annual drug screen to make sure that they are free of drugs. If they fail the test, they lose the business license.

This does in a way, make sense to me. Businesses put their private property up for hire. The owners hire and fire employees. The owners create a dependence upon them for their services and infrastructure. I, for one, would like to know that I'm not enabling someone's drug habit, especially someone at the top.

The business is dependent upon the decision making skills of the employer, the owner. The people who depend upon the business need to know if their money is going to finance, either directly or indirectly, the sale or purchase of illegal drugs. Wouldn't you like to know if you're working for a ration employer who is free of drugs? I sure would.

Would you do business with a company where you knew the CEO was using pot, cocaine or barbiturates? Would you feel comfortable knowing that ultimately, any dispute with a front line employee could ultimately be decided by an owner who has a habit?

I favor treatment over prison in cases of drug use and possession. But I do think that as a citizen, I would like to see drug testing for business licenses. This might go a long way to cutting demand because a business owner who has time, might think he has the time to drift off.

Even as a thought experiment, it's hard to see all of the ramifications of instituting such measures. Humans are very creative and when they really want something, they will find a way to get it. That's just how we are and that is why the drug war won't work and never will. Even my idea here for testing for drugs for business licenses probably won't work when put to the test.

How many businesses would fold because of test failures? How many jobs would be lost? We don't know. Without drug testing for business licenses, we would never know for sure. The only thing we can be sure of is that if we don't like the service we're getting, we can go somewhere else with our money.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marsha Blackburn must be pining away for a job at Comcast

I see in the news that Rep. Marsha Blackburn is going to offer an amendment that would prevent funding of any effort by the FCC to preempt state laws that limit or prohibit municipal broadband adoption and/or expansion. I guess the the dark side of the Force got to her before common sense did. You know, Comcast. Verizon. AT&T. Yeah, those guys.

Here is what is happening. Over the last decade or so, cable and phone companies figured out that there is the possibility that cities and small towns could do an end run to get faster speeds at reasonable prices for internet access. More than 400 such places have done exactly that, causing some bruised egos and bleeding in the bottom line.

Why build better infrastructure for your customers to deal with competition when you can beat them into submission at the state legislature? That's what Marsha Blackburn's amendment is all about. It's about removing local choice from cities and towns for internet access.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice, with Vint Cerf on the board of directors, has also taken notice and has urged a "NO" vote on this amendment.

If you want to see the end of the cable/telco duopoly on internet access, pick up the phone and call your representative in the House and provide them with an undiluted portion of your opinion and urge them to vote NO on the Blackburn Amendment.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mind to mouth

I have a daughter of 19 months. She's learning to talk and as I watch her try every day to say words that we can understand, I have noticed that she's speaking in sentences, too. Just not sentences we understand. Whatever she is saying is only known to her.

I know she knows words because she responds appropriately to what I say. She moves and acts in ways that are consistent with what I ask her to do. I'll say, "Go give that to mommy," and she will do just that. So I know she understands what I'm saying.

If she understands what I'm saying, and she understands what she is saying, then she doesn't seem aware that we don't understand what she is saying most of the time. I can hear her say parts of words, but not all of the word she is trying to say. She probably hears the words in her head and understands the meaning of what she wants to say, but she doesn't have full motor control of her mouth to form each sound yet. I wonder if she knows that this is happening. Probably not.

The following video shows my daughter having a conversation with me. Have a look.

As you can see from the video, she can wax eloquent while speaking what sounds like gibberish to us. She seems fully aware of what she wants to say in her own mind, but doesn't know that what is saying is unintelligible to me. Notice that she knows where Mommy is and where the snow is.

As she grows older, she will learn to form the words and all of us will marvel at the first time she can say something that all of us can understand. At that point, she will use words more and more to get her needs met rather than gestures and just sounds.

I offer this example not just to show Emily's development. I offer this also to make a point. Some people never grow out of this phase, but with a twist. Some people can say what they understand, but will be completely unaware that other people don't understand what they are saying. There is a break down in communication from within the brain where there is know acknowlegment.

To put it differently, what I am saying in a conversation requires context to be understood. No one can get inside my head to understand the context of what I'm saying, just like I can't know the context of what Emily is saying because her worldview is so completely different than mine.

This is a problem on many levels, from personal to geopolitical. I've seen this while observing the discord between the two dominant parties, the Democrats and Republicans. When Democrats try to talk to Republicans, the Republicans are listening to what is said in an entirely different context than what the Democrats are thinking. The reverse is true, also.

It is not easy to take communication in context. I have this problem and I'm a pretty active listener. Active listening is the mental task of asking questions without saying them, while listening to what is being said. As someone who is hard of hearing, I try to take in everything, body language, tone, pitch, rhythm - any clues I can find to understand what people are saying. I use that information to establish context.

When we're dealing with an adversary, we may be more concerned with getting what we want than actually listening. This can impair our ability to negotiate because we can't understand what others are saying in the context of what they want, what they see as right. We hope that a 3rd party can act as arbitrator so that we can be sure what we're saying is properly understood by the adversary in context.

I know this from my own experience. I've written letters and said things to other people, that later, when I asked them about it, they said they didn't understand what I was saying. Upon hearing that, I found myself bemused and a little bit confused. I thought they understood, and had that sense about me for weeks, even months only to find out that the other person had no clue what I was talking about.

This lack of understanding can be innocent or intentional. Sometimes, people can choose to say, "La la la, I can't hear you!" Other times, we think we understood what was said to us, when we didn't.

Person to person, nation to nation, we find that communication, in all of its forms, is the foundation for peace. We can't just say what we want to say, we need to get acknowledgement that what we said was understood. We might ask, "What was the middle part again?"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Do we live by freewill?

Years ago, I read an article suggesting that if man has freewill, so do electrons. I don't know exactly why I find this so fascinating. I make decisions, I act on them and look for the results. Every keystroke on this computer is the result of a decision I made. Or is it? The comments on the article linked to above provide an interesting exploration of the question of whether or not we truly have freewill. I honestly don't know, but I can tell you that I want to believe that I do.

I want to believe that the choices I made up to this moment are mine, and mine alone. You probably do, too. I mean, what is the meaning of life if none of the choices we make are ours to be made? What if we're just descending through the Pachinko game of life to our ultimate demise, all through cause and effect, with no choice in the matter?

As fascinating as I find that, here's something that will really blow your mind (as it is happening to my mind right now): if matter has freewill, does it cooperate?

The random number experiments started in the 90s seems suggestive that the particles we know of as matter do cooperate. What were those experiments all about? They started with sitting people down in front a computer that displayed a 1 or a 0 at regular intervals, with the digits selected at random. Then they instructed the subjects to make more 1s than 0s appear. The results showed a statistically measurable deviation from random - more 1s than 0s appeared when the subjects thought about it.

Then they scaled it out to servers dishing up 1s and 0s at random, 24x7, across the world. They found major deviations from random just before the OJ Simpson verdict was read. The big one occurred about 4 hours prior to the September 11th attacks. In all of these events, millions of people had their attention focused on one major cultural event, either consciously or subconsciously.

These scientists were seeking to establish a connection between coherent consciousness and the behavior of matter. That could be seen as a form of cooperation. After reading about those experiments, I felt that my own conviction was confirmed, that being nice to your computer will yield a more pleasant user experience. It doesn't matter if you're using Windows, Mac or Linux. Be nice to your computer and it will be nice to you.

Your computer relies upon quantum mechanics to function. I suspect that the brains of all animals requires quantum mechanics to function, too. In other words, while it is true that much of our existence is supported by chemical reactions, there is something more going on that can't be explained by chemical reactions alone. The random number experiments suggest that consciousness can affect other systems that employ quantum mechanics to function, you know, like computers.

Looking around me, I see that matter cooperates. From protons, to atoms to planets, I see cooperation. From microbes to humans, I see cooperation. The only way that I see matter staying together is through some sort of cooperation. Electrons and protons have opposite charges. Were they to meet, there would be instant annihilation. To compose an atom together suggests some form of cooperation. Whether that cooperation comes from a great creator or the individual will of the particles themselves is one of the great mysteries in my mind.

The takeaway for me in all of this is that in order to live, we must cooperate. We must cooperate with other people and our environment. The point at which we die is the point at which the cells in our body no longer cooperate. The point at which civilization dies is the point at which we refuse to cooperate with each other, freewill or not.

If we have freewill, then we still have a choice. Or do we? If we fail to cooperate, we might just survive, but to truly live, we must cooperate in some way with our surroundings - the environment, the people and the culture.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mind the gap

A few years ago, I wrote an article to propose progressive taxation not based on wages alone, but based on the gap between CEO and and worker pay. Apparently, I'm not the only who noticed the problem and proposed a solution. The Truth-Out website is running an article to show that there is a lot of citizen activism happening to start reigning in CEO pay.

It is interesting to note that the debate on minimum wage has been framed to exclude discussion of this gap. Why is it OK for the gap between CEO and worker to be left out of the debate? Probably because its easier to justify holding down the minimum wage without bringing CEO pay into the debate.

As the debate has moved to CEO pay, people are trying to pin down the exact ratio between CEO pay and worker pay. There is a meme floating around suggesting that CEO to worker pay is 475 to 1. I don't recall seeing that number anywhere else. Politifact has done a good job of fact-checking that number and suggests that the most likely ratio is somewhere around 300 to 1. That is still a very high ratio, even when not compared to most other countries where the ratio is no higher than 50 to 1.

Even at 300 to 1, I doubt any economist would say that ratio is sustainable. CEO pay, when left unchecked, leads to flat or sideways stocks, lower pay for workers, lower enthusiasm for the work to be done and a sense of unfairness and unease. Is there anyone who would seriously contend that one man can be 300 times more efficient than another?

The populist movement to reign in CEO pay while regulators do nothing is indicative that the government has forgotten who they work for. The action at the state level is telling, and it's only getting started.

The lax attitude on taxation and on regulation are based on wishful thinking, a false premise of, "Gee, that could be me there. *I* could be raking in the dough, so why would I want to do damage to a position I want to attain someday?"

Here's why. Try to think of the economy as an ecology. Now imagine an ecology where there is balance. There is no dominant species. Everything finds a place to live, something to eat. Sure, you'll have extinctions here and there, but in general, everything that dies at the top of the food chain feeds the bottom. That's the tax on the 1%.

The number on the check is now disconnected from the labor or performance of the CEO. This is because CEO pay is largely a matter between friends. The pay of the programmer for the company is not decided by friends of the programmer. The pay of the programmer is decided in an adversarial process known as the traditional hiring process. Interview, research and offer a salary if the market decides that is right for the company. A deal among friends cannot contemplate market forces - it is socialism, but you won't hear a CEO say that.

That is what people are complaining about. It is economically sustainable for CEO pay to be decided by his buddies when everyone else has to perform according to expectations in the market. We saw that in the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. With a lot more oversight and citizen activism, we can restore some balance to our economy.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A reasonable expectations of privacy

Many years ago, I heard a song by Sting called, "Epilogue (Nothing 'Bout Me)". The song is a very interesting exploration of privacy in the modern world at the time of the release of "Ten Summoners Tales". In the song, Sting notes that "you can run my name through your computer, still know nothin' 'bout me". That got me thinking about practical limits of privacy encroachment and expectations - the inspiration for this article.

We think of privacy as a right, but at the same time, we do many things that are public, for all to see. I can't recite all of the actions that I take that are public. A few that come to mind are whenever I make a purchase at any store, that is a public action. Everyone around me can see what I bought. Purchasing something at a brick and mortar store is a very public way of expression desire and satisfaction.

Anything we do on the internet is a public activity in most cases, unless the connection is encrypted, then there is some privacy from the prying eyes of anyone who is not logged into the same site. A notable exception is making a purchase online. The connection goes from public to encrypted and private when you click "buy". What we do in social networking is, in a sense, public, depending on how we wish to share what we want to express. Often what we say is permanent and very difficult to remove.

On the flipside there is private action. What can we expect to be able to do privately? Anything that is not done online and in the home is private. I have every expectation of privacy here, at home. When I go out and drive about, then I am less private, but what I do in the car is private until someone looks in my windows.

Even much of what I do on the computer at home is private unless I'm browsing the web or posting something on social networking sites. I make a point to never post anything in social networking sites that I want to keep private. Once it's online, its nearly impossible to remove and any effort to do so will incur what is known as the Streisand Effect

When pictures of Barbara Streisand's home began to circulate on the internet and Streisand got wind of what was happening, she attempted to hide and/or take down posts of the picture. As publicity grew of her efforts, demand for the pictures grew and circulation of the pictures grew to the point where it became impossible to remove the pictures from the internet. Information just wants to be free, know what I mean?

I have no expectation of privacy at work. There are cameras everywhere. Everything I do on the screen is recorded. Every phone call is recorded. Despite all the surveillance, I don't consider this a violation of privacy because I'm paid to work with clients of the company and if something goes wrong, I want to be able to point to the records and be able to say, "that wasn't me", or, "I didn't do that". In the workplace, I think of this more like a service. It keeps everyone accountable.

There is another perspective to consider at work. My employer is paying me to work and to keep customers satisfied. He needs to be able to measure my productivity and all of this surveillance can help to measure my work so he can balance his costs against his income. I now have a reliable and disinterested third party, a set of machines, recording everything that I do so that what I produce can be measured and compensation can be justified.

Even if I do have a right to privacy at work, I have to consider that I'm using a company computer, office furniture, climate controls, telephone and facilities. I don't worry about privacy at work. I have a smart phone that can send and receive emails, make phone calls and provides access to social networking. If I need to do something private, I don't have to do it on company time and hardware.

If you're looking for privacy, there are plenty of very reasonably priced remote residences without internet connections peppered around the nether regions of our country for you to choose from. But if you want to be a part of society, culture and the river of creativity that is social media, you might have to let go of some privacy to enjoy a place in modern humanity.