Sunday, December 29, 2013

Google+ Stalker App

I'm conflicted by Google. I've been a fan for a long time. I use a lot of Google services (e.g., this is a Google Blogger site). However, there are privacy concerns because they track your search and browsing habits, and scan the content of messages in Gmail.

The benefits of Google's services are considerable. The only other company that offers a comparable level of integration between apps and business-friendly (enterprise-friendly) services is Microsoft.

And it's growing increasingly clear that Google+ is the cornerstone of how we will access all their services. YouTube comments are now done through Google+, and Google+ comments show up in search results. However, this strategy will fail unless they can prove themselves worthy of our trust.

There's an efficiency to making Google+ the central user profile for all Google services. I see it like using Active Directory on an enterprise network to manage all users in the organization. When you log into your computer at work, you may not realize this Microsoft product is being used to manage your user rights on the corporate network, but it's a powerful tool for managing access to computers, network drives, etc. Your Active Directory account may be used to manage your access to areas of your corporate Intranet, especially if the Intranet was created with Microsoft SharePoint. And it's also tied into your corporate email and calendar, Microsoft's Exchange server, which you access using Outlook.

When you're at work, you have a persona, a way of behaving, a role that you play as an employee. At work, you probably shouldn't go on a political rant, disparaging anyone who opposes your political views as stupid. That kind of behavior can be disruptive to a productive workplace, so you should save that behavior for outside of work.

Likewise, anything you don't want your employer to know, you should not send through corporate email. Some IT departments track the websites you visit, often even blocking access to sites they believe are inappropriate for employees to access. I've had coworker who got fired for watching porn at work. Well, that, and racking up a huge 900-number bill on his company cell phone.

My creepy Big Brother moment with Google came this week. My wife showed me an email she got from Google+. It included a montage of videos and photos that have been automatically uploading to her Google+ account from her Android phone. It's like a scene from a crime show when the detective stumbles on the stalker/murderer's secret wall-collage showing photos of the victim. Please rate the Google+ Stalker App in the Play Store. Yay!

So, Google+ is primarily for information you want to share with the world. Sure, you can set who you want to share your comments with, but it's not hard to accidently share with the wrong circles or with everyone. It's just as easy to make this mistake in Facebook. A friend of mine recently set FB to share posts only with himself for a week. I've made that mistake before, too.

To avoid accidently posting to the wrong audience, I use FB for content I want to share with friends and family, so I don't have to change the settings, which might cause accidental over-sharing. Google+, which is designed for plugging into other services that I want to use

Google may find it's subject to the Microsoft curse. By excelling at serving its business clients, Microsoft has lost a lot of consumer market share, where Apple and Google have become more dominant. Microsoft's Xbox is probably the most notable exception, but it does not integrate with Microsoft's enterprise products.

To avoid the curse, Google has to figure out how to do what most people do every day, intuitively change rolls based on context. They also need to become a bastion of personal privacy, and they've taken some serious hits on this. Their latest Google+ email campaign is not helping.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Duck Dynasty Supporters, Put your money where your Meme is!

It's time for supporters of Phil Robertson to stop hiding behind Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech memes, and use the power of Capitalism to keep Duck Dynasty alive. You don't need A&E.

If you really agree with Robertson's opinions about homosexuality and segregation, or you just don't see any problem with what he said (and I hope you've actually read what he said, or at least his most controversial remarks, before taking a stance on this issue), you might worry about your ideals being marginalized. I can understand the desire to win back the ethos of the country, to try and spin this in the opposite direction. However, I don't think you'll be able to reverse this trend. Instead, I propose another alternative: a Kickstarter to produce a web series.

The problem with all the posts I have seen that support Phil Robertson is that claiming his freedom of speech or freedom of religion are at stake is just untrue. Those who complain to A&E about Robertson's views are exercising their free speech rights, and so is A&E. Furthermore, A&E is exercising their right to make a business decision and remain a profitable company.

Based on his statements in the GQ interview, Robertson clearly understood that his controversial views might hurt the TV show because A&E always edited them out. Perhaps he misguidedly thought public opinion would force A&E to support him. That was a bad gamble on his part, but he's no victim. He states in the interview that he suspects this show is coming to an end soon, and his reason for doing the show is to use the it as a platform, to speak his beliefs. He was very successful in using the show as a platform (got him this high profile interview with GQ), and he was not censored.

So, you're losing the culture war. Should you fight harder? How about fighting smarter? Just because you are losing dominance, doesn't mean you will be wiped out. That's a false dichotomy or a slippery slope. There's a place for you in society, so develop that niche. You, as an American, deserve a seat at the table, no matter how much I or anyone else might disagree with you. However, a reality TV Show on A&E about your family is not an inalienable right.

As of the time I write this, there is no Kickstarter project to develop Duck Dynasty as an independent web series. You should be thankful that we live in this modern age where such things are possible. This is why I have hope for society. Not just because the democratization of information has given hope to historically marginalized peoples, but because it also gives hope to future marginalized peoples, even if they were once the dominant oppressors.

Liberals - my advice is to stop the vitriol of exclusion. By all means, let your voice be heard about what you object to. But name-calling is a contradiction to the ideal of diversity. Let's strive for consistency and intelligence on both sides, please. The oppression of Germany after WW I was one of the factors that contributed to Hitler's rise. As long as your political opponents refrain from violence (and the Robertson family tries to make it clear in the interview that they are opposed to violence), they should feel welcomed to the table.

When I started writing this post a couple days ago, I tried crafting a hypothetical scenario of a religious organization firing someone for speaking publicly about how their beliefs differed from that organization. Lo and behold! As if on queue, the United Methodist Church defrocks a minister for officiating a same-sex marriage.

Since the United Methodist Church is a religious organization, their beliefs are the very basis of the organization, and they have a right to ordain or defrock, employ or fire, based on religious beliefs (i.e., religious organizations have exceptions allowing certain leeway to discriminate on basis of religion). Sexual orientation is not listed as an exception to freedom of religion, but beliefs about race are explicitly listed as an exception to the freedom of religion. There may be those who want to change the church's stance on gay marriage from within the organization, or change the law - but I won't get into that.

Personally, I support both "firings." Each organization has every right to do so. I'm saddened by the defrocking of Rev. Frank Schaefer. But I am profoundly bothered by the discourse surrounding Robertson. The reason is because it is prejudice hiding behind religion, which I have experienced first hand.

When my wife and I were dating, there was a period where I moved back to Kentucky from California, so I could live with my dad and save up Money to come back to California on my own. I worked in the cafeteria of Berea College, mostly as a caterer, but occasionally in other departments. For one whole month, I worked in the bakery.

There was a father and son, who was a little older than me, that worked there, too. They heard about my long-distance girlfriend, and that she is from the Philippines. One day the father asked to chat privately with me in the men's locker room (not the athletic locker room, but the one for employees to change into their uniforms). He sat me down and told me how the bible said I should only marry within my race. He and his son are White, as am I. He went on to tell me how his son had dated a Latina for a while, but that had been problematic due to their difference in race, and it hadn't ended well, also because of the difference in race.

He spoke to me out of sincere concern. He wasn't angry or forceful. He didn't say Asians are inferior, just that the races should be separate. I was very uncomfortable. He probably saw that. I went back up to the bakery without saying much.

The older ladies I worked with in the bakery were very motherly, and they asked me what he'd wanted to talk to me about. I told them, and they were very supportive, saying, essentially "You never mind him and his silly ideas."

For context, perhaps I should also mention that Berea College was founded by an abolitionist preacher and an abolitionist statesman. It is a non-denominational Christian college. The motto of the college is "God hath made of one blood all nations of men." I want to mention this because it's important not to stereotype Conservative White Southern Christians, just as it's important not to stereotype Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, etc.

He's got a right to be a racist, and to have those beliefs, even to speak about it. He should not do it in the workplace, but I'll grant that he asked to have a private conversation with me, and he never brought it up again. I think he was embarrassed by the incident, too. So, I never complained about it, either.

But he was basically telling me I should not marry the person I love. He acted to influence his son not to pursue future potential love interests. So, this is very personal for me. It's easy to forget that Loving vs. Virginia, the landmark case that struck down state restrictions on interracial marriage, was just five years before I was born (still less than 50 years ago).

One of the things that bothers me about this man's message is that he was cloaking his racist beliefs in his religion. "It's okay to be a racist if it's part of my religion." Well, the law does not extend that to racism, although that kind of racism is what I encountered and is echoed by Robertson.

The field of Anthropology has struggled with this concept. It's called Cultural Relativism: you cannot judge a culture based on values that are external to that culture (e.g., the values of your own culture). When I was doing my BA in Anthropology in the 90's, there was a dialogue about Cultural Relativism being invoked to defend human rights violations. Most of those violations were violence against women, such as female circumcision, stoning, honor killing, etc.. When human rights, or civil rights, are being violated, you cannot use Cultural Relativism as an excuse.

In Star Trek, the principle of Cultural Relativism is embodied by the Prime Directive. This rule is frequently violated by Kirk, especially when lives or human rights are at stake. Cultural Relativism sounds like a great principal, but it's an Ivory Tower concept that proves problematic in the real world.

Ultimately, the culture war cannot be won, either by Liberals or Conservatives. For one to get rid of the other is Tyranny, and that's not a stable form of government. The vehemence of some conservatives is an understandable reaction to their increasing marginalization. But both sides would be well advised to remember that they cannot win this war, and only by civility in the democratic process and the social sphere can either side find long-term success.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Performance Writers

Scalzi's new Audible interview discusses history of publishing SF.

John Scalzi weighs in on what it takes to be a successful writer in today's electronic marketplace, and discusses his own unusual path. He talks about what he calls "Performance Skills." While these skills are not new, he says writers have leveraged them in the past, these skills they are more important for success in today's environment.

Scalzi also gives an interesting discussion of how distribution models (i.e., racks in the grocery stores and the rise of specialty book stores) coincided with Science Fiction's New Wave movement, to create the genre that we have today.


Charles Stross io9 Q & A:
Robert J. Sawyer interview:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bill of Digital Rights

Cory Doctorow & Margaret Atwood signed the UN petition for digital rights.                                   

I'm happier to support this movement than the one led by tech firms. A long list of tech companies signed an open letter to the US government regarding digital surveillance, including:
  • Apple Inc.
  • Facebook Inc.
  • Google Inc.
  • LinkedIn Corp.
  • Microsoft Corp.
  • Twitter Inc.
  • Yahoo! Inc.
The tech firms are pushing back against the government using personal digital information, but they're not so interested in limiting their own use of this information.

If you would like to add your voice, you might consider this petition on

Related Posts:
You Broke the Internet, Says Schneier to NSA
Credit Approved
Updated: Original picture showed Cory Doctorow and Ellen Datlow, new picture correctly shows Cory Doctrow and Margaret Atwood.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Charles Stross io9 Q&A

Stross offered observations on future of publishing.
In a brief Q&A session on today, Charles Stross was kind enough to answer my question on the future of publishing.

I asked him if he agreed with Robert J. Sawyer's recent interview (See related post from yesterday). In short, "Yes." But he did go on to say there is hope.

A few quotes:
... the publishing world today is almost unrecognizable from how it was 5 years ago.
The key thing to remember is that, however much you may be devoted to it as an art form, writing is a business.
[Yes, I see consolidation of large publishers/agencies...]; also a flourishing of small presses, agencies turning into e-publishers (a multi-agent literary agency has most of the folks an e-publisher needs).

Robert J. Sawyer interview:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Paying the Piper (or Writer)

Sawyer is not optimistic about the viability of writing as a full-time career for future generations. As long as there is sufficient demand, I am hopeful, but the lack of a clear path makes this a difficult and confusing time for a new writer.

Self-publishing has not fully emerged as viable alternative, though there are more and more writers developing viable strategies, including a hybrid of traditional and self-publishing (e.g., Michael J. Sullivan). However, it still requires a lot of non-writing work be done by the writer.

This Harvard Business Review  blogger points out that the media industry is not doing badly. It's changing, and people are reading more than ever.

But she also points out that advertisers are not paying as much for online marketing, even though that's where the eyeballs are shifting. The advertising dollars have not shifted to print proportionally. This reflects the issues for e-books. Traditional publishers operate on thin margins, and less money is flowing to the writer.

LinkedIn, for example, is making great use of their Influencers program, getting CEO's and others to write content for free. And there are a lot of people who are willing to write for free in order to promote something else.

But the nature and quality of that writing is very different from a novel or a well-researched non-fiction book. The hours, days, weeks and years it takes to create these written works is far greater.

The crowdfunding model holds some promise. But, can it work for new writers?  A successful writer or editor (e.g., Ellen Datlow's Kickstarter Horror Anthology) is less questionable, but we have yet to see how well the book sells beyond it's original funding.

I wonder what we'll see next?
  • Could a successful author make enough from a Kickstarter to give the finished product away for free? 
  • Will an advertising model emerge, perhaps via the controversial Google Books?
  • Should traditional publishers or agents try to run Kickstarter projects for new writers? 
  • How about high profile workshops like Clarion / Clarion West, or a contests like Writers of the Future?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Why SF Turned Dark & Engineering Wimped Out

Neal Stephenson, thought provoking as always, speaks at the Association for Science and Technology Centers. Here are my main takeaways:

Why has science fiction shifted from optimistic, idealistic stories from 50 years ago, to dark, dystopian stories that dominate the genre today? The shift seems to have occurred in the late 70's with Star Wars (still idealistic, but a gritty and broken-down futuristic world) and Alien (an industrialized, militaristic world). But I think this reflects the cultural change of the 60's. In the 50's there was a stronger emphasis on ideal norms. The cultural revolution of the 60's exposed a lot of the pretense.

The pretense didn't go away, but a layer of pretense was lifted away, and contemporary society is a little more honest about the real norms. In fact, we've become quite jaded, especially when you look at politics. Part of this might also be blamed on Watergate and cameras bringing the horrors of the Vietnam war into the public awareness.

But, Stephenson points out, the "built" environment has only changed superficially since the 70's, compared to the changes between 1900 & 1970's.

The helpfulness of SF to engineering comes from the shared understanding that the engineering team has through the SF that they all have read. This saves time and resources in communicating the vision, because the SF writer has already shared the vision, or some portion of it, some version of it, and the engineers are all on the same page.

The Hieroglyph anthology was designed to use near-future technology to write about tech that might be attainable within the lifetime of an engineering student today.

Why isn't society taking on big projects in the physical world like we used to? Stephenson believes the financial world is what is holding us back, and a modern aversion to risk and trying new things, and our leaders.

I'm not sure I buy this aversion to risk theory. American society, in particular, has become much more dependent, and accepting of, debt as a way of life. There is a vocal movement opposing public debt, but the common use of debt is far greater today than it was prior to the late 70's (when American Express and others started offering charge cards and credit cards).

I think the lack of big engineering projects has more to do with the partisanship of contemporary politics. Stephenson does say he thinks that it has to do with leadership today, and perhaps this is what he's referring to. Taking a political stance on a major engineering project can be politically risky, and the finances of the project can be used to illustrate that risk. However, George W. Bush tried to push for a mission to Mars, with a Moon Station as an interim step. However, this didn't really catch on. Again, this may boil down to partisanship, and also to Americans' suspicion of government, which grew out of the 60's cultural changes, the Vietnam War, and Watergate.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You Broke the Internet, Says Schneier to NSA

Don't freak out like this company's Shareholders, but it appears that the NSA actually has broken the internet.

As a follow up to my post back in October, here's an Ars Technica article about cryptographer and Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society Fellow Bruce Schneier's recent statements on Capital Hill.

Schneier said that the vulnerabilities inserted into security products by the NSA through its BULLRUN program could easily be exploited by criminals and other nation-states as well once they are discovered.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Not a Quantum of Solace

I read a lot of content on Slashdot and LinkedIn, so I was very disappointed to see that these two sites may have been targeted by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British sister agency to the NSA. It appears that malware may have been pushed out by the spy agency to visitors of these websites in conjunction with the NSA's operation (codename Quantum).

 Related: Amazon, Home Banking Not Secure Anymore? NSA is weakening security for everyone, making it riskier to do online banking...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Modular phone

I typically like to customize gadgets, software, etc., so I was excited when I first heard about Phonebloks. Reducing e-waste, that's a great outcome as well.

Then I realized they didn't actually have any way of making the devices, they were just raising awareness and building a community around what they wanted. There was no Kickstarter to build this thing. Some experts said that the technology wasn't even viable yet.

So, I said, what good is this?

Now it turns out Motorola had already secretly come up with an ambitious project to do this very same thing. And they've teamed up with the Phoneblocks guys. How cool is that!

I almost want to say, "See, maybe it is worthwhile to build hype over an idea, even when there isn't a clear path to execution."

But I can't say that. This is just serendipitous. They didn't cause Motorola to do Project Ara. Motorola was already doing it. Maybe they'll bring something helpful to the table, but what if there was no project Ara? Would they have influenced another manufacturer to take this on?

If you've got a good idea and the ability to make a compelling video, there's not much cost to trying to start a movement. You might even get a career out of it somehow. And, maybe there's nothing wrong with that, as long as you're not misleading people.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Do horses shrink in the dryer?

A post-apocalyptic future caused by climate change is a popular Dystopian theme. Perhaps these future animals should be smaller, at least in areas of increased temperature. Previous periods of global temperature increases have reduced the size of horses up to 30%, according to this brief article from Science. When the global trend reversed, animal size rebounded.

Of course evolutionary pressure favoring smaller animals takes place over long periods of time. But in the short run, maybe we would see evolutionary pressure killing off a great number of larger animals.

Larger muscle mass could mean more heat production, but would the animals die of heat stroke? Or would there be a more complex mechanism. Look at what is happening to Moose, the largest deer species. Their population is declining precipitously due to two parasites and white-tailed deer, but the parasites have always been around, they're just more abundant now due to climate change.

For domesticated animals, who can benefit from modern medicine and human-controlled breeding, will these ecological factors be mitigated? If so, horses and cattle might not increase.

A picture is emerging of our microbiome (the symbiotic bacteria that live in our guts) that shows the impact of our diet on our health. We feed domestic farm animals on diets that maximize their growth, so farmers can make more money on each animal. Then farmers and veterinarians administer antibiotics to help them avoid illness and grow larger. But perhaps it's healthier for an animal to be smaller, and perhaps livestock should have a diet that maximizes animal health rather than size. We're already counteracting the environmental pressures on animal size.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

11 North American Nations?

No, this is not the premise of a new YA Dystopian novel. It's a theory about the dominant cultures in the US and North America. This article in Tufts Magazine by Colin Woodard presents a more granular look at North American cultures, from the county level instead of the state level, looking at attitudes toward violence. He comes up with 11 nations based on historic settlement patterns (I like the way he names these groups):
  • Yankeedom
  • New Netherland
  • The Midlands
  • Tidewater
  • Greater Appalachia
  • Deep South
  • El Norte
  • The Left Coast
  • The Far West
  • New France
  • First Nation

I think his simple-majority approach to grouping the counties is a bit of a problem. How different would this map look if he left counties white when there was less than an 80% dominance in the trends he is studying?

I would also like to see what happened to the map if he counted suicides along with murders. Recent articles on suicide rates between various US populations has suggested that some homicides are in fact suicidal reckless behavior. It's hard to tease out the "suicide by by homicide" behavior, but adding the suicides in with the homicides might cancel out this effect.

It's an interesting paradigm that bears further investigation. Something to think about in upcoming elections.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Enders Game Movie Sequel?

Ender's Game took the number one slot at the box office over the weekend, and I watched it with a bunch of 8th graders, only one of whom had read the book. It blew their minds, and they thought it was great. (Spoilers ahead.)

As an adult who has read through to about the middle of book seven in the series (at which point I became too disturbed by his in-book comments about homosexuality to continue reading), I thought the film was very good, but not great. It hit all the major plot points I was expecting and felt true to the original story.

Battle School was the core of the story, and I think that was great. The space combat was greatly truncated compared to the book, but how many space battles can you watch when the key characters are just watching a projection above their heads and remote-controlling the battle above them?

Observation on User Interfaces for Computers: Gestural control was very dramatic when Ender is zooming in and out, changing perspectives of the projected space battles, but I still feel unconvinced that a computer interface with gestures is comfortable/workable for the end user without a lot of haptic feedback. The one-handed typing interface was interesting to watch - Ender was able to hold his tablet with one hand and use some sort of sign-langauge-esque typing technique.
One reason I say it was not great is because I had to explain so much about the ending to my group of moviegoers, not just the 8th graders, but also the other adults. When the movie isn't clear to those who have not read the book, that can be a problem. But it wasn't so confusing that it ruined enjoyment of the story. It's a complex story, and some events at the end were just a little too rushed to fully take in.

Even though the movie took the top slot, some analysts have suggested that it didn't do well enough to warrant a movie sequel. However, that doesn't seem to have stopped a lot of people from speculating about it. In fact, it was one of the first things to be discussed by my group of moviegoers after the lights came up. It's probably too early to know if there will be a sequel. Overseas sales are at least as important, if not more important than US sales these days.

The three likely paths a movie sequel might take are:
  1. Speaker For the Dead - the next book in the series which shows Ender 30 years later. There's not much action, and it's a very different kind of story.
  2. Ender's Shadow - Which is Bean's story, and mostly concurrent with Ender's Game. It might be good to make this while the actors have not aged too much.
  3. Fleet School - first in a new series of YA novels by card that picks up right after Ender's Game to show what happens to the Battle School after the war.
When you look at the fact that the Ender's Game novel has been back on the Best Seller list (mass-market paperbacks) for a year, and has held the #1 slot for the past few weeks, and a handful of other weeks over the summer, it's clear that Card is profiting from the movie indirectly, despite the fact that he does not profit directly from the movie (he got a flat fee for these film rights years ago).

I don't know about the film rights for the other books. It seems likely that Card would not sell the Fleet School rights for a flat fee if he thought he could profit more from the movie sales.

However, this Q&A from 2010 indicates that Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow were almost combined as one film. This suggests to me that the rights for Shadow might be in the same category as Game. However, that's just speculation on my part. It is equally possible that Card was hoping to work in Shadow so that he could sell additional rights that would be tied to the movie's earnings. Again, just my own speculation.

That said, if a sequel is made, I'm most interested in seeing Ender's Shadow. Bean is a great character, and we didn't get to see much of him in Game, even though he's clearly an important player.

Monday, October 28, 2013

One Tablet Per Child in Redlands?

Rwanda's OLPC vs. LAUSD's iPad initiative vs. Redlands USD's Dell Laptop decision.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) policy is the foundation of what Rwandan President Paul Kagame hopes will make Rwanda into a tech hub of Africa. If Rwanda can provide one laptop per child, shouldn't we be able to do that in the US? And if laptops are being replaced by tablets, shouldn't we be able to provide one tablet per child?

Redlands Unified School District board just voted to purchase Dell Laptops, deciding laptops are the best solution for this district. As a member of the Finance Committee at Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands (a private school), I'm taking a sharp look at the OLPC and OTPC (One Tablet Per Child) movements.

First, Rwanda's program is not without criticism. They are struggling to deal with issues of theft and student distraction. OLPC program officials want the devices to go home. However, to prevent theft and to deal with parent complaints that laptops are a distraction at home, some teachers lock up the laptops at school. Still, kids have been caught playing video games like "Doom" during class.

Los Angeles Unified School District entered into a contract with Apple to purchase iPads and special education software for all students and teachers this year. The rollout of this initiative has been plagued with problems.

LAUSD's Problems

Here is a list of some of the problems that have arisen to date in LAUSD:

Is Apple Enterprise-Ready?

Apple famously flopped in the business computing market with the Apple III. There has been a long-standing contempt of the business market at Apple, that started changing in recent years due to their success with iPhones and iPads. However, recent iPad sales have been declining, precipitously. Apple may have reached a point where competitors, like Microsoft & Samsung, take the market from them, just like Android took over the smartphone market that the iPhone created.

Therefore, Apple has never catered to enterprise-wide deployment of their devices and software. And it shows. The iPad security issues in the LAUSD (and even the keyboard issue, I believe) are a symptom of this problem. Schools (including colleges and universities) that have attempted to integrate Apple products into their enterprise network have experienced a number of problems. One of the most discouraging, for me, is the inability to re-issue textbooks to new students each year.


Locking down the devices

  • Yes, we should attempt to lock down the devices. However, even more important than preventing kids from browsing the Internet and playing games, we need to do our best to keep the child's information secure. This is information that could be abused to harm a student, potentially from a predator outside the school system, a bully inside the school, or a malicious school employee.
  • Signed Agreement - have the parent (for legal reasons) & student (for psychological reasons) sign an agreement regarding the use of technology. The parent should understand that they are responsible for how their child uses a device and they should understand what they need to do to keep their child safe and productive. In corporate environments, signing an agreement about how technology can be used is common.
  • Devices can be physically locked down, stored in a cart where they can charge overnight, and kept securely in the classroom. (At least as securely as anything else in the classroom - there will be break-ins).
  • Reward the hackers, don't punish them. If a student is clever enough to hack the device, and they report the vulnerability to the district (and don't publicize the exploit), they should be rewarded. The reward should be attractive, especially as the system becomes harder to crack. We should expect a student to hack the system, to gain access to teacher or administrator passwords. The trick is how we deal with that.
(There is a good fictional example of a High School student hacking a laptop, and of student information being abused by malicious school employees, in Cory Doctorow's novel, Little Brother).

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing has security concerns. They are concerns the industry is dealing with every day, but the biggest security concern is always the person who is accessing the system. Putting responsibility on the student to use a complex password, to remember it and keep private, may not be workable. Biometric security is not advanced enough to be secure (as I discussed in an earlier post on the iPhone 5S). So, the cloud should be used carefully.

Working with web/based apps and storing class projects in a Cloud that is accessible from home could be great. However, sensitive information about that child needs to be kept secure. Essay's may reveal private information about a student. Requiring tertiary authentication might be a requirement (like a home banking system where you are presented with a picture, etc.). So, the parts of the cloud accessible from home may need to be limited compared to what's accessible from the classroom.

Look to Windows Laptops & Tablet/Laptop Hybrids (coming soon)

  • Laptops have keyboards (critical for compliance with Common Core curriculum and testing), and there are a number of good manufacturers of Windows laptops. They also have USB ports.
  • Tablet/Laptop Hybrids, like the Surface Pro 2 and Samsung Ativ tablets, either come with or integrate well with keyboards and run Windows. The Tablets sometimes run a special version of Windows 8, and TrueCrypt does not yet support any version of Windows 8, but these Tablet/Laptop Hybrids bear close watching over the next couple years.
  • Microsoft has long dominated the Enterprise Software market, and they have great tools for centrally managing all the laptops. This includes tools to quickly set up new hardware (i.e., "imaging" a new laptop to install all the software automatically), and tools to centrally install new software for existing laptops on the network, and to centrally push out software updates, such as security updates. Even a laptop that is turned off can be automatically awakened to apply such updates.

Work out the E-Book licensing issue

One of my biggest reasons for wanting tablets is to eliminate those heavy, bulky, and often outdated textbooks. I've been concerned for years about the health impact of carrying heavy textbooks. However, there needs to be a good solution to the licensing issue. If books need to be reissued to students every year, buying a whole new license for every student is just too costly.


Technology is not a solution to biggest problems facing education today, because it doesn't directly address the problem. The problem is Poverty. This is from an NPR interview with Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education:
Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today. One of those would be to have reduced class sizes in the schools that serve the children of poverty. Another would be to have universal pre-kindergarten. We should have a strong arts program in every one of these schools, because children have to have a reason to come to school other than just to be tested.
Poverty is definitely an issue in the LAUSD, as it is in the high-profile Philidephia School District. Putting technology in schools is something I believe in, but there are some very basic funding issues in schools that I think we need to deal with first, and laptops will not reduce the need for more teachers and more staff in these poverty-stricken districts. Laptops can be part of a solution, but it's not going to miraculously revolutionize public school education without spending money on a lot of other areas. This is likely also true, if not more true, in Rwanda.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scientific American Restores Blog Post

Good for Scientific American for restoring DNLee's blog post. The insult she is responding to is egregious. It is more than just a personal attack - and most personal attacks are probably best ignored. This is about taking a stand against sexism and racism. Such reprehensible behavior should not be tolerated. I think it was brave of DNLee to respond publicly and applaud her for doing so.

When DNLee's blog post was taken down (within an hour of being posted), it was looking like Popular Science turning off comments on their site due to Trolls. Now that the post is back, I see this as empowering science, and a show of support for women and minorities in science.

There is a lot of science controversy lately. Ultimately, I think it is good for science to get this level of scrutiny. It gives the public the opportunity to dig into the issues facing science and make it better. We should not have blind faith in science, and we should not be asked to. We should always be critical.

On the same day as DNLee's post, NPR covered the rise of "cheating" in science (e.g., faked experiment results), and the efforts to crack down on cheating. This is another example of science policing itself, like I mentioned in a recent post about shady scientific journals.

While the Popular Science actions were disheartening - like science was losing the war against trolls - cracking down on cheating and bad science journals is very encouraging. The scientific community is cleaning house

Monday, October 14, 2013

Credit Approved (Flash Fiction)

When I worked for Arrowhead Credit Union, we used a supplemental credit score in addition to the FICO Score as part of our loan underwriting (approval/denial) process for consumer loans. One of my projects was to provide data to Fair Isaac (a.k.a., FICO) so they could create a new custom score based on our own data. 

This story, "Credit Approved," is about your online data being used by lenders to approve or deny your loan application, as postulated by Kate Crawford (a principal at Microsoft research) at MIT's EmTech conference. This story is not a prediction, and I do not know of any specific plans to use online data in this way, but Fair Isaac has been offering scores using "Alternative Data Sources" and also offers "Big Data solutions" on its website today.

Credit Approved

The caller ID said it was the Credit Union, so I answered it right away.

“Hi, Rick,” said the familiar voice of Nial, the loan officer. We expected him to call.

The appraisal already came in $5,000 over the purchase price. The rest was supposed to be a formality.

“I’m afraid there’s a problem. Remember how your credit scores were good, but not great?”

I felt my heart turn to lead and sink into a sour ball in the pit of my stomach. “But you Pre-Approved us.”

“It’s these new loan requirements from Freddie Mac. When your scores are in a certain range, we have to get a supplemental score. It is listed on your credit-approval letter.”

I almost pulled up the letter, but Nial went on.

“Your FIDPO came in too low. It rates your digital profile.” Nial read the denial reasons that came with that score.

“That can’t be right! What can I do about this?”

“You can submit proof they are false, and it’ll take 60 days. Maybe it will raise the score enough, but you’d lose the house by then.”

Pat was going to freak! We’d finally found the perfect house, after a two-year search.

“I know you have more in savings, so I had them run the numbers with larger down payments. Still, the only option is a portfolio loan. The Credit Union would be the lender, but you’d need to double your down payment. We can’t go over 80% Loan To Value. But at least you wouldn’t have to pay for Mortgage Insurance.”

“We needed that money for furniture and stuff.” But it was the best Niall could do.

Pat would just have to understand. We loved the house, and at least we could salvage the deal this way.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Amazon, Home Banking Not Secure Anymore?

Great episode of Science Friday on Encryption last week (with Phil Zimmermann, creator of PGP).  Main takeaway: NSA is weakening security for everyone, making it riskier to do online banking and shop online, and even creating security and legal risks for American businesses. 

Many people don't realize that they use encryption every day. Those who think "I've got nothing to hide" actually do want to hide their bank account numbers, usernames, and passwords, and medical records. Encryption has become so easy to use that it's virtually transparent (just lock for the "lock" symbal, and make sure the web address says "https"). The very technology that makes online banking and shopping secure is the encryption that the NSA and other government agencies have been working to weaken or find ways to just bypass. 

We hear about private data being breached all the time. Last week it was Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, Acrobat, and Flash (still common on web pages, despite Apple's past claim that it was irrelevant). The passwords and credit card numbers that were stolen from Apple were encrypted, but when the NSA works to weaken encryption, they threaten US businesses. Federal Laws mandate that businesses protect information, like your credit card numbers, medical records, etc. Weakening that encryption exposes businesses to the risks of being compromised and possibly of being out of compliance.

This week, NPR is doing a series called Your Digital Trail. I'll be following this series closely and listening for mention of "Meshnet" or "Darknet". Both are alternatives to the Internet, that may still use the Internet, but might allow for better privacy. I recently heard someone on NPR mention "Meshnet" in response to the NSA compromising encryption certificates, but it was just mentioned fleetingly and not fully explained. I also cannot find any story on the NPR web site that mentions Meshnet or Darknet.

A darknet features prominently in Cory Doctorow's Homeland (the sequel to Little Brother, which also essentially has a darknet called "XNet"). A darknet also appears in Charles Stross's Rule 34, but it was used as a black market.

However, it remains to be seen that a meshnet/darknet solution can be made as easy for end users as the kind of encryption the average person uses today.

Update - Other stories in the Your Digital Trail Series: