Liberty Through Entrepreneurship

Recently, the Institute for Humane Studies held a “Liberty Through Technology” contest for full and part time students to win a tablet. The selection process revolved around explaining why their giving the recipient a tablet would advance the cause of liberty by enabling academic research. Here were the questions they asked, and my responses. To be honest, if I had won a tablet I’d probably mainly use it for reading books on the john, but I didn’t think they would find that a particularly compelling reason, so instead I submitted the following, which conveniently, is also true. (While I didn’t win the tablet, they did call me a finalist and gave me a $25 credit for, which was very nice of them.)

What is your current research interest and what questions would you like to answer through your future research?

I am interested in the use of distance learning to deliver entrepreneurship education to students in low and middle income countries.

I would like to determine what mobile learning strategies are the best for attracting prospective students and for educating them once they’re enrolled. Relevant topics would include keeping students engaged in their learning despite not having a classroom environment, fostering cooperative relationships among students who may be spread across many countries, and on determining which mobile learning approaches are compatible with the uncertain Internet connectivity found in many lower income countries.

How does your research topic advance liberty?

I realize that it’s something of a rarity that someone keen on liberty is in a graduate school of education. Such schools have the reputation for being the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” of higher education: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. That’s doubly so in that schools of education are known for being safe harbors for leftist ideologies that would ignite and turn to dust were they ever exposed to the harsh daylight of the real world.

I’ve long thought, however, that higher education can be a strong force for liberty. Many people who will never stop at an information table or visit a libertarian web site, and who if asked would express no interest in such things, will listen with rapt attention to a liberty-friendly curriculum if it’s delivered in a university classroom where they are earning credit towards a degree.

I’ve chosen entrepreneurship education as a specific focus for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that starting a business is an excellent way to run headlong into a myriad of ways that the state hinders one’s prosperity. I recognize that not all entrepreneurs become libertarian, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Secondly, I believe that starting a business has been underrated as a way to advance the cause of liberty. Think tanks and political action are all very well, but there’s something to be said for changing the system by selling people an alternative. If, as the saying goes, libertarians see the state as damage and route around it, then someone has to bring those alternative routes into existence.

Finally, every once in a while, an entrepreneur will succeed in a way that makes considerable amounts of money. For those who may become friendly to liberty to become wealthy can only be helpful in the long run in a world where money talks. I expect that’s even more the case in economically developing countries where money goes much further than it does in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

How can a tablet help you achieve your research goals?

With such a device handy, I would be in a better position to evaluate various approaches to mobile learning that would answer the questions I’ve outlined above. I indicated an Android device because such devices are more affordable and thus more common in economically developing countries.

Another Insult From Verizon

SOLD: Western Electric antique wallmount telephone
I almost deleted the email as probable spam, but then I actually read it:

Thank you for being a loyal Verizon customer. At Verizon, we are committed to bring you the best suite of products and the most current capabilities, while providing the value and quality of service that you expect. From time to time, we must make changes to our product offering to meet these goals. Beginning May 6, 2012, we will no longer offer High Speed Internet without local voice service on the same account.

Let me get this straight — to reward my loyalty, and as part of their commitment to bringing me the value I expect, Verizon has decided that if I ever move and want to retain their DSL service I must also pay them every month for a landline phone that I don’t want and can’t use? I think “ridiculous” is among the nicer words I can use to describe that scenario. And even if I had enough use for a land line to get one, it surely wouldn’t be their outrageously overpriced service, it would be something like magicJack Plus which offers effectively the same thing for a tiny fraction of the price.

I guess I’m not the only one who refuses to overpay for a land line, and I suspect the problem here is that Verizon executives have clumsily responded to minimal demand for this overpriced service by holding the services people actually do want hostage. I don’t think that will work, and it surely won’t work on me. I’m grandfathered in, apparently, and hopefully that means as long as I stay at this address. But in a few years we’ll move, and if this policy is still in play at that time, that will be the last straw that finally pushes us to a different Internet service provider.

I wish all these telecommunications companies and other media companies would get it that people want a single telecommunications connection that’s reliable and fairly priced, and they want to use that single pipe as the conduit for all the other applications, whether voice, TV, or other, that they can then get from a competitive marketplace. Perhaps it’s because the few large companies in the telecommuncations space are a cartel supported by municipal guarantees of monopoly that they’re so slow to adapt to what their customers actually want, or perhaps they realize in an efficient system, they can’t compete, but whatever the reason, the end of companies like Verizon thinking that customers can be coerced like this is long overdue.

The Airport Security Dilemma

“TSA. You are supposed to be protecting us, but at this point you are… terrorizing us.” — Elie Mystal

TSA Security Checkpoint This week I’m in my first doctoral residency at Northeastern University, and while I’m writing about that elsewhere, I did want to share the experience I had getting there in the first place.

Northeastern University is in Boston and I live in Northern Virginia, meaning I first had to get there. It’s about a ten hour drive, and at first I considered taking my car, but then when I considered gas, tolls, and mileage, and checked out how little the flight would cost, I decided to fly. It helps that I’ve taken public transportation in Boston once before, when I flew up to speak at the Free Culture National Conference a few years ago, so I knew that getting from the airport to the place on campus where I was staying would be fairly easy.

Of course, this is the brave new twenty-first century, and that means when flying one gets a choice. No, not a choice of sodas, those cost extra now. I mean when going through security one can either go through the porn-o-matic scanner, or one can be groped. Now, while I don’t believe any of this actually makes travelers significantly safer, and don’t believe that those with delicate sensibilities should have to suffer these sorts of indignities and violations of privacy to fly on an airplane, I personally don’t really care if some random person sees a black and white scan of my junk. So you probably expect that means I went through the porn-o-matic, right?

Nope, I went for the groping instead. I know I’m not a medical doctor or anything, but I’ve read enough about the millimeter waves used by the porno scanners not to want to go anywhere near them. Yes, it’s possible that the sources of information that question the safety of these scanners may be suspect, but if there’s anything one can learn from history, it’s to disbelieve anything a government official says until proven otherwise — and they’re desperate to make people believe those scanners are perfectly safe.

So, how bad was the procedure? Well, I don’t believe he went to school for homeland security, but, to give credit where it’s due, the guy who patted me down at Reagan National Airport was extremely professional about it, telling me everything he was going to do ahead of time. It didn’t take very long, and while it was thorough, it wasn’t the end of the world. Of course, I’m a mentally healthy adult who’s never been abused, adopted religious sensibilities, or anything like that which might lead me to be sensitive about this sort of thing. And I could definitely see why people in those situations might feel extremely uncomfortable, even violated, by this procedure.

The other thing was that I was surprised I didn’t have to go through a metal detector. My bags went through the x-ray machines, as usual, but the pat down was the only procedure for everything on my person between the street and the airplane. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in information security, but whenever I see a security measure I think of it (intellectually, of course) as a challenge to be defeated. I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone determined couldn’t figure out some means of getting dangerous items. There was a scan for chemical residue, but that wouldn’t pick up any metal objects I might have cleverly concealed on my person.

I know I sound dismissive of security, but that’s not really my objective. When I get on an airplane, I want to land at my destination and live my life, I don’t want to be on a plane that gets hijacked and flown into an office building or shot down by an F-16. But I also don’t think that sort of 9/11 scenario is as likely today as it was in 2001, for two main reasons. First, cockpits are inaccessible, so hijackers might take over the cabin, but they’re not going to gain control of the plane. Second, before 9/11 passengers were told to comply with hijacker demands. Does anyone think hijackers will be obeyed by a plane full of Americans from the “Let’s roll!” generation?

Homeland Security spokespeople and others often say that any security measures, no matter how intrusive, are acceptable in part because no one is forced to fly on an airplane. But someone who needs to fly somewhere for work is hardly in a position to resist in a time of double digit unemployment. More to the point, however, is that “You’re not forced to fly” works both ways — why can’t it be the easily terrorized, who demand unreasonable security measures to feel safer, be the ones who take the bus?

Online Student Services

I posted this in my class discussion about online student services, and thought it might be of at least marginal general interest, especially since it includes a follow up to my previous post about UM’s support of students who use open source technologies.

What online student service do you believe to be of greatest value to all stakeholders? Why?

Asking which student service is the greatest value seems like asking which puzzle piece is the most important. Some of the pieces might be bigger than others, and some might be in the middle of things while others are out there on the edge, but you can’t complete the picture without every single one. Especially considering that in this era of shortfalls and budget cuts nothing superfluous can survive, if there were a student service that were unnecessary I think we’d see it start to disappear from what colleges and universities offer their students.

That said, and especially given that money makes the world go around, I think I’ll argue that financial aid is the greatest value to all stakeholders. Without it, many if not most students wouldn’t be able to attend in the first place, obviating the need for any others. And without those incoming funds, many institutions would soon have to close their doors.

What student service(s) has gone online that shouldn’t have? Why?

I think [a classmate’s] example of remedial education shows that there are some student services that either shouldn’t go online, or at least should only go online in a careful way. Remedial education is something where immediate back-and-forth conversations between student and instructor can be vitally important for understanding. That doesn’t mean that they can’t go online altogether, however. Such services can be provided in a synchronous format, such as Skype, WebEx, or a similar service, rather than asynchronously through a discussion board.

Tutoring is another example, and for the same reason. Students requiring tutoring may be less far behind than those at the remedial level, but the principle of timely access to answers is the same. If this service is offered online, it should be offered synchronously, even if it’s also offered asynchronously as well.

What student services are not online? Explain why they may never go online.

There are no student services that are not online. There are distance learning institutions that offer a comparable experience to that of a traditional campus, including both academic and non-academic components.

The one exception is wellness services. And to some extent even this is possible to do remotely, as the emerging practice of telemedicine shows. But for the most part distance learning institutions leave this one be, especially as much of the motivation for offering wellness services on traditional campuses is to prevent the spread of maaldies among the university community, which isn’t a danger with online learning.

Using an example of a poorly executed online student service, what design factors were not taken into consideration during implementation?

I have a personal story of a poorly executed online student service, here at UM. I’m also taking Statistics I this term, and in this course the use of a remotely hosted application is required. At one point I was having trouble getting this application to save a file to my local machine, something it had done before successfully. It was clear to me that there was some sort of issue on the remote end, and that my own machine was configured properly. I called technical support, and spoke with someone who was polite, but whose level of technical competence was completely insufficient to understand my problem. I knew she was having trouble understanding me, but my heart really sank when ten minutes into our conversation she asked, “Wait, what application is this again?”

Eventually she decided that the reason that I was having trouble is that my local machine runs Linux rather than Windows or Mac OSX. I knew without doubt that this was not the problem, but clearly there was no better help to be had from her, and she did at least offer to open a ticket, so I gave up and let her. It turned out that I was right, in that when I tried to do the same thing again I was successful — UM’s turtle-slow network was finally no longer timing out. As for technical support, I heard nothing more from them for eight days, until I finally received an email letting me know that they were closing my ticket because they don’t support Linux.

Design factors missing from this experience include:

  • The service was not only not designed from my point of view, but there was no knowledge of veteran staff tempering anything.
  • There was no focus on new technologies, indeed technical support gave up as soon as they decided that a new technology was involved with the situation, even though it wasn’t.
  • There was no delivery of just-in-time service. Even the lowest priority ticket should be worked before eight days have passed.

To be fair, I should add that this was my second experience with UM technical support, and the first experience was completely different. In that instance, I was trying to get connected to the remote application in the first place. That was a Linux-related issue, yet the technician took the time to find out the information I needed and provided it anyway.

So perhaps the poor execution of this online student service isn’t so much design as it is execution, and that with better consistency it would be a well run service for those of us who rely on doing things online.

A Humble Suggestion For The Chronicle Of Higher Education

I just sent the following letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I’m not sure this is the right place to send this, but it wasn’t clear how to contact the people who run the Wired Campus section of your site directly, so I thought I’d try here since this is the only email address that refers to suggestions.

My suggestion is to find the people who added that constantly updating Twitter feed to every page in Wired Campus, drag them out back, and shoot them dead. It is nearly impossible to read an article when something else on the page is constantly distracting the reader with an unnecessary update. It is a usability nightmare — the triumph of “Can we do it?” over “Should we?”

If you’re not willing to resort to homicide, however justifiable, then if nothing else, please, please, please, at least get rid of it, or failing that make it one-click easy to shut off so that readers can actually absorb the content they came to your site to find.


Steve Foerster

“Too Much Information” Technology

“Too much information will make your brain choke.” — Bryan Davis

liar game

When it comes to privacy, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think what’s going to happen is that modern culture will adapt to an ever diminishing expectation of privacy. To older people that probably sounds really terrifying. Younger people don’t seem to be as bothered, especially considering what they’ll post on Facebook.

And it’s not just the Internet that will erode the walls that separate us from one another. One of the things that’s coming up is a technology called augmented reality, in which what you see in the real world has an added layer of computer generated information overlaid on top of it. So imagine you’re walking around on vacation and want to get a bite to eat. You don’t know any of these places. But with AR, you might have a small screen or even glasses to wear that overlay additional information about what you see. When you look at a restaurant it may also display how well it’s been reviewed, or whether it’s been cited by the health department, or if it has low sodium options.

This relates to privacy in that as facial recognition software becomes more mature, it will become possible to use AR to learn things about people just by looking at them. Imagine something like this connected to a database of registered sex offenders, for example.

What will be even more game changing will be on the fly lie detection. As scanning technology used in MRIs becomes cheaper and miniaturized, someday it will fit into these sorts of AR systems. Another way to do this that might be technologically easier to engineer would be if the sorts of microexpressions that show deception can be analyzed by the facial recognition software. Either way, imagine having a conversation with someone and having your AR system display a big stop sign every time the person shows signs of deception.

So at what point will information technology become “too much information” technology? Love it or hate it, you’re likely going to find out!

Free Software At The U. of Memphis

“Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free.” — Linus Torvalds

I’m a big fan of free software. I had been running Windows and DOS before it all the way back to the early ’90s, but I always had an interest in free software and about two years ago I finally made the switch to Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been very happy with it, as it does everything I need, and since it’s easier for me to be the system administration for the family if we’re all on the same system, I went further and bought Adella a laptop with Ubuntu Linux, and even gave my mom’s old PC a new lease on life by replacing her crawlingly slow Windows XP installation with Ubuntu Linux.

It’s come a long way since I first toyed around with it in 2000, but because Linux still has such a small share of the market, occasionally I run into something I want to do where there’s no Linux support. When I would call my Internet service provider, for example, I quickly learned never to tell them I was a Linux user because their brains would turn to goo and they would stammer that they wouldn’t be able to help me. Similarly, when I worked for Marymount the helpdesk wasn’t in a position to offer support for Linux, almost all the students ran Windows or Mac, and that was all they could really handle.

I saw that the introductory assignment for my Statistics course was to get set up using a remote client to access a terminal server that had PASW, an expensive commercial Statistics software package, and that there were two sets of directions — Windows and Mac. “Uh oh,” I thought, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of that bit in “King of the Hill”, where… well, see for yourself:

So I contacted the University of Memphis helpdesk, just to see whether they could offer directions for a Linux user like me. I had really low expectations, but I was pleasantly astonished when they responded immediately with useful instructions. After a few iterations with them, I was connected properly and using the remote application. University of Memphis helpdesk for the win!

At the same time, using an application on their server over my not-so-great connection was pretty slow. The thing is, the reason they provide this convoluted means of accessing the application isn’t that it won’t run on people’s computers at home. The reason people have to jump through all those hoops is that licenses for this software are incredibly expensive. But free software to the rescue, because there’s a free software alternative called PSPP that is designed to replace it costlessly. I imported the data set in both places and it looked the same and gave me the same results, so I emailed my instructor asking whether he minded if I use PSPP instead. Because the directions on getting set up with PASW were so particular, I was concerned that he might insist I use it. But he asked which particular package I’d like to use and he sounds amenable to it. So that’s pretty impressive as well.

Climate Change Education?

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain

a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

Cloudy With A Chance Of Laptop

“The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time, the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.” — Tom Cargill

I never win anything, but for some reason when it’s free to do so I always enter contests anyway. So when I found out recently that Google plans to give away tens of thousands of laptops, I signed up. There’s a big catch, though. The point of the giveaway isn’t that they’ve realized they have more cash than the Vatican and are trying to come up with fun ways to get rid of it. The point is that they want to find people who are willing to beta test Chrome OS, their weird new web browser-only operating system:

The deal is that the winners agree to use this laptop as their primary computer for a while, so that Google can get feedback on Chrome OS before it gets installed on laptops for which people have to pay actual money. Now, I’ve been on Linux for a few years and I’m perfectly happy with it. And not everything I do is “on the cloud” (a silly way of saying that everything is stored on the Internet rather than on one’s own computer. But I’m interested to see how well Chrome OS handles people like me, who do mostly everything online, but not quite everything. For example:

  • I use for word processing and spreadsheets. I’m familiar with Google Docs and have used them in certain circumstances, but how would it be to use web apps exclusively for this sort of thing? And how well would Chrome OS handle moving documents onto and off of the cloud? Sometimes I just want to move a document onto a portable drive and hand it to someone else — what happens then?
  • How does it handle periods of inevitable disconnection from the Internet? I have Verizon DSL, which means things stop working from time to time. And when I’m, say, traveling on an airplane there’s no connectivity. Does a computer with Chrome OS become a useless brick at that point, or does it have some capacity to let people be productive under those circumstance?
  • Earlier today I cropped an image file and uploaded it to my web server. (Okay, it’s my friend Randall’s server, but you get the point.) I didn’t do that through a web interface, I did it through the file manager on my computer, which has built in FTP capability. Would that be possible to do with Chrome OS? If so, would it be as easy?
  • App stores seem to be all the rage these days. Apple has one for its iDevices, there’s one for Android, and sure enough there’s one now for Chrome. But will there be free apps, or is that just another way to get me to pay for things that are free on Linux? When Adella needed a song on mp3, I was able to find and download free apps that let me download a video from YouTube, and then convert the audio portion of that file and convert it to mp3. Any chance Chrome OS will support that sort of thing?

So I’m willing to give Chrome OS a try to learn more about it, and I’m even willing to use it as my primary computer for a while to do that. But while I’m pretty sure that doing things through a web browser would be fine for 90% of what I do, the question is whether the things it can’t handle feel more like ten percent, or like the other 90%. Here’s hoping that Google gives me the chance to find out!