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 Amazon.com, 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?

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.

Thanks,

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!

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 OpenOffice.org 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!