Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Media and Politics

I enjoyed Colin Read’s Nov 4 Press Republican  column where he points out that technology has contributed to a vanishing centrist view in politics. In the past, when newspapers were the main delivery medium for news, editors had to be careful not to skew the facts too far to the right or the left as the readers were sure to contain citizens of both persuasions. As a result the news was nudged  towards the middle of the political road if ,for no other reason, it would outrage fewer readers and was certainly the best choice in terms of the bottom line.

Now most everyone has the Internet and cable TV which can provide the type and slant of news most any individual desires. In addition to cooking, pet and golf channels there is Fox which caters to the right and MSNBC on the left of center. This tends to polarize the politics of our nation and could certainly be a significant cause of our gridlocked government that , like the weather, everyone complains about but no one seems to be able to change.

However, that said, I must respectfully (there’s a word you don’t hear very often anymore) disagree with my colleague. Newspapers, even in their heyday, were divided into right, left and center politically in their editorials and worse, their choice of headlines demonstrated their political leanings. I recall back in the Sixties a headline from the Manchester Union Leader stating, “UN Mercenaries Invade Congo”. Of course, this was the opinion of  the owner (Loeb) of the publication but the people who regularly purchased this paper were also the choir he was preaching to. This seems very little different than what Fox and MSNBC News are doing when they broadcast the opinions of Hannity and Maddow. Actually Fox and MSNBC are being more intellectually honest and transparent with us as they do not claim that Mr. Hannity and Ms Maddow are newscasters but are merely commentators. And as commentators, they can vent their biases to their bases rather freely. The issue is, however, when you sit down for a meal, do you want your soup with  one flavor overpowering all of the others or would you rather they all work to complement each other?

Whether the “good old days” when the Fourth Estate (i.e. newspapers) chose which news was worth reporting were better than the cornucopia of TV channels and Internet (includes newspapers) sites that are currently available is debateable.  If I have to chose between the elite few publishers who decide what news is and the delicious diversity of offerings on the Internet, on the whole, I have to go with the choice that maximizes my choice. I think it’s better to have too much choice than not enough even though there are times when too much choice seems overwhelming --- like shopping in a super-duper market for cereals for example. In fact, some think that this overabundance of choice contributes to the sense of ennui and irony of our age.

Unfortunately, having an abundance of choices does not necessarily mean we will use them  wisely. Sites that analyze Twitter feeds clearly show that visitors to conservative and liberal websites do not overlap very much at all; if you are a conservative you visit mostly conservative websites and liberals visit liberal websites. One would hope that  a plethora of information would inform the populace and promote toleration of other’s viewpoints but, sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Instead of tolerance we get arrogance and righteousness which leads to insularity and polarization. And although it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “A friend is one who has the same enemies as you have.” we must ask ourselves: Are we all in this together or are we not? Sulking in our enclaves is not only counterproductive, it is just plain childish.

Maybe we can find some ironic solace in the message from Kahlil Gibran, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers." If we could just follow his example but learn instead to be grateful to those teachers I’m sure the world would be better for it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Political Rhetoric

November 11, 2012

By the time you are reading this article  the Election will be over and it will be time to step back and view the events from a longer and more objective perspective. During the runup to it, Ron Jackson (Essex County Republican Committee Chairperson) wrote a letter to the editor (10/16/2012) which listed a litany of reasons to vote against the democratic incumbent , Bill Owens. Included in the list was the claim that Owens “co-sponsored the SOPA bill to allow the government to take away your Internet freedoms without any due process of law”. Jackson ends his letter with the admonition: “He (Owens) can’t be trusted.”  

I was puzzled on two accounts: first, I remember reading about SOPA but couldn’t remember exactly what it was about let alone what the acronym stood for; second, I knew Owens personally, as he helped my wife and I draw up some legal documents in the past  and I recall that he was a compassionate and competent lawyer. So I did what everyone else does when confronted with a problem: I googled it (I know, I know,  the Google Corporation doesn’t like it when a citizen uses their name as a common noun or verb because it degrades the patent on their good name but that is their problem and not mine --- I should be so successful that my name becomes a verb).

Anyway, I found out that SOPA unpacks to “Stop Online Piracy Act” and that like any complicated piece of legislation it contains many complex interacting parts due to the compromises that must be made during any effective political process. It was introduced in the House of Representatives on Oct 26, 2011 by Lamar Smith (R-TX) with bipartisan support  and its intent is to strengthen the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) by making it easier to prosecute online lawbreakers who violate intellectual property copyrights (e.g. music, video) as well as counterfeit products. Naturally there are pros and cons to the passage of any new law and this is no exception.

On the negative side, it would force Internet Service Providers to block the sites of copyright violators and even stop search engines like Bing and Google from displaying them in their search results. Most internet users are opposed to SOPA ( as well as the ACLU, Google and Facebook) as it will limit their free access to information, They claim that the law is overly broad and will be nearly impossible to enforce as pirates, when closed down, usually pop up again somewhere else on the web --- usually offshore the US (as pirates are wont to do)

Those arguing for SOPA including the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce (politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows) point out that jobs depend on commerce and that commerce depends on copyrights, patents and trademarks. Also, as expected, the large internet music, movie and video vendors support the legislation.

As of now, the legislation has been tabled but expect it back in a new form  as it seems to be a very effective fund raiser for both sides.

For quick incomplete description of SOPA visit: http://www.emedialaw.com/sopa-the-debate-in-plain-english/

For a longer more complete treatment of what everyone seems to agree is a very complicated issue see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act#cite_note-washingtonpost-4

What I cannot understand is why Jackson is so vociferously against Owens --- according to govtrack.us Owens is a centrist whose voting record places him smack dab in the middle of the ideology scale (in fact Obama and Owens disagree on SOPA). So Jackson’s claim was either oversimplified or simply not the whole truth. Is not telling the whole truth equivalent to a lie? I’m not sure but I do know that when someone dissembles in this manner, I am much less likely to swallow any other claims he has made. It’s really too bad that so many politicians on both sides of the aisle use this tactic to discredit their opponents --- at best it destroys our trust in the person and at it’s worst it undermines our democracy. It’s easy to understand why little kids tell lies and half-truths to get their way,  it’s much harder to explain in adults.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Teaching Not so Easy: Part 2

Guess what the French word for “paper clip” is. Give up?  It’s “trombone” or to be more grammatically correct,  “un trombone” --- what a much more imaginative word to capture the shape of what we anglo speakers mundanely call the paperclip.

Perhaps you read in the 9/25 PR,  “Speech Jammer among 2012 IgNobel Winners”. It’s a device that repeats an individual’s speech a few hundred milliseconds after they’ve said it and it purportedly completely discombobulates the speaker. It’s proposed use is to warn conference speakers that they have exceeded their time limits. I know this works because when I was a typical bratty teenager, I had the ability to do the same thing --- repeat almost immediately one’s speech which really annoyed the speaker. I quit this practice after my seventh grade English teacher stopped lecturing, glared at me and slowly said, “Stop That!”. I may have been a wisenheimer  but I was also wise enough to know when enough was enough.

Why am I writing about trombones and speech jammers? Because they are both educational experiences that I never would have remembered if I had not agreed to teach the computer ethics and writing course at SUNY, Plattsburgh as I mentioned in the previous column. Associative memory is a strange and amazing thing.

I also promised a Part 2 to complete my thoughts regarding this process and so, here they come:

I began preparing for this course several months ago by perusing my last Syllabus which lays out the goals of the course and the scheduled assignments --- what to read when and when the writing assignments on the readings are due. Fortunately, the textbook is the same one I chose 5 years ago although it is now in it's fifth edition but the content is pretty much the same and the ethical theory covered has not yet changed. The supplementary readings were a bit out of date so I thought I could replace that with readings from the web (including perhaps some of the articles from this very column accessible at: tec-soc.blogspot.com )This required reading ethical articles on the web.
In the process I found that in addition to the standard ethical theories of : Relativism (Cultural and Subjective), Divine Command Theory, Egoism, Kantianism, Utilitarianism (Act and Rule), and Social Contract Theory --- I had overlooked investigating the Free Will vs Determinism issue even though it's resolution is critical to the study of ethical theory. Determinism has been described as the view that the past determines the future. However,you must first believe that humans have free will, that one can rationally choose their actions before you can hold them accountable for them. And since Ethics can be briefly characterized as What you Ought to Do, you implicitly accept Free Will over Determinism which, in its extreme form states that we cannot control our actions as every action is predetermined by its many causes.  No wonder this issue has been debated for over two millennia without resolution, however, I found the links below to be useful:

Humans have Free Will
Humans do not have Free Will
Humans are Determined but still have Free Will
Buddhist View of Free Will

It’s been quite a bit of work but it’s been worth it.
A long-time friend and colleague once told me that that whenever he hears from someone that claims we profs have an easy life on the gravy train, he responds, “Yeah, that’s right, I only work 9 hours a week and 30 weeks a year --- anyone who’s not a teacher is crazy!”. The reply is usually stunned silence and hopefully, eventually the realization that not only is this a gross oversimplification, it’s just not true. I’ve worked for over fifty years in the federal government, private industry and in academia and I can say without a doubt that I’ve never worked harder or been happier than when working as a teacher.  Next to being a brain surgeon performing a successful operation, I cannot think of a more fulfilling profession.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Teaching is not so Easy as it Looks

Modest gentleman and scholar that I am, I don't enjoy writing about myself but a situation has arisen whereby I can possibly benefit others by doing so and therefore I, in this column, shall. A few months ago I was invited to teach “Ethics and the Information Age” for the Computer Science Department this semester due to a temporary shortage of faculty for the fall semester. After carefully analyzing the pros and cons of such an endeavor, I acquiesced to the request thinking that it should be fairly easy to fit into my retirement schedule and might even result in some ideas for future columns here. How wrong and right I was! Since developing this course in ’90s and teaching it until I retired fully in 2007, I figured it should be a piece of cake and a lot of fun doing this again. 

The course has two main goals: The first goal is to enhance the students' awareness of the ethical issues raised by the presence of computers in society and how they relate to their future role as computer professionals; the second goal (just as important as the first) is to develop and improve their writing skills. The latter goal is essentially a lifelong process but as the proverb notes: the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. What I did not take fully into account was that teaching a college course is more than standing in front of class and delivering content. I have kept up with the evolving content of the technology and society field largely through the research for this column but what I temporarily forgot is that in a college course the instructor is, with some excellent support staff, the producer, the director, the stage manager and the main actor in the creation of a course. 

The stage manager function includes setting up the teaching environment. The teaching environment includes the classroom which holds not only the students but the equipment to deliver the media for the course. The media includes computers and their associated software as well as audio/visual equipment like TV and Overhead projector and, if one is especially lucky it has all been integrated into a “smart classroom” which provide not only computers connected to the Internet but overhead projectors and blackboards have replaced by computer-controlled projectors and smart boards much like the ones you see on TV when election results are broadcast. Then there are the lower level details like getting keys to all the rooms on campus you will be using, learning how the local phone system works as well as the photocopier which has most of the attributes of a media lab (Fortunately, I did not have to apply for a parking tag as I have continued to visit campus since retirement). OK, I hope you get the picture. 

As part of the setting up of the teaching environment, after reviewing the pros and cons of the college's websites, Google Plus, Facebook, and the Computer Science Department's Wiki, I decided to make the tec-soc website that I use for this column do double duty for the course as well. If you go there you will notice you have a choice between “Columns” (what you are reading right now) or “CSC 372” which is the college’s designation for the course. I have also launched a class discussion blog at http://csc372.blogspot.com/ . The purpose of this blog is pretty broad. Students may use it to just chat with each other outside of class (circumspectly, as it's visible to all); for example: "Does anyone have any idea about what DrD wants from us on question 45?" ranging to: "It's too nice a day be indoors, anyone for Frisbee?" I will also pose questions occasionally like: "The results of the last writing assignment were dismal — as it too long, too difficult to read or what?" In any case this apparently simple process was much more difficult and took much longer than I had hoped for and expected. 

Next time: More travails and vexations of the professed professor and a fuller explanation of how and why to teach ethics to college students.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Privacy: The Right to be Left Alone

August 12, 2012

According to a national poll sample [approximately 1,700 people] taken by Monmoth College, " An overwhelming majority of Americans support the idea of using drones [flying "armed robots"] to help with search and rescue missions (80%). Two-thirds of the public also support using drones to track down runaway criminals (67%) and control illegal immigration on the nation’s border (64%). One area where Americans say that drones should not be used, though, is to issue speeding tickets. Only 23% support using drones for this routine police activity while a large majority of 67% oppose the idea. " http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/poll-shows-concern-about-drones-and-domestic-surveillance

Peter Singer, in his New York Times piece, "Do Drones Undermine Democracy?" (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/opinion/sunday/do-drones-undermine-democracy.html?pagewanted=print) points out that drone technology ( or in military jargon, "unmanned aerial systems") has raised important questions about the division of powers between the Congress and the President: "In America, our Constitution explicitly divided the president’s role as commander in chief in war from Congress’s role in declaring war. Yet these links and this division of labor are now under siege as a result of a technology that our founding fathers never could have imagined." Singer goes on to comment that,"... now we possess a technology that removes the last political barriers to war. The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter — and the impact that military casualties have on voters and on the news media — they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way." He comes concludes, "The Constitution did not leave war, no matter how it is waged, to the executive branch alone. In a democracy, it is an issue for all of us."

Rich Lowry, Editor of the National Review points out that, "Drones will no doubt raise novel issues under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. They will require rules. The same is true of any technology, of course. The Supreme Court held unanimously earlier this year that police can't attach a GPS tracker on someone's vehicle without a warrant. This isn't reason to ban all use of GPS trackers by law enforcement. The fear of drones is, in part, the fear of the new -- it is Luddism masquerading as civil libertarianism. " (Luddism is a perjorative term for folks who act like the Luddites of the nineteeth century destroying the new technology of the industrial revolution which threatend their livelhoods ). Lowry further states, "The influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wants drones banned domestically and thinks the first American to shoot one down will be declared a national hero. Sen. Rand Paul considers them a clear and present danger to American freedom and is offering legislation to require a warrant every time one takes flight, except to patrol the border or in extraordinary circumstances. The drone is to our liberty what the wolf is to sheep, a natural enemy." http://newsok.com/rich-lowry-the-great-drone-panic/article/3691059#ixzz20FqmvhzD

From the Reason Online blog, Calvin Thompson opines, "It is a stretch to think that the same federal government that gave us the PATRIOT Act, the TSA, and the indiscriminate drone attacks on civilians in the Middle East would even think twice about violating domestic privacy rights." (http://reason.com/blog/2012/07/10/drone-code-of-conduct-says-and-accomplis)

Apparently this seems to be an isssue that Progressives and Libertarians can find common ground as both place a premium on individual rights including Privacy --- the right to be left alone.

"Watchbirds", a short story by Robert Sheckley written over fifty years ago, addresses this issue. Watchbirds were like our drones taken to the next level: they were equipped with learning circuitry which allowed them to discern when a crime was about to take place and could deliver a taser-like jolt to the would-be perpetrator thus preventing the intended crime. When one Watchbird learned something new ­-- it was automatically transferred to the whole flock so they became better and better at detecting and stopping crimes like murder until they began zapping fishermen who they had inferred were murdering the fish. I won't spoil where this goes --- I'll only reveal that the outcome is much much worse than anything the pundits or the politicians have mentioned. Read the story at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29579/29579-h/29579-h.htm

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Intellectual Property: Part 2

I ended last month's column Intellectual Property Part 1 with the (I hope) provoking and suspenseful segue: Next time: Why indeed pick on poor Joel --- the pros and cons of file “sharing”.

To briefly review, I referenced the article in the the May 22 Press Republican, “ Court won’t reduce student’s $675,000 music download fine”about the student, Joel Tenenbaum who was busted  for illegally downloading 30 songs. I also briefly discussed the concept of ownership citing the differing philosopies of Plato and Aristotle: Plato believed that private property served to divide, not unite humanity while Aristotle thought private ownership of any property was only the fair outcome and  reward of an individual’s labor. But these are both Western viewpoints.

There also exists a completely different  Eastern view:  " Brahmanist philosophy called Vedanta believes that ownership arises due to the sense of being separated from the rest of the universe[citation needed]. When one suffers under the illusion that one is separate from the rest of the universe, ownership is one of the ways one might attempt to reconnect with "other" objects. Vedanta believes that ownership is an illusion which persists as long as the belief in separation from the Universe persists. When one understands the fundamental reality that there is only one entity called the Universe, one is freed of the illusion of ownership.”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ownership) While this more oceanic view certainly disposes of the ownership issue it is ,unfortunatelty, not a useful solution to Joel's dilemma in a society of constitutional capitalism.

In order to examine this issue we first need a more precise definition of  "file sharing" and fortunately Wikipedia is ready to help: "File sharing is the practice of distributing or providing access to digitally stored information, such as computer programs, multimedia (audio, images and video), documents, or electronic books. It may be implemented through a variety of ways. Common methods of storage, transmission and dispersion include manual sharing utilizing removable media, centralized servers on computer networks, World Wide Web-based hyperlinked documents, and the use of distributed peer-to-peer networking. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File_sharing). I don't want to get into the technical details of what a "centralized server" or a "Peer to Peer" (often denoted as P2P --- cute huh?) network is but, again, the Wikipedia site is an excellent source if you have a computer connected to the world wide web (often denoted as WWW;)

A fairly comprehensive anecdotal and annotated investigation of the pros and cons of file sharing with the focus on music files by Keith Jenci can be found at http://www.mredkj.com/other/sharing.html. On the Pro side he lists, "MP3s (MP3 is a computer format for an audio file) are not a physical thing, so no actual value is lost by "stealing" a song.", to "Many artists support file sharing (it increases sales)". On the Con side: "Music is worth the money, and many CDs are reasonably priced." to "Struggling artists are losing out".

A more structured and insightful discussion of the issue is by Michael J. Quinn in his book, "Ethics for the Information Age". Quinn and many others view music as "intellectual property" and, as such, is afforded the legal protections that all property gets. He defines Intellectual Property as:  “Any unique product of the human intellect that has commercial value. Examples of intellectual property are books, music, movies, plays, paintings, chemical formulas, and computer software.”.  An example of the conflict between property rights and freedom of expression is called “music piracy ‘ by the recording industry  and is called “file sharing” by millions of Internet users. If I own a music file on my computer why can’t I share it with a friend? “Because it is intellectual property covered by copyright law and sharing it is theft.” is the response of the recording industry. As the speed and capacity of the Internet expands this problem has only grown worse.

But what about poor Joel? Well, he did break the law and I think some punishment is in order here --- but not a fine of  almost one million dollars --- perhaps a community service speaking to students would be more appropriate and more useful. If you want to help him, try this link: http://joelfightsback.com/  Or not.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Intellectual Property Part 1

Perhaps you read, as I did, the article in the in the May 22 Press Republican, “ Court won’t reduce student’s $675,000 music download fine” by AP Legal Affairs Writer Denise Lavoie.  Perhaps you wondered why Joel Tenenbaum, the student referred to in the headline was fined such a large amount for illegally downloading 30 from a file system shared by thousands of others.  Why pick on poor Joel, and  why so large a fine?  The detailed history of  the lengthy and complicated trial proceedings between the plaintiff recording companies (Sony, Warner Bros., etc) and Tenenbaum can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_BMG_v._Tenenbaum . It’s an extensive and interesting story that begins with the concept of ownership.

The concept of  ownership is ancient and complicated but we can begin by noting that it was discussed by both Plato and Aristotle about 2300 years ago who had opposing views on the matter. Plato believed that private property served to divide, not unite humanity while Aristotle thought private ownership of any property was only the fair outcome and  reward of an individual’s labor --- and not much has changed since then. Whether you side with Plato or his student, Aristotle, regarding intellectual property like music, books and movies, the current copyright laws side with Aristotle.                                                                                                                                                                                              

The Constitution of the United States under Article 1, Section 8 grants “The Congress the right to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This clause  is usually interpreted as attempting to synthesize and reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle by recognizing the individual rights of the inventor or creator whilst balancing them with the overall benefits for society. It seems to be a recognition that we all need each other not just to advance civilization, but for survival itself: “United we Stand, Divided we Fall”.

Even before the USA existed, there existed copyright laws in Britain due perhaps to the philosophy of John Locke who makes a strong case for a natural right to private property. He claimed that “people have a right to those things which they have removed from Nature through their own labor.”  This means that whether I have cleared the land myself or sold my grain to attain money to buy the land, I have a natural right to own the land --- and you do not.  In his book, “Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership” author Lewis Hyde points out, “The very first copyright law (Britain’s 1710 Statute of Anne) gave ‘the Authors and Proprietors of books exclusive rights to their works for as long as twenty-eight years, provided that they paid a sixpenny fee and listed their works ‘in the Register-Book of the Company of Stationers.’”

The limited term of ownership under the copyright laws of the United States has increased since the original Copyright Act of 1790 where the term was specified as  fourteen years with the possiblity of extending for another fourteen years if the copyright holder was still living. However the term of ownership has inched up since then, culminating in the  Copyright Term Extension Act  of 1998. This Act extended the terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is earlier. This act has been dubbed  the Sonny Bono Act or as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. And, yes, this was the Bono of the“Sonny and Cher” song team of the sixties and seventies and yes, the Walt Disney Corporation was a prime factor in the passage of the Act as their copyright of the Mickey Mouse logo was due to expire shortly and not only are lobbies legal in the US, corporations have recently been promoted to people. Perhaps Plato was right after all.

Next time: Why indeed pick on poor Joel --- the pros and cons of file “sharing”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Computer Games

The main title immediately caught my eye: “The Hyperaddictive, Time-Sucking,
Relationship-Busting, Mind-Crushing Power and Allure of Silly Digital Games”
but the alternate title, “Just One More Game ...Angry Birds, Farmville and Other
Hyperaddictive ‘Stupid Games’ clinched the deal. I had to read the article in
the April 4, 2012 edition of the New York Times Magazine by Sam Anderson.

I was hooked because I’ve always had this love/fear relationship with games and
especially computer games. The attraction came from the addiction and so did the fear.
In 1982 I presented a paper at the National Education Computer Conference in Kansas
City entitled, “A Call for the Study of Computer Games” in which I attempted to make a
positive case for them (they improve eye-hand coordination thus improving the chances
of your son growing up to be a fighter pilot) and to try to categorize them according to
their structure (learning games for teaching reading or math, board games like chess and
checkers, adventure games like Dungeons and Dragons, etc.) Nowadays, there are games
and simulations that are smarter, faster and prettier.

Back then, the most interesting and exciting computer games existed in video arcades
in malls. I fed many a quarter into single-purpose computing machines that allowed
me to play Space Invaders and Asteroids (Pac Man never grabbed me). As computer
technology improved and become less costly, these and newer games migrated to
personal computers made by IBM, Radio Shack, Apple and Microsoft Corporations. By
this time I was wary of seductive power of computer games. As a graduate student in the
mid seventies at the University of Massachusetts, I designed and developed a Computer
Managed Instruction system pretentiously named “ACCOLADE” --- an acronym for: An
Alternative Curriculum for Computer Literacy Development. Definitions of “computer
literacy” can range from: “the ability to tell a computer from a horse” to “highly
developed skills in the art of programming plus broad and deep knowledge in the areas of
history, applications, social issues, hardware and software”. I chose the latter.

After a hard day of building and testing ACCOLADE, I relaxed by using my state-of-the-
art Plato computer (it had a pixel resolution of 512 by 512 ) to play one of the very first
games on a very early version of the Internet --- only about a dozen nodes. “Empire”
was a graphical multi-user game with a simple premise: Conquer the Universe. You
joined a team of geographically distributed users (aptly named Terrans, Klingons, etc)
and with combined recourses (spaceships loaded with armies and various weapons)
attempted to accomplish the goal of Universal Domination. When this was achieved by
one of the teams, the game was reset and another 24 hours of play began. As a newbie, as
soon as I entered the game I was quickly dispatched by a seasoned player so it was not
much fun. In desperation, I sent out a message to all players, “New player needs help,
please be gentle”. Almost immediately I got a response, “I can help” and they proceeded

to put me in “tractor orbit” and tow me around under their protection while I was taught
basic survival strategies ( like reallocating some of my energy from defensive shields to
photon torpedoes instead of the laser canons). After a bit, I messaged back to
mentor, “Ok I think I’m ready to fly on my own – thanks very much for the help”. I got
the reply, “No problems, by the way how old are you?”. Surprised, I answered “I’m 36”.
“YIIIIKES!!!”, was the reply. “What’s the problem?” says I. “I’m 12” says my instructor.
It was my turn to say “YIIIIKES”.

I learned that while there are many ways computers waste our time and even act as
dehumanizing agents, they still have the power to promote egalitarian values. By masking
cues such as sex, age (and smell), they allow us to interact as equals. In fact from that
point on, our conversation changed as my teacher realized I was an adult and I that he
was a child --- it shouldn’t have but it did. Just another instance of technology acting like
a double-edged sword.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Education and Technology

How technology has changed our educational system is a topic that’s sometimes hot, sometimes not. It was a very hot topic about fifteen years ago and seems to be making a comeback recently despite tough economic times and  despite the truth in the old joke that it took 25 years for the overhead projector to migrate from the bowling alley to the classroom. It may, however, surprise you that money spent on education in the US exceeds our defense budget if you take into account state and local as well as federal expenditure. (http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/year_spending_2012USbc_13bc1n#usgs302)

My interest in this topic was rekindled by a recent “On Point” NPR radio podcast, “The Digital Future of Textbooks” hosted by Tom Ashbrook (http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/330/510053/145842681/WBUR_145842681.mp3)

The show has an interesting structure: Ashbrook invites several experts in the field who ,by answering his questions, lay out the issues which are supplemented by questions and ccomments from phone callers and internet comments. An enlightening and  entertaining discussion usually ensues. This podcast discussed the pros and cons of using digital textbooks running on  portable computers within an educational setting.

Even when you factor in the costs of providing small computers to the students this still remains a viable economic option. Printed textbooks at the college level can cost students 500 to over 1000 dollars per year; a tablet computer can be acquired in the 200 to 400 dollar range.  In the grades K-12, textbooks degrade fast --- pages go missing as all students are not as fastidious as the teachers might wish. Yes, students will also drop tablet computers but insurance plans are available that amortize costs and lead to the student owning the computer by the time they graduate. Another possible negative effect is that the money spent on digital texts will be diverted from traditional subjects like art, music, sports and even woodshop. Who is to say that the loss of these subjects outweighs any of the benefits gained with more technology?  And how can we be sure these digital textbooks don’t devolve into digital comic books? And what about the Digital Divide ---will this advance in technology further exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots?

However, the pros do seem to be outweighing the cons. While big states like Florida and Texas can control some of the content in print texts, E-texts could be more localized allowing more educators to become author/ publishers. Teachers can insert, delete and resequence chapters which are very likely to contain interactive media. Students could not only watch a video as they read, they can interact with graphical models that allow them to ask their own “what-if “ questions.  Picture an Environmental Science  student running a climate change model and essentially asking, “What happens if cars are required to get 50 miles per gallon?”  And, in addition to lighter backpacks, a digital text allows the student to highlight, underline and otherwise take notes that are stored right with the lesson for easy review.

Of course all of this means that teachers must take on new roles and responsibilities. They should be allowed to move away from fixed mandated lesson plans and have more flexibility to design their own.  With the students interacting, perhaps in small groups, with their lessons, teachers would have more time to adopt the MBWA (Management By Walking Around) method of classroom administration. Teachers become more like coaches, spending more one-on-one time with their students and answering their questions instead of lecturing which can be, in a worst-case scenario, answering questions the student did not ask. Instead of being “the sage on the stage”, the teacher has the opportunity to become “the guide on the side”.

David Eagleman, in his essay, “Six Ways the Internet May Save Civilization” says, “The Internet opens the gates of education to anyone who can get her hands on a computer…A motivated teen anywhere on the planet can walk through the world’s knowledge, from Wikipedia to the curricula of MIT’s OpenCourseWare.” (Not to mention the wonderful free lessons on Kahn’s Academy; see http://www.khanacademy.org/about/getting-started)

If you’re old enough, you will probably remember similar predictions that television technology would revolutionize our educational system. Unfortunately TV has not lived up to its full promise.   Let’s hope digital technology does not suffer a similar outcome.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Private Lives

By the time you read this, the trial of Dharun Ravi may already be over and a verdict delivered.  He is a freshman at Rutgers University who has been accused of “invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and hindering apprehension” associated with the suicide death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi.  While the terms “invasion of privacy” and “hindering apprehension” are somewhat self-explanatory, “bias intimidation” needs some clarification. Briefly, it occurs when an act is committed “with a purpose to intimidate the victim because of  their race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity” (the full legal definition is at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/criminal/charges/bias3.pdf) This is a particularly important charge because the criminal penalties for bias discrimination are much more severe than the other two charges (up to ten years in prison and/or possible deportation),

So, what happened that caused these accusations to be made against Ravi? That is a very long and complicated story that has been minutely described by Ian Parker in the Feb 6, 2012 New Yorker magazine, “The Story of a Suicide --- Two college roommates, a webcam, and a tragedy”.

Here is a short version which leaves out many of the details: Ravi set up a webcam on his computer to secretly view a liaison between his roommate, Clementi, and an unidentified male, known only as “M.B” in the court records. Along with Ravi’s friend, Molly Wei they viewed (but did not record) part of the rendezvous.  After the encounter,  Ravi tweeted, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” As Ravi’s Twitter account was public, Clementi found and read that tweet and although initially reticent to start a “drama”, he eventually filled out the online form for a room change, reporting that his roommate had spied on him with a webcam. Afterwards, he went to the George Washington Bridge and jumped, committing suicide. He left his last message on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

Whether or not Ravi is guilty of all or any of the three charges will be determined by the judicial process. Even the apparently obvious  “invasion of privacy” indictment is being argued by the defense attorney who claims that Ravi used his webcam only for security purposes --- he was merely trying to protect his computer from possible theft. However, if the privacy violation is proved by the prosecution, this is certainly another case of technology making it easier to violate the privacy of an individual and, in this instance, one that has caused  dreadful consequences. 

A less sensational concern is Google’s recent change in its  privacy policy. Google claims that all it wants to do is replace with a single policy the multiple policies associated with its many applications --- ranging from  maps to music to email and even Youtube (see: http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/products/index.html for a complete list) .  Google will now be able to store all of its customer data in a single database making it easier and more feasible for Google to target its ads to individuals who have subscribed to their services. Proponents point out that you have the choice to opt in to this policy and you gain all of the services Google provides for free. No one is forcing you to join and if you are comfortable trading some of your personal data for free use of these services, it’s a very good bargain.

Critics have an different viewpoint. They claim that Google is, first and foremost, a company that makes its money on advertisements that accompany their services. And, although, Google does not directly share your data with its advertisers, it uses them to select their ads. This raises the question of the security and integrity of your data. What if a hacker gets hold of it? What if a government agency requests access? Do your really want your search history to be this accessible?

My best guess is that this is an issue divided by age. If you are under 30, this new policy doesn’t bother you at all. If you are not, you are probably troubled by Google’s new privacy policy.

Post Script: In addition to the jail term, the judge sentenced Ravi to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service. He must also must pay court fines and contribute $10,000 to a state-licensed, community-based organization dedicated to assisting victims of bias crimes.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Technology going to the Dogs

In this day of information acceleration and subsequent overload it’s comforting to learn that the latest technology for sniffing out drugs is, well, a dog’s nose. So, how did it come to be that the canine olfactory system is the latest and greatest technology for locating drugs?  In the Jan 4 PR was an article, “Supreme Court ponders drug dog’s sniff” which, if you missed or cannot recall the details, let me summarize:

On an anonymous tip and without a search warrant, the Miami-Dade police department had their chocolate lab, Franky, sniff just outside the house of Joelis Jardines to detect an illegal marijuana operation. After Franky had signalled that he sensed the drugs inside the house, the police used that evidence to get a search warrant from a judge and, in fact they confiscated 179 plants from the house with and estimated street value of over $700,000. Jardines pleaded not guilty and his attorney challenged the search, claiming Franky's sniff outside the front door was an unconstitutional law enforcement intrusion into his home which is protected by the Constitution.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the arrest of Jardines violated the Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizures” and has been challenged by the State Attorney General of Florida. The US Supreme Court will decide this issue this year. (Source:http://www.telegram.com/article/20120104/NEWS/101049967/1052/news01)

This new twist tests the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution once again. Is it a violation of our constitutional rights for a police dog to sniff outside our house for the prescence of drugs inside? Before you answer that question, let’s review some of the history of some prominent  Fourth Amendment Supreme Court cases involving technology.  In a previous column celebrating Constitution Day, I described two cases that dealt with this issue:  Olmstead vs US in  1928 where a bootlegger’s phone was tapped and the court ruled for the US government although Judge Brandeis, in a dissenting opinion, argued that the Fourth Amendment’s protection should extend to electronic communications. He pointed out that when a phone is tapped, the control of personal information at both ends of the connection are compromised --- not just the suspect’s privacy. In this fashion, “the tapping of one man’s telephone  line involves the tapping of the telephone of every other person whom he may call, or who may call him.”
Brandeis’ view was upheld and Olmstead overturned in 1967 (Katz V. US)  where a bookie was apprehended placing illegal bets in a bugged phone booth. Katz won and  Judge Potter Stewart summarized the court’s decision when he wrote, “The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.”

It appears that the Jardines/dog sniffing case will be settled in Jardine’s favor also, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on 1/23/2012 (US vs Jones) where the court ruled that police violated the constitutional rights of Jones when, as part of drug operation,  they secretly attached a GPS device to his SUV without a warrant.. The majority of the Justices  ruled that placing the GPS device on Jones’ vehicle for the purpose of tracking his movements constituted a search of his property and therefore required a warrant. Thus the ruling was about protecting citizens’ property rights and not their privacy. The Court purposely deferred ruling on whether technology like surveillance cameras or cell phones which can track users is a protected right of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. However, the worrisome issue seems to be how technology manages to worm its way into our private lives.  In fact, Chief Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. faulted the majority for trying to apply 18th-century legal concepts to 21st-century technologies. What should matter, he said, is the “contemporary reasonable expectation of privacy”.

If you’re curious about the fate of  Mr. Jardines, lower courts can reprosecute but cannot use the evidence gathered from the illegal intrusion into his home.  It would have been more thoughtful for the cops to have secured a search warrant before they utilized the services of their drug-sniffing dog, Franky. What Franky thinks about all this has not been disclosed.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Jan 8, 2012 Pros and Cons of Social Media: Part Two

 “A recent study by the online security firm AVG found that 92 percent of children under 2 in the United States have some kind of online presence, whether a tagged photo, sonogram image or Facebook page. Life, it seems, begins not at birth but with online conception. And a child’s name is the link to that permanent record.” --- Allen Salkin, New York Times, Nov 27, 2011

"One particular advantage of social media is that they help a reporter see the intellectual and social network of a source. For example, in Twitter I can see whom you are following and who is following you. I can see what you have re-tweeted and what links you have selected. Therefore, I can understand more fully your social context." -- Jerry Zurek, professor of English and communication department chair at Cabrini College

Are the above quotes arguments for or against social media?  Here is some more information to help you make up your mind:
“Twitter was so important to the Iranian protests after the Iranian presidential election in June 2009 that the US State Department asked Twitter to delay a scheduled network upgrade that would have taken the website offline at a busy time of day in Iran. Twitter complied and rescheduled the downtime to 1:30 am Tehran time.
Proponents of social networking sites argue that these online communities promote increased communication with friends and family, familiarize people with valuable computer skills, and allow contact with people from around the world.

Opponents argue that social networking sites expose children to predators, increase vulnerability to computer viruses, lower worker productivity, and promote narcissism and short attention spans.” (source: http://socialnetworking.procon.org/)
If you follow the above link to the procon website, you will find over 1300 more words devoted to the pros and cons of social networking websites --- much too many to reproduce here. But, if you were to ask me, I would say the strongest and most general arguments pro and con are:
Pro: Social Media contribute the happiness of both the individual and society.
Con: Social Media contribute to the unhappiness of both the individual and society.
Of course, our next problem would be to define more precisely what we mean by “happiness”. I am happy when I am afforded the pleasure of being able to turn over and get a couple more hours of sleep --- but that’s just me. Someone else may be happy in knocking over little kids blocks or tormenting their cat. And even if we could all agree on a common definition of “happiness” --- how would we go about measuring it?

 Sociolgists have bravely taken on a huge problem when thay attempt to make statements about human beings, especially regarding measurement of our satisfaction or happiness. There are so many variables that can quantitatively describe a person that it is currently not possible to run truly controlled studies by keeping all the variables except one constant and measuring the effects of varying the one of interest. Granted there are some powerful statistical techniques which allow polls or samples of an appropriate size to ascertain how a certain variable (like intelligence or happiness) is expressed when a social network is applied. But most statistically-based studies are run under the assumption that there is a one in twenty chance the outcomes are a result of random chance and not the result of application of a social network. The math can be improved to one in one hundred and so on,  but never achieve full certainty, and to be fair, this is true of all experimental science.
We just need to be mindful that the mathematical theory that underlies inferential statistics is based upon the study of uncertainty.
Addendum: My editor, Lois Clermont, commented that my previous column had implied “ that print has only one-way communication, when actually the Press-Republican, for example, has robust two-way communication through our online story comments and Facebook.” She is cerainly correct in pointing out that we've already moved on to a sort of hybrid print-internet model.

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