Side Projects vs. Posting Frequency

I’ve done a fair job of keeping up with my goal of posting to this blog at least one time per day.  In fact, I’ve recently eclipsed 150 posts, in less than 1 year, which is a great milestone for me.  But, I’d like to say here, publicly, that I’m not sure I can keep up the pace.

In addition to being a full-time graduate student and husband, I’ve got several side projects going on that are all time-intensive, but very interesting and worth the effort, to be sure.

Several of these side projects are poised to move forward in a big way in the near future.  One of my side projects already includes blogging for money, and at least two of my other side projects includes blogging – so don’t despair.  You’ll still be able to read my take on things, but you may have to go three places to do so.  I had thought about syndicating my other posts here, but decided against it.  My side projects are distinctly seperate, and for good reason, and I feel like combining everything here may muddy the waters too much.

Instead, look to see this space emerge as a much more personal blog – covering more mundane things, but a few “impact” topics every now and then.  I have some major life changes coming soon, which I’m sure will find their way into the blog.

In the meantime, I will continue to post, but likely with reduced frequency.  As my side projects go live, I’ll be sure to include links and other information here so that you can follow and hopefully be a part of them.  Until then, thanks for reading!

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Trickle Down Technology

There are lots of technologies that we have in our daily lives that originated from a military application.  GPS, for instance, was developed by the military and then approved for use by civilians.  And that’s great – I use GPS all the time, and am thankful to have it.

Another example of this technology trickle-down is cellular phones – something that I’m sure most of us wouldn’t want to live without.  The HMMWV, on the other hand (Hummer for civilians) I could easily give up.  There was even a short-lived show on the History Channel about this stuff, “Tactical to Practical.”

Now, we’re seeing another technology trickle down from the military to civilians – but in an interesting way.  With props to BoingBoing, the Houston Police Department unveiled, though apparently unwillingly, a new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – also known as a drone.  Check out a great piece of reporting on the incident in the following video:

This same drone made a great splash when it debuted with the United States Marine Corps in Fallujah, Iraq:

The UAV is small and tough to see, said Marine officials. The contractors put the mufflers pointing up so that the enemy couldn’t track the aircraft by sound. The Marines operate the aircraft at a very low altitude.

The cameras — either for day or night — have enough definition to identify individuals and show if they are carrying weapons.

Houston Police representatives said that they are not “ruling anything out” about the potential applications for the drone.

While this video may be making its rounds now – it is actually from a report done in 2007.  I haven’t been able to find any information to follow up on the report, and can’t confirm whether or not the Houston Police Department is actively using these drones or not.

Like this week’s earlier post about the threat of cyber espionage, items like this make it easier to simply adjust your actions on the assumption that you are always being watched.  This pains me, to be sure, but I suspect that it is much closer to the reality than not.

As we continue to see the expanded use of military technologies in civilian settings, and as our global military engagements continue, America will be faced with some very tough issues about what is acceptable domestically and what is not.

My only hope is that these issues are discussed openly, in public, and with full disclosure about their applications and intended uses.  There’s nothing wrong with employing technology to fight crime and serve the public good, but let’s remember Kyllo v. US,

Where, as here, the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of a private home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a Fourth Amendment“search,” and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.

For the record, infrared cameras are readily available for the ScanEagle mentioned in the video.

Work vs. Snowpocalypse

No way to know if this is authentic, of course, but Dealbreaker is circulating a note from JPMorgan Chase (a Syracuse University favorite partner!) informing employees that in the event they are unable to make it home, they have the opportunity to reserve a cot for their building, or even in their own office!  How nice!

Employees who would like to request a cot for their office can do so by contacting Facilities Direct. Facilities will attempt to accommodate all requests.

PLEASE NOTE: There are no showers available at these locations.

It’s always nice to see a company with their priorities in order.

Talking vs. Doing

An academic environment provides plenty of opportunity to engage with a wide range of ideas on a wide range of levels.  Being situated at this intersection is often incredibly stimulating, can lead to great conversations, and provides a chance to expand one’s horizons on a daily basis.  There comes a time, however, when you must stop talking and start doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s no value in the theory or the hypothetical – quite the opposite.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m always willing to discuss the options, possibilities, off-the-wall ideas, and what-if’s of any scenario or situation.  I love it!  But, as much as I do, I’ve recently realized that unless you wish to make a career of it, at some point you have to take the plunge (those aspiring to be researchers, professors, or academics should probably stop reading at this point).

Taking the plunge is scary.  There are risks: of failure, embarrassment, financial loss, emotional distress.  There are also potentials for reward, success, recognition, financial gain, and emotional fulfillment.  The obvious question, then, becomes “How do you know?”  How do you know if this is the idea you should act on?  How do you know if this is the time to act?  The short answer: you don’t.  Because you can’t.

Very rarely in life do opportunities so perfect present themselves that you simply cannot take them.  Often times there are smaller signs, compromises, trade-offs, and coincidences that all come together to present what amounts to a decently good chance that you’ll break even on this proposition.  This could be anything from choosing a check-out line at a grocery store to founding a new venture.  All of these decisions are, at some level, the same.  But still – how do you know?

Like I’ve said – you can’t know when to go, you can only know that you’re ready.  And you’ll know when you’ve reached this point.  It will be clear that you’ve gotten all that you can or need out of the discussion, out of the theory, and that you’ve reached the point where actual engagement is the only direction left.  When it’s your time, go.  Don’t get bogged down by the naysayers, or “wantreprenuers” who can only focus on the risk and the possibility of failure.  If you’re ready – do it.

If you think you’re ready, and you’d like to start small, that’s fine too.  There are plenty of resources for getting your feet wet in the world of doing.  Once you realize that it’s your time to be doing, soon you will find that it’s all you can do – and that’s perfect, because doing is hard, takes time, and does carry very real risk.  But it also carries the possibility for so much more.

Once you’ve exhausted your time and growth in the world of thinking, I wholly encourage you to take the plunge into the world of doing – there is so much out there to be done!

Crowdsourcing National Defense

Several very interesting articles have come out lately discussing various attempts to crowdsource national defense functions, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.  While crowdsourcing is a very interesting and powerful technique, applications like this run an enormous risk and must proceed with extreme caution.

What is crowdsourcing?  Crowdsourcing, a combination of “crowd” and “outsourcing,” is the method by which an organization tries to harness the collective knowledge of many individuals.  This is usually done through some sort of online facilitation (in order to increase the reach and size of the “crowd”), and has been referred to as a number of things, including community-based design, distributed participatory design, and human-based computation.

Essentially, the idea is that the more eyes and brains you have looking at something or working on something, the faster and better it will be done.  Lots of people like this idea, including Netflix, Wikipedia, and the Democratic National Committee.

Two recent converts to the crowdsourcing movement are DARPA and the UK’s Home Office.  Both of these new projects have the possibility to go disastrously wrong, and quickly. Here’s the rundown:

DARPA

According to WIRED, DARPA’s new budget includes a

$13 million dollar project, called “Deep ISR Processing by Crowds,” looks “to harness the unique cognitive and creative abilities of large numbers of people to enhance dramatically the knowledge derived from ISR systems.”

As we have already seen, information sharing is already a  real challenge for the Department of Defense.  Intuitively, does it make sense to further distribute the information collection and analysis process?  The National Security Agency is already building a separate facility simply to store the data that they collect but cannot process.  Do DARPA and the NSA believe that an infrastructure is in place to distribute, analyze, and collect sensitive information and hope to achieve actionable results?  Doubtful.

Furthermore, the hardest part about intelligence work is providing the appropriate context to any particular piece of information.  By further distributing this data, we make the challenge of building appropriate contexts exponentially more difficult, thereby increasing the time and cost to turn data into information, and information into meaningful action.

Home Office

In a pilot program that makes DARPA’s look like child’s play, the Home Office announced a new website that will allow individuals to anonymously report online activities that “spread hate and violent extremism.”

According to officials,

The reports are anonymous and are then reviewed by police officers who are part of the new Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, run by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). A Home Office spokeswoman said that unit would be responsible for determining the intent of the content posted, which would determine whether it is in fact illegal.

In a country where you can be prosecuted for “owning information useful to terrorism,” this seems like Big Brother’s dream.  Now people will be able to report their neighborhood terrorists, or neighbors, without ever having to leave their home.  Conveniently, the form provides a button at the end of the form to immediately start a new form.  Perhaps the next version will include the ability to submit a batch of terrorists at once, thus saving everyone time.

Have someone to report?  Here’s the Home Office site.  If you need help determining who may or may not be a terrorist – the National Counterterrorism Center has an absolutely fantastic 2010 Counterterrorism Calendar (seriously), featuring terrorist groups, methods and tactics, and terrorist profiles.

No word on whether the 2010 calendar features any beach or bikini shots.

Danger!

If we are going to be serious about fighting terrorism or increasing our national security, then we need to move beyond cliche and dangerous proposals like this, or the National Threat Advisory, and put serious effort into a societal-level change in how we conduct our lives, balance liberty and security, and envision our collective future.

Failing that, we’ll all soon be reporting each other with one screen and processing that same information on another.  How long until you see yourself in the information you’ve been crowdsourced?  What will you do then?

Space, the Private Frontier

The New Astronauts

Take a close look at the above picture – because these are America’s new astronauts.  Sort of.  At least one of them is technically a former astronaut, but now they all work for private firms who are developing their own spacecraft and other intergalactic capabilities.

How can they afford to develop these capabilities when the return on investment is so low, and the risk so high?  Tax dollars, of course.  It was announced yesterday that

NASA has awarded $50 million through funded agreements to further the commercial sector’s capability to support transport of crew to and from low Earth orbit.

Rather than rekindling the national support for the space program, or even working on some sort of collaborative arrangement between NASA and the private entities (much like happens with other methods of transportation – see railroads, for an example), NASA has decided that it will just outsource this process entirely, and then when the occasion arises that they need to send people to the International Space Station, they’ll just buy them a seat like everyone else.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden characterized these moves in the following way:

We’re departing from the model of the past, in which the government funded all human space activities. This represents the entrance of the entrepreneurial mindset into a field that is poised for rapid growth and new jobs. And NASA will be driving competition, opening new markets and access to space, and catalyzing the potential of American industry. This is a good investment for America.

A good investment?  Perhaps – but only at the $50 million price tag that was announced at this particular event.  A little more investigation reveals that the actual “investment” is going to be much larger than $50 million.  Space.com is reporting that Obama’s new 2011 budget includes

a $6 billion boost over five years to support commercial spaceflight development, but scrapped NASA’s Constellation program to build new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets aimed at returning astronauts to the moon.

For the math impaired (myself included) that is 120 times as much money as the “investment” that NASA announced today.  NASA also failed to announce that this meant the scrapping of both the Constellation program and the Orion and Ares programs.

Essentially, this budget is saying that the powers that be do not feel that we can build a successful low-earth-orbiting craft and return to the moon for less than $6 billion.  Does that make sense?  On it’s face – no.  Not at all.  In context, it makes fantastic sense.

The Apollo mission cost $150 billion to $175 billion in 2003 dollars – more in 2010 dollars.  Now the privatization looks like a bargain, provided they can deliver what NASA seems to be promising.

The danger here, of course, is that NASA wasn’t motivated by profit in 1968 and they’re not motivated by profit in 2010.  Each of these new partners, however, is motivated by nothing but profit, always has been, and always will be.  Profit can be a great motivator, and there is much value in allowing the free market to determine progress, costs, and supply.  There are some things, however, that we, as a society, have decided should not be subjected to the whims of the free market.  These things include military and law enforcement forces, and the entirety of the judicial system.  Other things that were formerly sacrosanct have been recently unleashed to the aforementioned market forces – I’m looking at you, Supreme Court of the United States.

Coming on the heels of such a landmark ruling, perhaps citizens should prepare for a continued onslaught of market-based life.  Institutions that used to be the bedrock of American society – space dominance, corporate/political separation, and even military supremacy – have been privatized, outsourced, and sold.  Meanwhile, more money that people can seem to count is flying out the door to banks and insurance companies who turn around and give it out as bonuses:

America runs the risk of very literally selling the ground out from under itself.  We must change our direction – drastically, and soon.  Otherwise, we will quickly find ourselves in the Privatized States of America, which is a place that I do not want to be.

Who Needs a Convention When You’ve Got YouTube?

NPR has a story from today’s Morning Edition chronicling the rise of Liberty Belle, a blogger otherwise known as Keli Carender.

A member of the Tea Party movement, this story serves as a very interesting exploration of the new media in our national dialogue.  According to the story, Keli became so popular from her blogging and viral videos, that she has been invited to become a spokesperson for this new movement:

Republican party leaders would very much like to harness the Tea Party energy. Just last week, former Congressman Dick Armey’s organization “Freedom Works” invited Carender and dozens of other Tea Party organizers to Washington for training and networking sessions.

Keli is also scheduled to speak at the National Tea Party Convention on Thursday – but hasn’t decided if she’s going to go.  She would share speaking duties with Sarah Palin, amongst others.

What makes Keli’s situation so interesting is the fact that her largest claim to fame is her ability to share her ideas through new media outlets, particularly blogs and YouTube.  According to the NPR article, Keli’s most popular video features her speaking to Rep. Norm Dicks, culminating in her offering Rep. Dicks a $20 bill as “down payment for the health care plan”:

While new media is an incredibly powerful tool, and I am clearly in favor of exercising its potential, the thing that makes it so unique is the ability for it to cut both ways.  From the traditional perspective, individuals aren’t able to “talk back” to traditional media outlets.  Now, however, one YouTube video can beget another, and another, and another.

To juxtapose Ms. Carender’s video, take a look at two filmmakers who made the trip to the 9/12 “DC Tea Party” and spoke with attendees about their feelings on the various issues:

This video provides some insight into why the organizers of the National Tea Party Convention are facing considerable difficulty.

Tea Partiers don’t want to be harnessed. They’ve shown a willingness to reject Republican candidates they don’t like. On the other hand, they’re not about to start their own national political party, as evidenced by the backlash within the Tea Party against the Nashville convention. It’s a movement without a central organization.

Like new media, this lack of central organization also cuts both ways.  While Ms. Carender may have a clear grasp of those issues on which she feels strongly, other YouTube videos would suggest that many people who call themselves Tea Partiers do not share Ms. Carender’s mastery.

And that’s okay – because in the world of new media, you don’t have to know what you’re talking about, you just have to be able to talk.

Fair Use and Abuse

Law.com has an article up about a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice that has some very serious implications for those of us who enjoy the new frontier of social technologies.

Here’s what happened: someone posted a 29 second clip of their toddler dancing to a Prince song on YouTube.  Universal, who owns the rights to Prince’s “Let’s Get Crazy,” filed a takedown notice with YouTube – who proceeded to take the video down (as a side note, this seems to be the standard procedure: act first and ask questions later).  The poster then filed a counter notice and six weeks later YouTube reposted the video.

The article is getting press mainly for one reason: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is suing Universal for $400,000 “a remedy for false take-down notices.”

Is this an exorbitant amount?  Yes.  Is it based on reality, or billed hours, or amount of work required?  Probably not.  Is it any more ridiculous than RIAA damage claims for downloaded songs?  No.  The going rate is $80,000 per song, by the way.  But that’s not what’s important here.

What is important is how egregious the claims are in this case by Universal.  I mean – really.  Please take 29 seconds to see what we’re talking about here:

There are a two major things that make Universal’s takedown notice so asinine:

  1. The length of the clip is only 29 seconds, something that clearly could fall under Fair Use.  Hell, I can get a 30 second, hi-res sample of the song from Amazon- click here to get yours.
  2. Between the Mom, the toddler, and a young Mario Andretti doing laps, you can barely hear the music, much less make out the song.

Why on Earth would Universal decide to go after this video?  Clearly this woman is working hard to raise another generation of Prince fans who will continue to buy albums, attend concerts, and generally make money for Universal Music.

What really scares me about this takedown notice is that in addition to the shaky ground Universal originally filed on is YouTube’s blind acquiescence to corporate direction.  Don’t people review these notices for validity?  If we enter a phase where any hint of impropriety (or DMCA violations) result in the automatic removal, then we face a very grave danger. Good-bye mashups!

I can understand the enforcement arm of the DMCA, and even the motivations behind it, but I would urge that these things be used with great restraint and care, not abandon.  For everyone’s sake, we must adopt an attitude of verification and validation in this arena.  If we cannot, we will stifle not only many great creative works, but likely some very needed voices along the way.

On Novelty

A few days ago I wrote about why I won’t be buying the iPad.  Since then, many people have speculated on what role the iPad will really end up filling, and how it might best find success.

Some of these ideas include targeting non-traditional computing markets – kids, older folks, etc.  Other ideas include incorporating the iPad’s functionality with the existing iPhone infrastructure in novel ways, such as a board game.  Imagine if the iPad was the Scrabble board, and you held your tiles on your iPhone, and were able to interact with both devices and your fellow players at the same time.  That might be a novel application that would drive some serious iPad sales – and I may be forced to eat my words.

Other items have hit the market with great skepticism or early misconceptions about usefulness or applications, only to find massive success at a later date.  Take, for example, pizza.  If my introduction to pizza was the below video, I’m not sure I would be to keen on eating a “biscuit base” topped with “nippy cheese.”  Yet, can you imagine America today without pizza?

Other items have debuted to similar circumstances.  Take the original iPod, for example.  After it’s debut, industry experts were critical:

Apple may take some heat for entering the consumer electronics market.

I question the company’s ability to sell into a tight consumer market right now at the iPod’s current price.

Other apple technologies have had a rocky roll-out, too.  One article said that

“the iPhone has the potential for a high disappointment level because of the high expectations,” and “the initial market looks to be quite limited.”

How did it turn out?  To date, Apple has sold over 42 million devices.  That’s a smashing success, and the skeptics are left looking foolish.

I don’t know how the iPad will turn out, but my only hope is that I don’t end up looking like some of the other early critics.  I still won’t be buying one, but that doesn’t mean that 41,999,999 others won’t.

Cyber SOTU Redux

Wednesday has come and gone, and we have now all had a chance to hear President Obama’s remarks in the 2010 State of the Union Address.  Before the address, I was hopeful that we might hear something – anything – relating to the situation we face in the cyber realm.  With all of the pressing political issues, we heard lots about jobs, lots about healthcare, and lots about the need for reform and new directions.  We heard a lot, in general – this was Obama’s longest address to date.

One thing we didn’t hear about was cyber.

Sure – there were mentions of National Security, including the fact that the National Security budget wouldn’t be frozen as part of President Obama’s debt-reduction plan, but nothing having to do with our online capabilities, critical infrastructure needs, or cyber defense of any shape or sort.  The closest comment to this issue was Obama’s discussion of the fact that there

are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, they’ve been taking place for over 200 years.  They’re the very essence of our democracy.

Unfortunately, comments like this do not make me hopeful that the cyber issue will be addressed appropriately (both in time and in scope).  If we have difficulties wrangling solutions concerning things that nearly every American is familiar with (jobs and healthcare), it is hard to be hopeful for quality policy regarding issues that very few truly understand.

As I mentioned before, Cyber Coordinator Howard Schmidt has been given the challenge of leading this charge.  Today, a piece appeared in NextGov, a site about technology and government.  The article seems to be a fluff piece aimed at quelling the issue that some have about Schmidt’s lack of authority and inability to control a budget in order to engender change.  Does it quell these fears?  Hardly.

The piece, “New cybersecurity coordinator says he has Obama’s ear,” comes out of the National Journal‘s CongressDaily.  The bulk of the short article is spent attempting to give the impression that Schmidt has enough authority to achieve meaningful change:

Schmidt said he doesn’t believe he has to have control over a budget to make change.  “If the president, the national security adviser, the national economic adviser says, ‘Hey, we need these things,’ things will happen,” he said.

I would read this as Schmidt needs to convince the President, the National Security Adviser, and the National Economic Adviser that something is needed before he can move forward on a large scale project.  For the smaller stuff, Schmidt says that he will be working with

Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer who works in OMB and will have input into budgetary decisions.

Unfortunately, this budgetary-based approach to security will render only those solutions which are least expensive, not those that are most effective.  Especially without a budget of his own to control, Schmidt faces the monumental task of convincing others that the projects are worth funding with their own money – money that now cannot be spent on projects of their own.

While cybersecurity is certainly an issue that affects us all, when the basis for decisions is dollars, you’re going to get whatever is cheapest.  And that’s generally not good in any arena, much less with technology.

One positive element of the article and Schmidt’s comments is his idea that we must

stop looking to end-users to be the “policemen of the desktops.”

I couldn’t agree more.  We currently force those with the least security knowledge to navigate the bulk of the security problems.  This is an untenable situation, and likely one of the main reasons that we are so vulnerable to cyber attacks.  While Schmidt and I agree on what must be done, it seems that we differ substantially on how.  Schmidt will look to the private sector

to ensure security is a key part of products and that vulnerabilities are fixed.

I would offer that this market-driven solution will yield results approximately as effective as Schmidt’s OMB/National Security Council/National Economic Council budget meetings do – not very.

Instead, we need to invest in some very serious policy changes in which security responsibilities are directly addressed.  We must determine, as a democracy and as a society, how we wish to divvy up cyber control between industry, military, intelligence, and the general public.  Schmidt notes that

several cybersecurity bills have been introduced. But he did not say whether he supported any particular measures.

In the future, we can only hope that Schmidt would seize on leadership opportunities like this – a chance to publicly support some of the pending legislation, or to suggest changes that would make us all more secure.

In the words of President Obama,

Let’s reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values.  Let’s leave behind the fear and division, and do what it takes to defend our nation and forge a more hopeful future — for America and for the world.