Technological State of the Union

There are many pressing issues that President Obama will address in tonight’s State of the Union address.  One of the issues that has seen some press, but mostly been relegated to the back burner, is the technological policies of the new administration.

You may recall the Cyberspace Policy Review, released earlier this year.  This work, and the resulting document, were badly needed, and also decently well-received amongst the tech sphere.  Some, including Purdue University’s CERIAS head Gene Spafford, took issue with a few things, namely the creation of the “Cybersecurity Coordinator”:

First of all, the new position is rather like a glorified cheerleader: there is no authority for budget or policy, and the seniority is such that it may be difficult to get the attention of cabinet secretaries, agency heads and CEOs.

Second, the position reports to the National Economic Council and OMB. […] Given the current stress in the economy I don’t expect any meaningful actions to be put forth that cost anything; we will still have the mindset that “cheapest must be best.”

Third, there was no mention of new resources.

Fourth, there was absolutely no mention made of bolstering our law enforcement community efforts.

This position was finally filled on December 21, 2009 by Howard Schmidt – who had previously served as a cyber advisor to President George W. Bush.  Like Dr. Spafford has said, it seems that there is nothing but more of the same in regards to America’s official stance on the digital world.  As they say, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.

Where does that leave us for tonight’s address?  Ed Felten suggests there are 4 areas which must be improved to make a meaningful difference, and I would tend to agree:

  1. Improving Cybersecurity
  2. Making Government More Transparent
  3. Bringing the Benefits of Technology to All
  4. Bridging the Culture Gap Between Techies and Policymakers

The real challenge here is that each of these four pillars depend on one another, and must all be advanced simultaneously.  If we can bridge the gap between techies and policymakers, surely that will improve cybersecurity.  If we are able to make government more transparent, then that will work towards bringing the benefits of technology to all.  Can we simultaneously make government more transparent, and also improve cybersecurity – especially when so many of our cybersecurity initiatives are led by classified organizations?  Where do we begin?

I hesitate to think that Mr. Schmidt will be the catalyst for this change.  I also hesitate to think that President Obama will have the political capital to drive a meaningful shift in policy or practice – especially with the current struggles over healthcare, jobs, the bailout, or any number of issues.

Does this, then, mean that we must sit and wait for positive change to happen?  What happens in the meantime when Google and China seem to be racing towards the boiling point?  As individuals, who are often left responsible for their own security online, what recourse do we have?

Unfortunately, these are not questions to which I have an answer.  Like the rest of America, I will be tuning in at 9 PM (EST), and listening intently to see if President Obama mentions the state of US Cyber initiatives, and any plans for the future.  If progress on the issues is made as slowly as progress on the selection of the Cybersecurity Coordinator, it would seem that our cyber future may be bleak.  On the other hand, I truly believe that a concerted national effort, not unlike those that created the Space Program, could produce some very real, very positive, and very impactful results.

The floor is now yours, Mr. President.  We’re listening.

This essay originally appeared at Information Space.


What Matters Now or “Be Awesome.”

Found this linked through on the blog I Will Teach You To Be Rich.  Very appropriately timed.

The empowerment movement is upon us, it is facilitated by this Global Electronic Network known colloquially as the Internet, Web, or whatever.

The way that people interact and the way that business is done has forever changed.  It cannot – ever – be the way that it once was.  To come out ahead in the new economy (and by ahead, I mean make more of an impact, not necessarily more money) one must be able to harness its power.  How do you do this?  Two simple words: be awesome.

If you are awesome, people will find you.  People will support you, your cause, your business, or your charity.  If you are awesome, opportunities will be made available to you, and collaborations will take place.  If you are awesome, needed resources will appear, and goals will be met.

How do you become awesome?  Start with the quotes and eBook below.  Then, keep working at it.

Stop waiting around for bosses and companies to get better and complaining about how are you treated.  Build the skills—and use them—that will permit you to create the environment in which you want to live.

The antidote to[our multi-tasking, ADD society] is tough-mindedness, which I define as the ability to draw lines and boundaries within which we protect and preserve the mental and emotional space to do our work and to be true to our selves.

You grow (and thrive!) by doing what excites you and what scares you everyday, not by trying to find your passion.

This Month’s Hot Topic: DNA

All you regular readers will recognize that DNA (and its collection and use) has become quite a hot topic on my blog of late.  For those of you coming late to the game, see Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2.

To add to the intrigue, there is a recent story from the BBC detailing a retired police superintendent claiming that police officers are making arrests solely to collect DNA.

He wrote: “It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so.

“It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained: samples can be obtained after arrest but not if there is a report for summons.

“It matters not, of course, whether the arrest leads to no action, a caution or a charge, because the DNA is kept on the database anyway.”

It should be noted, of course, that the British criminal justice systems does vary from its American counterpart, and that there is not the same level of a “surveillance society” in the US as there is in the UK (though some would disagree).

I offer this story only as food for thought to those who are still undecided about their position on DNA collection and distribution.  As the database population process continues to automate, and databases begin to inform each other automatically, it will grow increasingly difficult to control one’s own data – even the data on their DNA.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this issue needs to be addressed head-on by both the politicians and the populous.  Without a direct debate, and reasoned decisions, we will quickly find ourselves in a place that no one wants to be.

Duke University Professor Scores One For Academic Freedom

I wrote earlier about the lack of an academic backbone at Yale University, whose Yale University Press refused to publish the controversial “Muhammad” cartoons.

I learned today that Duke University’s Voltaire Press will be publishing a book containing these images, in high quality color, along with several other controversial drawings.

From the Volokh Conspiracy:

I’m pleased to be the first to report that the newly founded Voltaire Press at Duke University has just published Muhammad: The “Banned” Images. The book includes all the images that were omitted by the Yale University Press from Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook the World — including the 12 Mohammed cartoons — plus many more historically significant items (a total of 31), together with brief discussions of the context behind each work. The images, reproduced in high quality and in full color, include works by William Blake, Gustave Dore, and Salvador Dali, as well as Muslim artists from the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.

If you’re interested in reading the book, you can order it here. You can also ask your local public or university library for it, which I think will increase the chances that the library will buy it, and make it available not just to you but to others.

Let me also applaud Duke University for making a worthy stand on this issue, and with amazing quickness for the academic sphere.

Three cheers for Duke!

On Dogmatism

A great post today by J.D. over at Get Rich Slowly.

While the blog (and the post) are centered on the topic of personal finance, I’d like to expand a bit on what J.D. said, and apply it to a much larger context.

J.D. writes:

Then I read about the debt snowball approach in Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. It blew my mind. Here was somebody saying that it was okay (good even) to do something different, to start by paying low balances first. I tried it, and 39 months later I had eliminated over $35,000 in consumer debt.

In the process, I learned a valuable lesson. In order to succeed with money, sometimes you have to ignore the conventional wisdom. Sometimes you simply have to do what works for you.

I’m with J.D. on this one – you have to do whatever works for you.  But, this is often easier said than done, and can require a lot of balance work.  For example, if what works for you is coming into work at 11 AM and leaving at 9 PM, you may have to run that schedule by your employer (disclosure: I had a boss once who did this. Not my style, but it actually worked out great – we only had to work together for half of the day, a good thing, believe me).

The alternative, of course, is to strike out on your own, and then you can do whatever you’d like.  If doing what you like succeeds, however, you quickly run into another common problem: dogmatism.

There’s too much dogmatism in our culture. People are convinced that their way is the right way to do things. I don’t begrudge those who are certain they’re right. When something works for you, you have a tendency to believe it’s the right choice for everyone else, so you preach it with passionate zeal. I understand that.

The problem, of course, is that we’re all different. Your religion and your politics and your financial tips work for you, but won’t necessarily mesh with my situation and experiences. And mine won’t fit with yours. There are few one-size-fits-all solutions in personal finance — or anywhere else. [emphasis original]

This is a very astute observation.  Especially those people who found success through doing what worked for them, you end up with a lot of people who believe that their way is absolutely the right way.  Complicate things by monetizing their dogmatism (Guy Kawasaki, for example) and you can end up with people whose whole existence becomes wrapped up in their particular “way.”

Now, I’m not saying that you should never give or receive advice – far from it.  Mentorship can be amongst the most valuable and formative experiences possible (in personal, business, educational, and nearly any other setting).  But, like everything, it seems to be a fine line.

I think the best approach to this is to try to balance the following influences:

  • The desire to do your own thing.
  • The flexibility to listen to others and adapt to changing situations and realities.
  • Work within the existing structures when needed.
  • Remembering what’s important and why, exactly, you want to do your own thing anyway.

A continual, daily challenge, to be sure, but one worth tackling.

If you have any thoughts on doing things your way, let ’em rip in the Comments section.

Zombie Tag

Nothing is cooler than nerdy kids doing their nerd thing.  For a week.  In public.

I love the human running out of the building near the end of the video – watch out for leaves (in addition to zombies, obviously).

Media Bias and Google Flu Trends

By now, everyone knows about H1N1.  Many people also know about Google’s Flu Trends.

Here’s my question:

  • Is all of the media coverage on H1N1 influencing Flu Trends to report more activity than exists?

In the past, I’ve found Flu Trends to be pretty accurate, and a decent indicator of when I should start really watching out for flu-like symptoms, or redouble my hand-washing efforts, or stock up on soup.

This year?  Not so much.  Look at today’s snapshot:

Google Flu Trends - 10/12/2009

Google Flu Trends - 10/12/2009

I have not seen “high” flu activity where I live.  But – I have seen plenty of news stories, fliers, ads, and other flu-related things.  Does this increase in terms (which Flu Trends uses to determine activity levels) match reality?

So far, I’d say no.  I’m hopeful that Flu Trends either finds a way to filter this input out, or people realize that H1N1 is really no worse/different/dangerous/etc. than the regular seasonal flu.  It’s true – virology professors say so:

As far as I know, the 2009 H1N1 strain has so far likely infected millions of people, and most have concluded that the disease is no more severe than seasonal influenza.  I agree that the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus does seem to multiply more extensively in the respiratory tract than a seasonal H1N1 strain, as does the 1918 virus.

Let’s hope that I make it flu-free until February.  After that, it becomes luck of the draw, I’ve determined.  I mean – look at the trends!

On Content

I was listening to NPR on my way home last night, and had a startling realization about content in our digital world: the amount is simply staggering.

Now, I know I’m not the first person to realize this, and that in fact I’m probably quite late to the party, but this is one of those realizations that until you have it on your own, you simply cannot fully understand the magnitude and implications.

I think NPR is an interesting example to explore the content question.

To begin, NPR produces two regular, daily radio shows, each 2 hours of unique content, each day (2 shows * 2 hours *5 days = 20 hours of content/week).  There are 2 more hours on each weekend day, and now we’re up to 24 – just for the news shows.

Assume that you also check, which carries not only the content from the aforementioned shows, but also additional content and reports that either supplement the on-air content, or are entirely independent.  The additional content hosted there likely amounts to an additional hour of consumption time each day, bringing us to 29 hours.

Perhaps you follow one of NPR’s many twitter feeds: there’s the NPR News feed, NPR Politics, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and All Songs Considered.  Following each of these feeds, and reading the articles linked to on each, will consume another hour each weekday, bringing us up to 34 hours.

We have now reached the point where consuming the main-stream content of just one mid-sized content producer is a full-time job.  Now, add in other major content producers like the New York Times, Wired Magazine,  television, and your favorite blogs, and consuming content becomes an enormously overwhelming task.

While there are ways to help speed the consumption process (Google Reader, or DVRs), there comes a point when one begins to wonder if consuming all of this content is: a) realistic, and b) worth it.  Are you getting a benefit out of the time you spend consuming these things?  Could you consume other things (novels, magazines, etc.) during that time and get more out of those alternatives?

Or – should you work to eliminate your consumption in general, opting instead for non-consuming activities, like spending time with family and friends?

Each person must develop their own answer, but as content becomes easier to both produce and obtain (see the App Store on iTunes) the question will become more and more pressing.

Personally, I’m working to achieve the point where I consume only 1 hour of content each day, be it through the radio, the web, or Google Reader.

I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

230 MPG?

GM’s new Chevy Volt was recently announced to get 230 miles per gallon.

Skeptical?  Me too, but this is based on current EPA ratings.  Think 230 m.p.g. is as good as it gets?  Think again.

And as eye-popping as the number was, a rival automaker, Nissan, said last week that its all-electric vehicle, the Leaf, which is scheduled to come out in late 2010, would get 367 m.p.g., using the same E.P.A. standards.

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