Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Do your civic duty - educate yourself or don't vote

You read that right - don't vote if you haven't taken any time to educate yourself about the issues, the candidates or their positions. Voting a ticket or based on TV ads alone help no one.

A democracy only works with the voters are informed about the choices they make when they vote. A democratic republic only works when the voters are informed about the history of the candidates they're electing to know whether or not they're likely to follow through on some or all of their campaign promises (hint, it will rarely if ever be "all").

If you haven't done any research on your candidates then you're in no position to make an informed decision and should recuse yourself from voting. It doesn't matter if you didn't research by choice or you couldn't research, the result is the same -- you don't really know who you're voting for.

If everyone who didn't know much of anything about their elected representative(s) didn't vote, then the only people who vote would be the people who are informed. This is different than saying only an elite class should vote -- this is saying if you want to be part of that elite class, educate yourself, there are many resources available including http://vote-smart.org.

Do yourself and everyone else a favor today -- take time to know all the candidates before voting or just stay home. Since I haven't done my research this time, today will be the first year I've not voted since I was eligible.

P.S. This is not to say you shouldn't vote at all if you know enough about a few candidates, it's simply saying you should not vote for candidates you know little or nothing about. Leaving columns blank on the ballot is O.K.

Helpful links:
  • Project Vote Smart: http://vote-smart.org

  • Tuesday, July 27, 2010

    On Censorship and the Digital Age

    In today's world we take a lot for granted. Generally speaking we have Internet access 24/7. We have mobile devices that let us talk, text, or video chat with one another. We have miniature computers like the iPad, Kindle, and netbooks that make portable computing and reading so effortless and compact.

    Online we have social media like Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace. Information is thrown at us constantly and in turn we give out a lot of our own information (and money) to stay connected with each other and simplify our lives by becoming more digital and less analog.

    But in this swirl of technological magnificence I fear we are losing our sense of control and with that our sense of self. We gladly give up our favorites and preferences and sometimes even personally identifying information for something free, or to connect with friends. We purchase iPads and Kindles and Nooks so we can read all our books on the go in under 2 pounds of plastic and silicon. We don't think about the consequences of what we give up to get these gadgets, to make these digital connections.

    With social media it's often not clear how exposed we are until someone we don't know demonstrates how much information they've been able to glean simply from watching our digital activity - tweets, postings on forums, blog postings, links shared on facebook, comments left on friends' pages and so on. I can get pretty frightening when we realize how exposed we have left ourselves.

    At one time the Internet was a friendly open place. Then it become more sinister with identity theft and people felt safer reading their credit card numbers over an unsecured phone line than over a secured SSL connection on a web site like Amazon. Now the Internet is somewhere between friendly and sinister again with social media providing the friendly facade. Sadly, the sinister side still lurks behind the friendly veneer and we are lulled into a sense of security that is not really there until it's too late.

    Likewise many people purchase the latest gadgets from Apple or Amazon or Barnes and Noble with the idea they are making their lives easier by purchasing digital versions of books they can take anywhere and read anytime. What doesn't often factor into our decision making are the finer details of the purchase agreement we make when we click "Add to cart".

    Those details, when more closely examined reveal the sinister side of digital media - proprietary formats and digital rights management or DRM. You may have heard of these terms before and the most common response I get from people is, "DRM doesn't affect me - I don't mind it." That may very well be true...for now.

    But DRM by it's nature is designed to affect you. It's designed against you, the consumer, and for the copyright holder (usually the publisher, music label, or movie studio). It's designed to only allow you to access your content in the most narrowly-defined conditions and once those conditions are no longer met you will be locked out of your legally-purchased, but not owned, content. Even worse than that, DRM can be used to modify and / or manipulate your purchased content after the seller already has your money. This has happened before and will likely only happen more in the future.

    Case Study #1 - Amazon Kindle revokes 1984 by George Orwell
    On Friday, July 17th, 2009 Amazon remotely deleted purchased copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm e-books from customers' Kindle readers. While the move was completely legal on Amazon's part (remember the fine print you don't read? You don't actually own what you bought and they can delete it if they deem it necessary), it demonstrated the power Amazon wields over all of its customers. In an analog world of paper books, you would own something after purchasing a copy of that thing, but in the digital world you merely pay for the privilege of accessing content. Consider this: if an e-book costs as much or more than a physical book, why don't you have full ownership rights to that content just as if you had the physical book?

    Case Study #2 - Apple's App Store and iBooks Store remove undesirable content
    On more than one occasion Apple has pulled apps from the App Store or books from the iBook store because of what Apple considered 'objectionable material' or 'cookie-cutter apps' which they deem as having no value. In most cases users have not had apps they've purchased removed from their devices, but apps and books are removed (or denied admission) from (or to) the app store.

    You may think that it's completely fair and within the rights of both Amazon and Apple to censor their own stores, and that is true. However since neither the iPad or Kindle work with any other store than the manufacturer of the device, it does infringe on the device owner's rights. Mitch Wagner, a blogger for ComputerWorld illustrates this point in a blog posting as he reflects on responses to an earlier post of his blasting Apple for censoring their apps. In short: if Apple (or any other company for that matter) locks a device to a single content store owned by the same company (or owned by a company working exclusively with the device manufacturer), then the content of that store should not be censored. If censorship is to be, then the device should be unlocked and able to consume content from other less restrictive sources.

    As you may or may not see, censorship and digital rights management (DRM) go hand-in-hand. When you don't own or control the content you pay for, then the content providers can control you (or at least what you read through their devices). And while censoring adult content and foul language or "pointless" apps may seem like a benefit to you because your ideals and philosophies line up with Apple's, how excited will you be when your political or religious views are suppressed by the same company? Do you really want to pay a company hundreds of dollars for a device they control almost completely?

    As an exercise, I encourage you to stop and think a moment the next time you contemplate buying a song that only plays on one type of computer or one device. Ask yourself: if I ever want to listen to this song somewhere other than on this device, can I? Am I allowed to make a copy of it for safe keeping (the answer is always yes in case you were wondering)? Before you buy an e-book that can only be read on a single device, ask yourself if you can save that book off to your computer or read it somewhere else with software from another company.

    DRM and censorship only works because we let it work. If we reject the notion that we don't own what we buy and that we should have a say in what content we want to view / hear on the devices we purchase, then the companies that make the devices and the content controllers will have no choice but to give you the freedom you demand. How much money would you lose if Apple and Amazon went out of business today and their devices stopped letting you read / listen / use the things you paid for? What recourse would you have?

    DRM affects you even if you don't know it. Censorship leads to ignorance and being controlled by the educated. Don't let yourself be controlled.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010

    Explaining the futility of data caps

    We've heard it all before, data caps are pointless but it's often very hard to wrap our heads around why. After all, it seems perfectly fair that those who use more of something pay more for what they use. That's how the market for most scarce goods work in our economy. The problem with that arguments lies in the fact that data is not scarce, it's infinite and so scarcity economics do not work properly.

    In this article I attempt to demonstrate through analogy why capping data does not make sense when data are not scarce resources - capacity (bandwidth) is.

    I've been going over analogies for a while trying to find one that clearly conveys why data limits are silly and if you can exercise your imagination the following example does a pretty good job of it.

    The Data Superhighway

    Imagine an Internet connection as being a highway that's 4 lanes wide and infinitely long. The cars that drive on this highway also have a width. (For the purposes of this analogy, the cars can be represented as lines, not boxes because the length of the car doesn't matter.) The data on the internet is like the pavement of the highway - every stone, every pebble is a byte of data. Cars travelling this highway always travel in a line, side by side, across the road and drive at the same rate (none are ahead of the others, nor behind).

    To help visualize, consider the edge of the highway as "||" and a car as "". At any given time, the highway with 4 users might look like this:

    Now, these Internet-travelling cars have a unique property of being able to grow and shrink horizontally depending on how much free space there is on the high way and are only limited by the ISP that controls access to the highway. So if there were only two cars on the same highway as before, it might look like this:

    The width of the car is the amount of bandwidth a particular user is using. Over the same amount of time (perhaps 10 minutes), users (cars) with more bandwidth (wider) will be able to access more data (drive over more pebbles) than smaller cars. It makes sense then that without widening the highway (increasing infrastructure) the more people that try to get online at once on the same connection, the less bandwidth each user will have and the less data they will be able to access over the same amount of time.

    Time Warner, Verizon, and AT&T all want to place data caps on your usage and charge overage fees. If we apply this concept to our highway model you can easily see that it makes no sense. The problem is our highway isn't wide enough to accommodate everyone with a large bandwidth (wide car), but their solution is not to widen the highway, merely limit the distance you can travel on it without paying more.

    Consider the two cars sizes I have above. Let's say the narrower one can access 1Mb every minute of "travel" and the wider one can access 5Mb every minute (because it covers more area over the same period of time). If we have a 20Mb data cap, then the small car can stay online for 20 minutes before the cap is reached, but the larger car can only stay online for 4 minutes before the same cap is reached.

    While these are low numbers, it demonstrates that with data caps there is a disincentive to having a larger / wider car on the highway of the Internet because all it buys you is less time accessing the Internet without being overcharged. Why upgrade to fiber or 4G if you can't use it? Might as well stay with dial-up and unlimited data since no one seems to have a problem with that (except for the very real problem in the past of people being online all the time and tying up the modems so others can't connect).

    A better solution is to sell minimum widths, not maximum data. I buy a car that is guaranteed to be no less than 5Mbps wide when the highway is full, and when it's empty my car can grow as wide as available to take advantage of the excess unused bandwidth.

    Expert Opinions

    In case you think I'm just talking crazy like some sort of crazy talking guy about the innovation stifling dangers of data caps, here's what a few other more respected technology experts have to say about the matter.

    Tuesday, May 4, 2010

    Adoption Newsletter

    Happy spring everyone!

    This is the first newsletter I've ever cobbled together, so bear with me as I muddle through the better part of the last year in review. We are healthy, happy, and employed (though hardly wealthy). 2009 brought a lot of frustration and culminated in a life-changing decision.

    Beginning in early 2007 Dawn and I started trying to conceive to start a family. After two years of heartbreaking disappointment and a clinical diagnosis for me indicating a persistent problem with no known cause we investigated our alternatives. The natural choices were artificial insemination (AI), IVF and adoption. Each has its benefits and costs. After a few failed attempts at AI we fully shifted into adoption mode.

    We initiated the adoption process in December 2009, began a five week adoption course in January and wrapped up our home study interviews with a social worker last week. This means we will be eligible to be profiled and potentially matched with a birth family as soon as a week or two. The time-line for adoption after that point becomes very unpredictable and can move very quickly or drag on over a long period of time. We're hoping it moves quickly.

    I realize this may come as a shock and surprise to some either because it seems so sudden or because adoption is simply a murky subject with lots of myths and misconceptions floating about. This was not a decision either of us jumped into without doing our homework and careful reflection of who we are and what we are trying to do. Below I'm hoping to dispel some common misconceptions about adoption to allay those specific concerns. We encourage and invite questions.

    Myth: You get to pick out the child, like a puppy at a store.

    Fact: With adoption, the adoptive parents must “sell” yourself in the form of a profile to the expectant mothers who will select you from many profiles. Profiles are a snapshot of your life, your interests, your environment and your family and friends with lots of pictures. We always have an opportunity to decline a child referral (being selected by an expectant mother) if there are unacceptable risks or other factors with the expectant mother or her baby. Matching is a very subjective process and the adoptive parents can only agree to continue a match, not initiate one.

    Myth: Adoption takes years to complete

    Fact: Adoption can take years to complete especially for international adoptions when complications arise with visas or the adoption policies of either country. Domestic adoption however can complete in weeks or months after a home study is complete depending on the state in which the child is born.

    Myth: The birth mother can take back her child anytime after the adoption has completed in a domestic adoption

    Fact: Once an adoption is finalized it is extremely difficult for the birth parents or family to gain custody of the child. Only in very rare circumstances such as when the adoption was completed in bad faith and documents were falsified or the birth mother was provably coerced by the adoptive parents or the adoption agency to make an adoption plan for her child will cancellation of the adoption even be considered by the courts. Once parental rights are voluntarily surrendered it is very difficult (and costly for the birth parent) to reverse that decision.

    Myth: Adopted children have emotional / mental problems more frequently than non-adopted children

    Fact: Most adopted children are perfectly healthy physically and mentally. There are always children with special needs and some international adoptions have higher rates of special needs children (such as Russia with higher rates of attachment disorders than some countries). As adoptive parents however we have the ability to only move forward with adoptions that have risks we feel we are prepared to handle. Many studies have shown little difference between the emotional health of an adopted child and the emotional heath of a child parented by his or her birth mother under similar circumstances (socially and economically).

    Myth: We are adopting to give a child a better life

    Fact: We are adopting because we want to have a family and cannot conceive of a child by ourselves. It is not an altruistic gesture to save a child from destitution. We are still new parents and not much different than anyone else and we are bound to make mistakes any other new parent would make (though we'd like to think we've prepared well enough to handle most anything).

    Myth: Most birth mothers are teenagers who got pregnant accidentally

    Fact: Most birth mothers are women in their twenties or thirties who for one reason or another have decided they are not able to parent a(nother) child at this time. It is a sign of love and forethought on the part of the birth mother to make an adoption plan for her child to ensure they are raised in a loving family that can provide what she cannot at the moment. In fact, most teenage mothers choose to parent their children.

    These are the most common misunderstandings that we've encountered thus far with common conceptions of adoption. Adoption is one of those things it seems most people have heard of, have a positive feeling about, but know little about how it's actually accomplished and only ever hear about the horror stories presented on the news – such as the story recently about an American woman who adopted a boy from Russia and being unable to cope with some emotional problems he had sent him back to Russia on a plane by himself.

    We'd also like to answer a few frequently asked questions about our adoption.

    Q: How long does it take?

    A: For us the process started in Dec. of 2009 and as of May 13th we are home study ready which means we can be profiled to expectant mothers. From this point a match could happen immediately or take over a year. The average time from home study ready to finalized adoption with the agency we're using is 8 to 9 months. The time it takes varies on a number of factors including how many children they have to find families for, how many adoptive parents there are that are home study ready, how open we are to race and risk factors (such as drug and alcohol use). We are very open to race and quite open to several risk factors after learning more about them and the effects they might have on a developing child. We have the ability to change our openness to any of these factors at any time if we change our minds.

    Q: What is an open adoption?

    A: An open adoption in one in which the child has some tangible link to his or her birth family after the adoption has been finalized. The degree of openness is up to the adoptive parents and the birth family and can range from letters, photos, postcards, and/or newsletters to in-person visits and gatherings. In some cases the birth mother may maintain an active relationship with the adopted child in a similar capacity to an aunt or uncle. It is fairly common for contact with the birth mother to fade away over time as she moves on with her life and needs to end this chapter.

    Q: Why open adoption? Doesn't it just confuse the child?

    A: Because everyone has a need to know where they came from, who there birth parents were, what they looked like, and what their heritage is. With traditional closed adoptions many adoptees find themselves desiring to seek out who their birth parents were and more information about their birth family. This can be very emotionally difficult for the adoptive parents even though it does not at all reflect on their ability as parents. With open adoption the child has all the information available on his or her birth family. Sometimes this is a lot of information including medical history of the birth mother and father and sometimes it's just a name and a story. The adoptive parents in an open adoption however never have to feel they are lying or hiding information from the child and in many cases the adoptees of open adoptions have little or no desire to seek out additional information on their birth family because they either have all they need or know they've been given all their parents had about the adoptee's birth family.

    Q: When do you tell the child they're adopted?

    A: Immediately and always. Conventional wisdom suggests the adopted child be told using positive language they are adopted from the get-go. Even with infants it's encouraged to talk about adoption and make it something as second nature as breathing. The adopted child should be told an age-appropriate story about their birth and adoption and the truth should not be hidden. Even if the child's birth family has a sordid story it should be told but it does not have to be blunt either. Waiting to tell a child they're adopted until they're “old enough to understand” is only likely to lead to feelings of betrayal and, “what else haven't you been telling me?” The sooner and more frequently the better.

    That pretty much sums up our adoption process thus far and the driving force of our efforts this year and last.

    We hope all is well with you and look forward to visiting family again late this summer or this Christmas (and with a little one in tow with any luck).