Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A tugboat at the Port of Valdez

This is an experiment in using Picasa to upload photos to Blogger. Not too shabby!
This is a tugboat at the Port of Valdez. It is used to push the giant oil tankers out to sea and escort them out of Alaskan waters. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Income Taxes

I did my income taxes online last night, with good results. A bit frustrating, though.

The IRS has eleminated Telefile, meaning that those without Internet access are back to pencil-and-paper. Talk about the digital divide! This stuff isn't easy, either, so sitting down at the library to plow through your taxes isn't much of an option. Basically, the only option for those on the wrong side of the broadband gap is to go to the mall and pay somebody to do it.

But not me, baby! I'm IT Fluent! I have broadband and an $1800 computer in my house! Step one is solved.

Over at You'll find a list of companies that offer to electronically file your taxes for you. I only recognized a couple of the names. Who are these people? Why should I trust them to do my taxes? Is the IRS really vouching for their standards?

Well, no. The government makes no promises that these programs will do jack. All they say is that they will accept a return filed by them... and that if you want to file electronically, you are REQUIRED to use them.

To be eligible for a free electronic filing, you have to be lower-middle class or below. Great, so those least-likely to have broadband Internet are required to do their taxes online now.

I went with H&R Block, even though they are in trouble with the law for their weird debit-card return idea (which they push at you online, bigtime, but I said "no".) Actually, the program worked quite well! It found a big credit that I knew about but wasn't sure it would have spotted-- in fact, it was something that I would have missed out on if I'd been doing Telefile!

Still, my preference would be for a unified system coming from the IRS. I mean, they are responsible for the legal code, it would be nice if they could be responsible for the computer code, too. The accounting companies lobby against this idea non-stop, however, so it'll never happen. I mean, I want to trust the government. I don't think I would trust AAATaxcutterOnline! or what-have-you. There's also that liability issue, I suppose. If the IRS were to develop an online system, then they would be liable for it's quality. This way, if there's a big problem, I have to take my beef up with H&R Block, not the government (remember the disclaimer?)

In all, I'm happy with the results, and despite having to give my information to a big corporation, where I'll be sold out to data miners and spammers and put on the H&R Block spam e-mail list forever. I mean, is that such a small price to pay for getting a big-ass refund via direct deposit?


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Fluencey Mileston #10: Wikipedia

If there is any one thing I will take away from this course, it is probably a newfound respect for Wikipedia. It could be called nothing less than a "fluency milestone" when Piotr pulled up the entry for my parents' hometown, Talkeetna, and found a simple skelleton of a page. I suggested that it include information about the town's famous Moose Dropping Festival. A few moments later and it was there. I had influenced the content of an encyclopedia--no, I had changed the contents of an encyclopedia.

Emboldened by this, I went out on a limb and corrected a typo in another article!

Then, impressed by Wikipedia's information, I cited the corrected article in my paper. I was just looking for some basic almanac-type information, and it did jibe with my recollection of the topic, so I used it.

I'm on a roll! Do I dare to add something else about Talkeetna to the entry? I mean, just on the off chance that someone else should one day want to read it? Well, I added a little more info, just naming the other two annual festivals in the town. The article now reads:

"Home to the annual Moose Dropping Festival[1] as well as the Mountain Mother and Wilderness Woman contests."

I couldn't get the outside links to work right. I have a lot still to learn about Wiki.

I couldn't agree more with Damien: it's the convergence of blogs, wikis and podcasts (video or audio) that have the real potential to change Democracy. Jason says the borderless world doesn't look quite so silly anymore, and I have to agree totally with him. Sal and I are on the same exact page when it comes to FIT. And Joohyun exploration of the future of intellectual property rights was a view of the future that is certain to come true. Such a fascinating class!

So, here's my final offer, for anyone who bothers to read the flog after you are being graded on them: What is the best way to advance Dr. Snyder's goal of IT Fluency? Is it through legislative action, at the state or city level? In that case, we should form a political action network and start pushing for it. Is it active effort that makes the difference? In that case, we should form a non-profit fluency-training organization and take our show to the other side of the digital divide.

I vote for Alaska.

In the summer.

-David Totten.

Fluency Milestone #9: Blogging

Givin our class discussions of blogging as a way to bring about a Habermassian deliberative democracy revolution, etc, I thought I should blog about how much I've actually learned about blogging.

I had one of the first blogs on the Internet!

In 1998, I took my copy of Front Page and used it to create a proto-blog (the theme was a seashore, with little crabs and starfish for bullet-points-- so dorky!) about Alaska news. My counter almost never moved. I was a working journalist at the time, but it was strange how I felt immediately able to register my opinions on this blog, when I could not on the radio. There was no Blogger, no community, certainly no Google (just, AltaVista, DEC's amazing search engine they designed to run on their blazing-fast Alpha PCs... until they were bought and dismantled).

The high point of my early blogging was the day I got an angry e-mail from a Green Party politico complaining that I had referred to him (and others) as "fringe candidates." He must have been ego surfing (searching for his own name) or something. At the time, he had just dropped out of the race for governor after winning the primary. He had only run because nobody else would and the party was about to lose it's official recognition. After the primary, he convinced another Green activist to run in his place (thus making a joke of the entire concept of a "primary") and he dropped out to finish building his house. Other candidates were equally wacked-out (is there a Wikipedia article on Theressa Obermeyer yet, Piotr?). Rather than appologize, I took a shot at him for his house building. A couple months later, I got sick of updating something nobody read and killed it.

A couple years later, a friend of mine, Dave Harbour, a well-connected oil-and-gas insider, set up the first useful blog I'd seen. He was trying to generate interest in building a natural gas pipeline to bring Alaska's North Slope gas resources to market. He created something like Drudge-for-gas. He dilligently collected news reports from around the world about anything at all connected to North Slope Gas. He also had fact sheets and phone list resources for backers of the idea to use. The idea eventually built up steam (due to skyrocketting gas prices) until at last the Governor, Legislature and the oil companies had agreed to build a gas project. Nobody would suggest that Dave's blog made the project happen, but I think he did succeed in keeping the idea alive in people's minds, and it's more than a coincidence that the people who did get to work on the pipeline were all readers of his blog. The project is hitting some bad snarls right now, and it's not certain it will still happen. Dave gave up his blog in 2003 when he was appointed to the state regulatory board that oversees utilities (including both the Internet and gas pipelines!)

Which brings me to this modern age. I had given up blogging completely until this class. It struck me as vain and boring ("...and then I got my hair cut. It's so cute now!") I'm still not completely convinced that anybody would actually read anything I would post here. But my opinion has changed somewhat.

First, there's Blogger. This site makes it much easier to deal with the blogs. If I'd had these tools in 1998, I probably would have kept blogging even past the election (one of the most extraordinary in US history). The fact that everyone now uses Google to search and find increases the liklihood of someone actually finding my page, unlike in the old days when people didn't even know how to search. And, in the context of a class, I now see that this is the perfect method for interacting with classmates about class ideas and lessons.

So, IT Fluency? Yes. Here's the proof: in future classes, I am going to blog my assignments and tell my instructors (and classmates) that they can find them online.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Fluency Milestone #8: Networking

The "postcard analogy" is probably the most clear explaination for TCP/IP I have ever seen. Writing one sentence on each postcard until an entire novel had been composed, then sending the postcards out one at a time to a publisher across the world... Each card takes a different route to its destination, but the publisher can begin to assemble them as soon as they start coming in. If one postcard is lost in the mail, the publisher can ask for a replacement. To imagine that this is happenning millions upon millions of times as I surf the web, is staggering.

I do remember my first encounter with a TCP connection... over my 14.4K modem in 1994. I had just traded in my 10-year-old Apple ][e for 133mhz Dell with a Pentium inside and a 1 gigabyte hard drive. It had 16mb of RAM! It was quite impressive next to my old 128Kb Apple. I first used my modem to connect to the University of Alaska's ISP using Lynx, a text-only browser (yes, it's still around--and compatible with Windows XP!) Then, my roommate, a computer science major, decided it was time for me to start using TCP/IP... After an hour of messing with the settings, I opened Netscape and saw the World Wide Web as Vint Cerf had imagined it. There was ESPN and Yahoo and AltaVista (the precursor to Google). It took forever for that picture of Tony Gwynn to show up on my screen, but there was the whole World Wide Web in all it's glory. Heady days.

And, by the way, I was right: Vint Cerf, inventor of IP and evangelist of the packet concept, was fond of wearing a T-shirt reading "IP on Everything".

Fluency Milestone #7: Bits & Bytes

There are so many interesting (or, "nagging" as Snyder says on pg.240) questions answered in this chapter.

Why is "byte" spelled with a "y"? It turns out that the man who coined it, a project manager at IBM, named Werner Buchholz, wanted to minimize typos from people typing in "bit." He was working on the Stretch project at IBM at the time. He also was at IBM a few years earlier when he was instrumental in the development of the IBM 701, the company's first commercially available electronic computer (complete with internally addressed memmory--sooooooo long punch cards!)

The chapter also reveals mysteries such as why everything in a computer is a factor of eight, how ASCII works, and why computer programmers can balance their checkbooks in hexidecimal.

One of my earliest encounters with a computer was a NEC owned by my best friend's dad (he was a software engineer at NEC in San Diego). It had 9" disk drives, a small green screen, and the ability to do all sorts of things--provided you could tell it in hexidecimal.

"No open toed shoes in the computer lab" was the sign over the door.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Fluency Milestone #6: Algorithms

Rather than discuss Snyder's take on algorithms, or the fascinating guest we talked to in our class, I am going to talk about a a new magazine article that explains how the concept of an algorithm can be used in unusual ways.

The Article is from the December issue of Wired. It profiles the efforts of mathematician Dan Rockmore to develop an algorithm-based system to determine if a particular painting was painted by a great master or a great faker.

First, he takes a digital photo of a Rembrandt with a 20-megapixel camera. A computer analyzes the pixes, coding each one as a number between 0 and 255. Eventually, the software statistcally summarizes 72 pieces of data about each square of the picture.

The part I thought was interesting was that once all of this data has been sifted, he can assign a set of coordinates on a 3D graph to the painting. A Rembrandt can be reduced to three numbers. The shocking thing is that it seems to work. Paintings by the same artist will cluster together, while paintings by imitators and pupils are everywhere else.

If he can get his algorithm to work, he could destroy dozens of fortunes, as works by old masters are suddenly cast in doubt.

Here's the article:

Fluency Milestone #5 Lessig & Creative Commons

My short composition “The Digital Citizen” includes samples from The Wired CD, including a little bit from Le Tigré’s song “Fake French” and another sample from “Now Get Busy” by The Beastie Boys.

The sampling was made legal because The Beastie Boys and Le Tigré agreed to publish their songs under the Creative Commons copyright scheme. This system lets creators of content set a lower level of copyright protection than the traditional “All Rights Reserved” defined in statute.

Why would musicians want less copyright protection? In this case, they want to encourage DJs and other musicians to steal parts of their work through sampling. The musicians in Le Tigré feel that they stand to benefit by allowing parts of their work to be incorporated into new works. The additional exposure they would gain has some value to them. So, rather than force musicians to hire a lawyer and ask for expressed permission to borrow a few seconds of “Fake French”, they have deliberately chosen to give blanket permission for sampling under the Creative Commons (CC) format. The Beastie Boys have chosen a somewhat more restrictive license, requiring that any derivative work created from “Now Get Busy” be used for non-commercial works. I have mixed samples from these two licenses in my song, so the more restrictive will apply and I won’t be able to make money off “The Digital Citizen”. Too bad.

It’s useful to think of these as licenses, not copyrights. Nothing in CC can take the place of a copyright, which is established in federal statute. In the United States, the copyright for a creative work is established at the moment it is created and does not require the work to be published or registered with the government. The copyright gives the creator the exclusive right to control the work, for a limited time. An artist can sell or give away his work under whatever terms he decides until the copyright expires, after which the work enters the public domain. CC can be thought of as a way for an artist to set blanket conditions for how the work can be used under his existing copyright protection.

The CC website makes choosing permissions as easy as ordering from a menu. Options have expanded to include many different kinds of licensing, from “public domain,” which essentially gives up all claim on the content, to licenses that are nearly as restrictive as a traditional copyright. There are specific licenses for wiki content, for sampling, and for developing nations, among others.

The “developing nations” license lets artists reach new audiences by encouraging the distribution of content without permission. As the CC website states:

The Developing Nations license allows, for the first time, any copyright holder in the world to participate first-hand in reforming global information policy. The fact is that most of the world's population is simply priced out of developed nations' publishing output. To authors, that means an untapped readership. To economists, it means "deadweight loss." To human rights advocates and educators, it is a tragedy. The Developing Nations license is designed to address all three concerns.

This is something of a gamble for the artist, of course, but by allowing the content to be published without permission in developing countries, it could possibly remove the edge held by illegal content pirates.

“The Digital Citizen” is licensed for non-commercial use, under attribution (to Le Tigré, Beastie Boys and David Totten) with sampling permitted. It is legal to download, copy and distribute it without seeking further legal permission.

If you can get past the sad fact that it’s mostly a collection of annoying noises, of course.

-david totten.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons NonCommericial Sampling Plus 1.0 License.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Community Wi-Fi update

This might be a sign that the folks who stand to gain from community Wi-Fi may be outrunning those who stand to lose by having free Internet access in public spaces provided by local government. An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (a fantastic paper) says that Cisco has designed a Wi-Fi access point that is specifically designed to work with community projects. The gear is designed to go on rooftops and does not need to be configured.

So, Google and HP/Cisco on the one hand, and Verizon/Comcast on the other. Assuming the public can keep any more silly legislation from being passed by the telecoms, I predict the hardware & software makers will clobber the access providers.

Verizon does not own the Internet. They are not entitled to a monopoly on access... only the right to provide one possible access route.

Here's the article in the P-I

Meantime, Macedonia, a country with strong connections to GSPIA and Pitt, is rolling out a community Wi-Fi project that will cover more than 1,000 square miles-- talk about a hotspot!

And, down in Texas, a situation similar to Philadelphia's sad affair is playing out in Houston. Like in Philly, Houston mayor Bill White has promissed not to back down, insisting that squabbling telecoms SBC and TimeWarner(AOL) "no good reason to fight it." Unlike Mayor Street in Philly, Mayor White plans to use only private funds to operate the network. He's casting about for a corporate sponsor and has had quite a bit of interest, he says. His goal is not to provide Internet access to the whole city, but to use the network to subsidize access for the poor and to get free services for government agencies.

Check it out in the Houston Chronicle

But, in our nation's capital, legislation is being considered that could throw the whole debate into a tizzy. Quoting from the Chronicle article:

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, a former SBC employee, has introduced a measure that would forbid city governments from competing in the broadband business.

A bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., supports such direct competition.

Both measures have been referred to committees.

More than a dozen states have considered their own measures to combat municipal WiFi. A measure introduced in Texas that would have banned government-run WiFi here was killed earlier this year.

Viva la WI-FI Revolution!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fluency Milestone #4: GUI

In Chapert 2, Snyder lays out some of the basics of using a graphical user interface (GUI), like WindowsXP or Mac OSX. He tries to get across the difficult concept that a GUI is a set of metaphors. When someone who has never used a computer before (with low fluency) first looks at a Windows desktop, that person must first try to decipher the metaphor.
A "Desktop" was chosen by Xerox's PARC team because they were office workers. It fit their world-view. They saw file cabinets filled with files, and desks cluttered with tools and papers. The file-cabinet metaphor is even older... CP/M (created by Gary Kildall in 1973), the precursor to Microsoft DOS, also used files in folders (directories).

Aside: Bill Gates and Paul Allen purchased a variation of CP/M from Seattle programmer Tim Patterson in 1980 for less than $100,000. They renamed it MS-DOS and licensed it to IBM and became the richest men in the world. Patterson still owns a software development company and likes to drive race cars in rallies. He seems somewhat philosophical about things. I, for one, hope that Bill Gates remembers the Patterson family generously in his will.

But would other metaphors work better with non-office workers? At this point, I think, the GUI desktop has become the metaphor. The pointing arrow, the MS-Word documents (a piece of paper with a "W" on it means that I've typed something), the minimize/maximize/restore/close buttons... they no longer refer to real-world objects, but to themselves.
But what really happens when you click on a button? That's something that blew me away once I figured it out. I was teaching myself MS Access database programming. I looked carefully at what happened when I created a command button for a form and it suddenly hit me: the computer was watching for "events" and then executing commands that I had programmed. "On click" meant that the computer was just waiting there for me to click the mouse while the pointer was within the set of co-ordinates that corresponded to the picture of the button. I had told the database to run a macro when that happened. Suddenly, I knew that every other part of the Windows GUI was just a more complicated version of what I had just created.
This week, while helping a group of classmates with their database, I took the time out to explain this idea to them. I'm hoping that this may have been a "fluency milestone" for Ron and Emily.