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

Friday, September 23, 2005

Fluency Milestone #2: HTML and markups

Reading Snyder's chapter on HTML really annoyed me at first, but in the days since I read it, it's actually had me thinking about things more than I had expected.

I was bugged by the redundancy of the information. I learned this much about HTML in 1995 in a journalism class at the University of Alaska Anchorage on publication design. The class was taught by Dr. Larry Pearson, a former copy editor at the Anchorage Daily News who was one of the first people I ever met to become obsessed with the Internet. He was responsible for converting the newspaper from a manual layout process to QuarkXPress (he did it overnight; editors found Macs on their desks with no warning when they arrived one day.) I remember working with the tags, fighting with uncooperative tables with invisible borders, trying to maneuver page elements around. It seemed so impossible when compared to the desktop publishing tools of the day, like Quark or Page Maker or Microsoft Publisher. Why did I have to use these abstract codes to order my page? Why couldn't I use the mouse? Wasn't this a Macintosh, after all?

But, the fact that I had to learn that much at least about the markup language did give me a sort of fluency that Snyder would be proud of. For example, when I was able to get MS Publisher to act like a WYSIWYG web publisher, I went and looked at the code it generated and was able to see that it had accomplished this trick by dropping layers upon layers of borderless tables over the page. Something did click for me when I realized that the markup tags used by HTML are based on the same idea of the markup tags I used to see on ancient WordPerfect machines back in the early 1980s. There is a clear progression of the technology, almost like the evolution of an organism, where new developments build on old ones--even though starting over from scratch might have been more efficient.

The later developments in web page design addressed all the shortcomings of HTML except ease-of-use. Computer programmers solved the issues of page layout, interaction with databases and running small programs with the tool they like best: introducing more code and more languages. Cascading Style Sheets, XML and Java are tools that are far out of the reach of the average computer user who might have been able to understand the basic concept of mark-up tags.

So, here's the fluency question for Lawrence Snyder: can the computer-using public ever hope to become fluent in Java Script, Visual Basic or XML? Or is the existence of these tools enough to put real web publishing out of reach for everyone but the technologists?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Tooksook Bay

The Yupik village of Tooksook Bay is going broadband!

They were actually one of the first Alaska Native villages to get online (there's a Washington Post article about them somewhere, from 1995.) They've been very creative about trying to use this new resource to boost their economy.

The village sits on the Yukon River. Their main economy is subsistance-based: chum salmon from the river for making jerkey and dogfood, moose and carribou during the appropriate seasons for meat. But the Internet has given them a new market for their more durable itmes. They are peddling their arts and crafts to customers all over the world bringing cash into the village for expanding local services. The 'net also lets them bring distance education and telemedicine to the village.

Now, however, they have broadband. How is this possible in a place that barely has running water? It's actually a good demonstration of how broadband is spreading to rural Alaska.

Anchorage-based telecom GCI is adding the broadband service one village at a time. A satellite transceiver in the village connects to GCI's bird, bringing the high-speed service into the village. Each house connects to the village hub through a small radio antenna, so there are no wires for GCI to service.

The company hopes to bring this wireless Internet service to every village in the state. Where the market forces aren't enough, Senator Stevens has been generous enough to provide some funding.

It's a great example of shrinking the digital divide. Here's a village of Yupik Eskimos that's online.

See? Sen. Stevens' money isn't all pork.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Due to Yahoo360's membership requirments, I've moved my Flog to Blogger.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fluencey Mileston #1: Encription & Privacy

Snyder's discussion of Privacy & Encryption was quite an eye-opener. I had heard terms like "128-bit encryption" before, but I didn't know what that really meant. Snyder does a good job of explaining the math behind encryption without getting stuck in formulae. As I read, I realized that I had heard that the factoring of large numbers was part of how data was encrypted, but I never had the slightest idea how that was useful.
As I understand it, however, the weakest part of the encryption scheme is still the same problem as every other code ever invented: somebody must have the key. Encryption seems designed to foil some data-bandits but he doesn't answer how hard it is to obtain the key. The system is not based on a "one-time pad," where the keys are destroyed after each use, but that couldn't happen here, could it? I just wonder if Amazon.com can get a key, why can't a bad guy?
Inspired by the discussion of math and encryption, I went and rented the movie Sneakers, where Robert Redford plays an ex-hacker who steals the ultimate de-cipher machine. It's been about five years since I've watched it and it really struck me how much of the plot has become real hot-button issues: cyberterrorism, identity theft, biometrics (and its limits), dumpster-diving, and whether government agencies should have the authority to snoop on encrypted Internet data for law enforcement purposes. The movie takes that one step farther, as the government agency desperate to obtain the de-cipher is the NSA, and they want it for illegal spying on other government agencies. Ah, if only that were the limits of the government's wishes.