Why the Healthcare.gov fiasco SHOULD teach us to Open Source Government Application Development.

We Spent How Much?!

According to The Daily Beast the United States Government has spent $118 million to build Healthcare.gov and another $56 million in fixing it…and based on the fact that the site isn’t expected to be fully patched for some time yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the total cost in “fixing” exceeds that of building the system in the first place.

Image courtesy of OpenClipart.org and Iwan Gabovitch
Image courtesy of OpenClipart.org and Iwan Gabovitch

I’m not going to take a position on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – I try to avoid speaking publicly on controversial issues…but I would like to suggest a lesson we can learn from the ACA that I don’t think will be (very) controversial across party lines – that the Government should utilize open source in the development of applications as a standard rule.

Now, I’m not particularly interested in arguing that every government project should be open source – I’ll be happy if 95-99% of them are. I understand that some people rightly or wrongly believe that using open source in sensitive areas could cause security risks. I’ll let Kevin Clough and perhaps Richard Stallman[1] argue that point.[2] But for the vast majority of projects (Healthcare.gov for example) I can see no reason why the development should not be open source and believe there would be significant advantages to such a course of action.

Lets take a look at the specific ways in which open source development could have reduced or eliminated the issues involved in the Healthcare.gov launch:

Transparency

The government (not just one department, but its entirety – e.g. the white house and congress) and the public could much more readily have seen that issues were arising, deadlines were slipping, etc.  and made necessary adjustments.

It is a constant problem within organizations that individuals at higher levels make decisions without the proper knowledge base upon which to make such decisions. This can result in unrealistic timelines and even if the timelines are realistic, if unexpected issues arise and there is slippage, there is a temptation to “gloss over” the setbacks and “hope” that the timeline can still be met.

This oftentimes results in extreme pressure on those actually working on the application as they are pressured to produce more, quicker – which, especially in the case of programming – is unwise. The more you pressure programmers the more likely they are to make mistakes, to take shortcuts and the more hours you demand of them the less productive they will become and, again, the number of bugs will grow exponentially.

Bug Fixes

Open Source software is oftentimes very stable and secure because of the number of eyes looking over the code. Further, individuals who are amateurs can make small contributions that allow the programmers to development on system architecture and bigger issues instead of stomping out bugs and making aesthetic improvements.

It would make sense for the Government to take a similar approach to Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! on this front – each offers cash rewards for the discovery of issues. This is a relatively inexpensive way to get folks to pour in their energies – and individuals receive (for them) a significant compensation (hundreds to thousands of dollars – depending on the issue discovered).

Load Testing

The failure to properly load test the Healthcare.gov site is shocking. An open source project still needs robust methods of load testing performed by the core team – but it also benefits from other individuals and organizations implementing the application and discovering bottlenecks.

An open source, distributed team, also could have easily simulated the significant load that the site experienced upon launch – exposing the load issues early enough for remediation.

Code Reuse

When a project is open source the code can be reused by others for all sorts of purposes. The code to this project would certainly have applications in other government projects as well as the private sector. Reuse of code can significantly streamline development timeframes and even if someone in an entirely uses a portion of code for an entirely different project in a different industry – they will oftentimes contribute their version of the function (with enhancements/bug fixes) back to the original project (resulting in better, more flexible, secure, and robust code).

Cost

I really am just spitballing here – but I have a hard time believing that the development of an open source system to perform the Healthcare.gov functions would have cost anywhere near the costs expended thus far upon this closed source system. I’d guess that $10 million could have completed the project in a more robust and timely manner via open source.

Lesson Learned?

Please, let us take a lesson from this fiasco. We want more affordable healthcare – we can start by not wasting millions developing an application as a closed system which lacks robustness and stability.

I know some areas of the Government are already working with open source (and that is great) – but this needs to be a greater emphasis. Perhaps (I don’t know) there should even be some legislation that makes the (required) standard for new applications be open source and any applications which are desired as closed source systems should require review by a panel to determine if there is actual, substantial reasons for developing in a closed source system.

[Apparently I’m not the only one to think OSS could have made a huge difference. See this article by Christina Farr over at VentureBeat. Not directly related, but still interesting is Dylan Tweney’s article “Healthcare.gov costs show that feds have literally no idea how to build a big web site” also on VentureBeat. Another article comes from NBC News staff writer Gil Aegerter and can be found here.]

[11/4: Good article from Matt Asay entitled, “Sorry, Open Source Isn’t the Panacea for Healthcare.gov” on ReadWrite.]

  1. [1]Though Stallman would argue for free software rather than open source, but I leave that semantics argument, however important it may be, aside for the time being to focus on an area in which a relatively minor change in procedure (moving to open source development) could make a significant change in cost and efficiency.
  2. [2]There are some excellent arguments on how and why open source technology can be more secure than closed source technology. Specifically, the additional security in closed source systems usually isn’t b/c the systems are actually more secure but a function of “security by obscurity” – in other words, security holes exist, no one knows about them (including those who wrote the software). But I digress…

How Not to Scare Pro-Gun Supporters (Quite as Much)

John Morse served as President of the Colorado Senate until a recent recall vote ousted him from the position. What had he done to invoke the wrath of the people? Pushed for gun control restrictions in Colorado in the aftermath of the Aurora (Colorado) mass shooting.

I’m not going to take a position on gun control, but I do want to point out a major faux pas[1] committed by Morse in an article he wrote for The Daily Beast (Rampage. Regret. Repeat.).

Man Shooting Gun, thanks to milan6 over at sxc.hu for making the image available royalty free.
Man Shooting Gun, thanks to milan6 over at sxc.hu for making the image available royalty free.

Morse’s article outlines five focuses of his endeavors in the Colorado Senate including (1) limiting new magazines to be limited to 15 rounds, (2) everyone must pass a background check before purchasing a gun, (3) the gun buyer has to pay for the background check, (4) training for a conceal-weapons permit must occur at least partially in person, and (5) proactive removal of guns from the possession of domestic violence perpetrators.

Whatever you may think of this legislation, Morse’s primary mistake is earlier in the article. At the beginning of his article he notes how as a paramedic he was called to a home where a husband used a shotgun to shoot his wife in the head (resulting in her death) and then turned the gun on himself…All the while, an infant child is in the room watching.

Why is this problematic? Because it reinforces pro-gun supporters fears. Let me explain. The great fear of pro-gun advocates is that we are on a “slippery slope” towards firearms restrictions which will become ever more stringent. The legislation Morse passed would do nothing to stop this sort of violence – and pro-gun supporters know this – and thus know if that if these sort of cases are the impetus for gun control, then it is only a matter of time till gun control advocates see that previous legislation didn’t eliminate these cases and they propose yet stringent measures.

“But wouldn’t taking away this man’s gun have prevented this violence?” Unlikely. Gun restrictions may help reduce the body count in mass shootings but is unlikely to eliminate or reduce (imho) crimes such as the one Morse outlines above. If the offender in this case didn’t have a shotgun, he could easily have used a baseball bat or knife. The casualties would have been just as severe – and the trauma inflicted on the child would be equal or greater to that the child experienced seeing his mother and father shot (a gunshot blast is fairly instantaneous, bludgeoning or stabbing can be a complicated process).

Nor, from the information Morse provides, would this individual have been prevented from purchasing a gun by the legislation Morse passed.

  1. Shotguns are generally low capacity – sometimes one or two shots, sometimes five.
  2. It is possible this individual had crimes in his background – but Morse doesn’t mention any.
  3. Paying for the background check is unlikely to dissuade anyone – I assume this would cost around $10-$15 for a background check. At the most $25.
  4. This individual was using a shotgun, not a concealed weapon.
  5. Again, it is possible that this could have helped, if the individual had a criminal background – but Morse does not provide this info. – so I assume he did not. Even if he did, proactively taking someone’s guns, even if legislated by law is a litigious action, and I highly doubt that the police force is going to be eager to undertake such proactive procurement except in the most certain of cases.

So, what am I saying? That gun control advocates shoot themselves in the foot when they use crimes which arise emotions in us but that won’t be reduced by the legislation they are proposing.

Pro-gun advocates might be able to find more common ground if they didn’t see red warning signs that this was only the “beginning of the slippery slope.”

  1. [1]Merriam-Webster defines as “an embarrassing social mistake.” I’m not sure if I’m utilizing this word in its correct literal sense, but I suppose you’ll get the idea.

Mother’s Day.

So, this past Mother’s Day, Cassandra Frost (I say this humorously) decided to throw my world upside down by sending me a link to this blog post from The Messy Middle: “An Open Letter to Pastors {A Non-Mom Speaks About Mother’s Day}.” I then proceeded to read up on the subject – and if anyone else is interested in understanding the controversy (within and without Christian circles), here are the articles I came across…Bolded ones I found particularly interesting…

Now all those pastors like me can begin reading for next year. BTW, I’m not sure I’ve come to a good conclusion on this. Maybe I can just ban all non-church holidays and my life will be easier? =) I know, that would be too easy…Hmmm…

Mother's Day card
Mother’s Day card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did Hackers Gain Access to All Your Personal Information?!?

Introduction

“Out of sight, out of mind.” This is true of so many important aspects of life. We know we should do something about them, but we don’t – because we forget about them or the effort seems greater than the benefit.

Unfortunately, sometimes these important aspects of life decide to blow up in our faces. For example, most of us have learned the importance of keeping oil in our cars and performing regular oil changes. We know that while this is “out of sight” it cannot be “out of mind.” But, have you ever been in a that ran out of oil? I have and it is not a pleasant experience. The engine implodes on itself with many strange, loud, and scary sounds while smoke billows from the hood and nauseous odors waft through the vents. The car slows to a stop and never starts again. Cue tears, tow truck, and etc.

Burglar from OpenClipart.org. Thanks to tzunghaor for his generosity.
Burglar from OpenClipart.org. Thanks to tzunghaor for his generosity in making this image freely available.

It is time that our technology security becomes one of these “out of sight” but better not be “out of mind” aspects. It has long been time…but if you are a casual technology (computer, smartphone, etc.) user you probably don’t think much about security – and if you do, I hate to say it, but a good bit of your knowledge is probably based on outdated or downright false information.

Today, LivingSocial, a company with over 50 million users, was hacked. This follows a few weeks after Evernote was compromised with its similarly millions of users. Whether you are or are not a customer of these services isn’t the point. What is the point is this: Your identity, personal information, and financials are not safe.

Don’t wait until your Facebook page is plastered with pornographic images to change your password. Or until you send all of your friends emails explaining how you are really lost in London and need them to send money orders to a bank near you. Or until your credit report shows debts you never accumulated. Or your personal emails and documents are flouted across the web for all to see.

Don’t Unplug

Resist the temptation to unplug the computer. I know what I’m saying is a lot of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) and in general I hate when people use FUD. It is usually uncalled for and unproductive. In this case I think it is both called for and productive – but it will only be productive if you take the right steps. The right steps are not to unplug your computer and abandon technology forever. The right answer is to take the time and energy it will take to learn how to live and act in a more secure way in a technological world.

Why not just unplug? Good question – this is the usual action folks who spread FUD about technology are hoping to provoke. That or they want to convince you to buy expensive technological solutions to resolve your issues. Let me give you a few good reasons not to unplug:

  1. Technology is not going away. To withdraw from it is to withdraw from reality. Yes, technology can be overwhelming, addictive, insecure, and bad – but you have to learn how to utilize technology and not be enslaved to it. This is necessary for your job, for communicating with friends and relatives, and for living a productive life.[1]
  2. This isn’t just about your connection to the internet. Look, part of this is simply an educational campaign, b/c the truth is that technology security is horribly weak everywhere. You can unplug from technology – but you can’t force your bank, your relatives, your credit card companies, or so on to withdraw – and so your information is still out there.
  3. We are on the edge of extinction. By this I mean, don’t allow fear to control your life. Take reasonable steps towards risk management – but don’t stop living. Look, this entire world, this entire universe is crazy. At any moment we could all be dead. Don’t believe me? Look at the earthquakes that hit Haiti and Japan or the tsunamai that wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives in moments just a few years ago. “But Dave, that wouldn’t happen here. We aren’t on tectonic plate faults, etc., etc.” Then look at the Spanish Flu which wiped out millions of lives – many of the young and strong – during the early 1900’s, the millions that died in World War I and World War II in combat, or even better – look at the Black Plague which wiped out perhaps 50% of the world’s population a few hundred years ago.
  4. Manage risk, don’t run from it. Let me reiterate on the above point – everything is a risk. We can’t avoid risk, we aren’t in control. We can manage stupid risks. Don’t run in front of someone with a loaded gun; don’t drive a car at excessive speeds in bad weather[2]; and don’t wait until your identity or finances have been compromised to get serious about security.

What Should I Do?

  1. Remember, we are talking about risk management – not risk elimination. These steps will reduce the likelihood of exposure, but they won’t eliminate it.
  2. Invest some time into learning about technology generally and security specifically. The better you understand what you are working with, the better you can utilize it safely. For learning about computers generally, check out GCF’s Free Computer Training courses. For information on security specifically consider reading materials available from US-CERT[3] They are a government organization focused on technology security and offer a number of documents aimed towards the general reader.
  3. Begin utilizing LastPass to manage your passwords, ensure you have secure passwords, eliminate weak passwords, and so on. It is a little bit of a learning curve – but once configured it’ll make life easier and it is free.
  4. Continue to learn about technology generally and technology security specifically on an ongoing basis. Think about how many hours you spend using technology (not just on a computer but also a phone, tablet, using an atm, credit card checkouts at local stores, and so on) and also about all the ways your information is used technologically (banks, schools, non-profits, government, and so on). Consider the total number of hours you spend each year and then choose a reasonable number (say five or ten…or maybe twenty five…depending on how quickly you pick up on technology subjects) to spend on learning about technology and security in the upcoming year. Note how small of an investment you are making relative to the amount of time and energy you spend with these technologies.
  5. Consider talking to someone who knows technology who can make more personalized suggestions for you and who can review your technology overall for safety. If this individual tells you not to spend any time on security – find someone else. Make sure what they are saying is lining up with what you are learning from US-CERT or similar authoritative sources of security information.
  6. On a similar note, most techs (in my experience), including myself don’t mind talking to people about security – but feel frustrated when asked about security and then ignored. Please make the conscious effort to listen and understand. Far too many technology conversations are started with someone asking me a technology question and immediately letting their eyes glaze over. This communicates two things, “What you are saying isn’t important” (and for many of this, this is our livelihood) and “I didn’t mean I wanted to learn, I meant can I use you to make me secure so I don’t have to learn?” (okay, okay, maybe you wouldn’t put it in those words, but when we regularly get these questions with a regular lack of interested in the answers…it is hurtful).[4]
  7. Consider the practices your employer utilizes for maintaining security. Do they exist? Are they realistic? Many companies are horribly insecure…and it might be time to sit down with your boss (if they are open to that sort of conversation) and talk to them about the need for technology security in the workplace.
  8. Share this article or similar articles and the documents from the US-CERT with friends, family, and co-workers. Help raise awareness about the significant issue that is before us in a way that encourages others to do something about it rather than being overwhelmed by fear and running away.

Conclusion

Technology security is everyone’s concern. This is not a hopeless awareness issue. We’ve brought awareness about drinking and driving, drug addiction, mental illness, and healthy eating to varying levels of public awareness – the same is necessary for security.

You will be safer and more productive using technology securely. You will be a better employee but helping encourage safe technology at work. You will be a helpful citizen by encouraging proper security implementations at local, state, and national governmental levels.

I’m available to answer questions, comments, and criticisms via

the comments on this post. Please feel free to write me with your technology security concerns, if any of this is confusing, or if you find the materials I provided for training in technology or technology security too difficult and I will do my best to assist you in finding materials which will work with your current knowledge level regarding technology.

  1. [1]Those who aren’t convinced might consider reading Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age.
  2. [2]Or at all, but I’m just trying to emphasize the outrageous.
  3. [3]United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
  4. [4]Yes, geeks/techs do have feelings, even if they may not express them.

Sandy Hook, Gun Laws, and Mental Health

LG Health Exchange Legislation Testimony
LG Health Exchange Legislation Testimony (Photo credit: MDGovpics)

I’ve followed the news about Sandy Hook as much as most average informed citizens – reading articles, listening to NPR/BBC, and so on. I’ve also been following loosely the discussion that has arisen in the aftermath of Sandy Hook about what laws should or should not be made in order to prevent future occurrences of this sort of tragedy.

I wanted to comment briefly on the thoughts which have been circling around mental health issues and whether laws should be implemented to prevent individuals with mental illnesses from purchasing/owning weapons.

This concerns me as someone who suffers from mental illness (OCD, Depression, ADD) and as someone who frequently interacts with and ministers to the mentally ill. Why? Because for years now I have been encouraging folks to seek psychological treatment with the assurance that it won’t destroy their lives and limit their participation in various activities. Even with these assurances I still regularly receive strong kickback from folks who fear that being diagnosed or taking medications will make them an outcast of society, looked upon with suspicion by all. I have seen parents refuse treatment for children and teenagers desperately in need of care, fearing that a mental health record will limit their prospects as they grow older, afraid that the child will be angry when they grow to maturity that their parents took such limiting steps.

Now it seems that folks are considering making laws which would make those suffering with mental illness’ fears a reality. What would be the result of this? First, many innocents would be condemned and limited due to the aberrations of a very few. The vast majority of individuals suffering mental illness are not violent nor a danger to the public. In fact, pick out ten people you interact with on a regular basis and it is likely that at least one or two of them have a mental disorder – and you don’t know it!

What would be the end result of such laws? One of the clearest effects would be fear among the mentally ill to be diagnosed or treated. This would increase rather than decrease any violent potential among the mentally ill – as individuals who most severely needed help (as those suffering from paranoid delusions, etc.) would be the most likely to refuse help.

I find it also disconcerting that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is advocating mental health legislation as the answer – honestly, I’m quite surprised by this. Why? Because mental illness is a murky field and there is plenty more room for the “slippery slope” to take effect regarding mental health legislation than there is for legislation regarding assault weapons to progress to a wider weapons ban.

For example, as far as I have read or heard, the shooter at Sandy Hook had autism (and I haven’t heard of any criminal record?). We aren’t talking about banning some very small and clearly defined subset of mental health disorders – rather, disorders like autism are broad and range from mild to severe impairment. Those with the most severe impairment would not have the capacity to utilize a firearm and those with mild to moderate impairment would not be statistically more likely to utilize weapons in a violent manner than the general populace.

It would not be a large stretch to identify certain forms of religious or political belief as a form of mental illness – and to ban weapons for such individuals on this basis – this could have much wider long-term impact on the right to bear arms than an assault weapons ban.

As such, I am opposed to legislation based on mental health restricting the availability of weapons. I am unsure of what legislation will make a positive difference in situations such as Sandy Hook – the actions of shooters such as at Sandy Hook are so far outside the norm of human behavior that it is difficult to predict what could be done to stop them from acting in such a manner. I do think there are many legislative steps that could be taken to reduce violence generally – for example, prison reform (e.g. as Chuck Colson advocated for, using alternative reformative punishments for non-violent offenders).

In conclusion, I see reasons to legislate as mentioned above – but also believe that our best hope for reducing this form of extreme and horrific violence is through communal endeavors. Specifically, intentionally engaging one another. I don’t think a shooter reaches this place while surrounded by friends. If a shooter does reach such a place, I believe there will be numerous warning signs that friends and family can utilize to report and stop the shooter before any violence occurs. The thought patterns which lead someone to this path are likely formed in intense isolation – thoughts which could be confronted by us if we are willing to reach out.

Evil people, conspiracy theories, dangerous weapons, and mental illness are the band-aid treatment rather than the radical surgery required. The problem with the real treatment is admitting that it involves us changing – and changing in ways that involve us being more outward focused in ways that are self-sacrificing. Not fun – for me or you.

P.S. I’m not saying I am opposed to legislation regarding assault weapons. Honestly, I have no opinion. On the one hand, I see that assault weapons can allow one to kill faster. On the other hand, I think several smaller capacity weapons carried simultaneously would accomplish the same effect and with less difficulty in concealing them. Assault weapons seem more advantageous for individuals involved in violence that isn’t hidden – and this usually isn’t the case with these sorts of shootings – hiding the fact that one is carrying weapons is paramount for these individuals as they infiltrate places of safe haven.

Why You REALLY Don’t Need That Verizon FiOS Upgrade

In February I’ll be transitioning from Cairn University (Systems Administrator) to Calvary Community Church (Pastor). This has numerous implications – one being that I will no longer have a Cairn University cell phone. So, tonight, I decided to look into some of my options.

I already have Verizon (through Cairn) for my cell and also have Verizon FiOS at my home. Why not check if Verizon offers a bundle of wireless and FiOS? Maybe I could save a few bucks!

I used live chat on Verizon’s website to speak with a representative who informed me:

“You can bundle your verizon wireless service with Verizon residential services but for that you need to have double play and your Internet plan should be 50/25 Mbps or above.”

Well, if I have to pay more to get the wireless bundle so I can save money….err…I don’t think that is going to end up saving me money, so I said no thanks. I was then told that my plan was a “very old one” and that I should consider upgrading – because “your speed will increase and you can save a lot of time.” Yes, we’ll be coming back to that statement in a few minutes…but let us finish the story first.

The representative convinced me just to see what the upgrade price was – I agreed. Right now I pay around $60 for 10 Mbps (download) and 2 Mbps (upload). For $80/mo. I could get Verizon Fios Quantum which would give me 50 Mbps (download) 25 Mbps (upload) speeds.

I still wasn’t interested – so the representative tried one last pitch, “Your current plan is very old and no longer offered by Verizon so it is advisable to upgrade your internet plan.” Ohh, my.

Well my non-technical friends, let me explain to you why this is a load of hogwash, why you probably don’t need the service levels you currently have from Verizon, and why you almost certainly shouldn’t be upgrading your service at all!

Why You Don’t Need More Mbps…

Let us say you buy a car. It can go 200 mph, and lets assume that there are no speed limits. You still never get your car past 125 mph, b/c it just becomes unmanageable and you’d end up swerving off the road and dying. Realistically, you usually travel around 80 mph and oftentimes you are only going 35 mph. It is cool to tell your friends, “Hey, my car can go 200 mph” but it really doesn’t affect your day-to-day life…other than the fact that you are much poorer due to increased car payments!

It is similar with internet speeds. There is a cool factor to having really fast internet speeds – but there is very little practical use for them for the average consumer, small, or even medium business.

For example, lets say that you have six people in your household and each of you is simultaneously watching Hulu at the exact same moment (video is one of the heavier bandwidth consumers on the internet). The average bandwidth used by Hulu per person is 700 kbps * 6 = 4200 kbps. Now, mbps is simply 1000 kbps[1], so altogether all six people would be using 4.2 mbps. So what exactly is that other 45 mbps Verizon is offering you doing? That is right NOTHING!

Who Needs This Much Bandwidth?

I’m an IT guy. Compared to most people I consume a LOT of bandwidth. I have five computers scattered throughout the house. I use auto-syncing software to automatically sync my files across multiple computers constantly, I usually have twenty or thirty tabs open in my web browsers, and I frequently add a Hulu or YouTube video on top of that. How much bandwidth am I using? Lets put it this way: I’ll rarely if ever hit the cap on my account.

There are certain, very limited cases in which you might want this much bandwidth, for example:

  • If you are continuously transferring very large files across the internet (e.g. at a business that is web-based and deals with images or videos that they are constantly sending to others).
  • If you have dozens or hundreds of individuals logged onto your network at any given moment.
  • If you are running intense computational software that continuously communicates with remote servers.

Here are instances where you don’t need this much bandwidth:

  • Playing video games (yes, yes, even your new-fangled games).
  • Watching videos.
  • Browsing the internet.
  • Checking your email.
  • Checking Facebook.
  • Doing all of these things at the same time.

My recommendation: Get the lowest speed possible from Verizon for FiOS you can, and don’t ever upgrade your service unless you REALLY need to.

Most likely if you are experiencing speed issues it is for another reason than that you have saturated the bandwidth available to you. For example:

  • Your computer is old and slow (buy a new one).
  • Your child is downloading illegal bittorrents (you can download legal bittorrents, and you can also put a cap on how much data bittorrent will use).
  • Your computer has been infested by viruses which are using your machine to send out spam emails or attack foreign countries’ websites.

If you are wondering if you need to upgrade your internet service, leave me a comment below with your situation and I’ll give you my honest opinion.

This Ain’t the Only Game in Town

While what Verizon is doing is frustrating, they aren’t the only folks in town playing this game with consumers. Most internet service providers do this sort of upselling and overselling. They prey on those who don’t have a deep knowledge of technology – which coincidentally is oftentimes those of us who can least afford extra expenses.

But this is also a common practice in computer sales. I see this very frequently with hard drives. A hard drive’s size determines how many pictures of your kid, how many Celine Dion songs, how many old episodes of MASH, you can store on your hard drive at any one time. So, manufacturers sell you a 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive in your computer. It is unlikely you’ll ever use even half of it!

Not only that, but that big hard drive will make your computer run faster right? Nope. Most likely it will run slower. Why? Because in order to give you that big hard drive at a low price they gave you a slow hard drive. This means your computer begins feeling sluggish much sooner and you end up buying a replacement or getting unnecessary upgrades – all b/c the hard drive you bought is too big for your needs and runs slower than your needs.

Concluding Thoughts

Businesses should make their money from offering a product that has worth to the consumer. Businesses should seek to serve the consumer, not exploit them. Currently, many businesses in the U.S. and around the world exploit their customers – and yes, Verizon, I’m pointing my finger at you!

  1. [1]Okay geeks, I know, I’m simplifying.

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln (Author: Catherine Clinton).

Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just finished Catherine Clinton‘s tome on Mrs. Mary Lincoln, (titled simply Mrs. Lincoln: A Life) First Lady and wife of President Abraham Lincoln. The text clocks in at 336 pages, followed by around sixty pages of footnotes. The work is readable, though a bit plodding at times. Its strengths are focused in a few key areas:

  • The work talks about Abraham Lincoln as well as Mary, providing a good overview of the lives of both.
  • The work brings in interesting topics about the era as they relate to Mary Lincoln, providing insights into the 19th century in addition to its portrait of Mary Lincoln.
  • The work attempts to be balanced in its portrayal of Mary – showing both her strengths and weaknesses.

My biggest complaint with the work is the rare occurrence (two or three times) of French in the text (without a translation). This seems unnecessary for a work which appears popular rather than academic (though it is certainly scholarly).

Also, at times Catherine makes statements about Mary Lincoln which seem like conjecture. She posits what Mary was thinking or feeling in certain situations. I expect this comes from Catherine’s thorough knowledge of Mary Lincoln – but still, it feels a bit tentative at times.

Overall, a worthwhile read. Provides fascinating insights into spiritualism and mental illness in the 19th century.

Newsweek Writes Sensational Stories to Sell Magazines?

Battles in Medieval: Total War
Battles in Medieval: Total War can have thousands of men on a single battlefield (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charity sent in a donation to NPR, which we both enjoy, and as a thank you gift they gave us a subscription to Newsweek. We had unsubscribed from Newsweek some time ago due to the rapidly decreasing quality of the content…but I figured I’d take another browse. The new magazine is certainly lighter and the articles are shorter…I’m wondering other than the fact that it finds its way into my mailbox why I’d want to read anything in it more than the high-quality articles found across the blogosphere.

Fast forward to June 18th, 2012 issue and the article “Zombie Apocalypse” by Tony Dokoupil. The sub-title, “Could the Internet bring on a face-eating epidemic?” If you would, allow me to dissect this article and its horrible atrocity against good reporting. Mr. Dokoupil, I trust you are able to write articles of much higher quality than this, and I am saddened that I need even write a response to such an article.

The Internet Makes Us Psychotic

Using reports from Susan Greenfield and Will Self the article suggests that psychosis is fostered by internet use. A brief statement at the end of the paragraph pushes us back to reality, “Does the Internet cause insanity? No. But for some vulnerable souls, it may excite their already destructive states of mind.” But the entire paragraph pushes us towards the conclusion that if internet use in itself doesn’t foster psychosis, it at least increases the risk of violent behavior by individuals with psychotic symptoms.

I would suggest a more balanced paragraph might have explained that researched is currently being done to explore how the internet affects the brain. There is some consensus that it does affect our brains – but there is little consensus at this juncture on whether these effects are positive or negative.

For example, individuals no longer need to remember as much content – b/c content can be easily discovered using Google and similar services. This is similar to the decrease in content requirements which would have occurred with the availability of books, where previously entire books were memorized on occasion to retain the content.

One could say the lack of content knowledge is a detriment – but perhaps (and I think it is) being counter-balanced by increases in critical and analytical thinking skills – e.g. intuitive problem solving abilities.

Rocco Magnotta – Social-Media “Whore”

The article continues on, drawing connections between Rocco Magnotta’s cannibalism and his extreme social media usage. I would suggest his extreme social media usage was likely caused by extreme feelings of isolation, depression, low self-esteem, or so on. That is, the social media extremism (over-utilization) was a result of his issues rather than the cause of the issues. He may have found himself unable to secure the attention he desired through regular interactions on social media (as he had already found himself unable to achieve via “real life interactions”) and thus saw the need to escalate to increasingly violent actions in order to secure attention and increase his self-perception of being unique and valuable.

One could argue that the social media use may have delayed his violent actions. When he was no longer able to secure the necessary boost to self-esteem in real life he shifted to virtual life – and this worked for a while…but since the issue in these cases is essentially the individual’s own self-perception rather than external individual’s provision of appropriate affirmation, he would and did encounter a time when social media was not adequate for boosting his self-perception, and thus the movement to cannibalism.

Anders Behring Breivik – World of Warcraft

Then there is the instance of Anders, the now infamous Norwegian who killed seventy-seven people. Dokoupil writes that he performed “…daily training on the shooting game World of Warcraft…” I don’t play World of Warcraft (WoW), but I do know that it is not a “shooting game” in the sense most people conceptualize shooting games. It is a MMORPG (massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-game)…as such it focuses on challenges, adventures, roles, interactions, plot development, and yes – combat. But the combat is not primarily “shooting” and certainly not in the modern sense one intuits (guns). A true shooting game would be Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Halo, and so on.

I don’t know whether Anders virtual and real lives fused – though I suppose this is possible. I once had a childhood friend who could not distinguish between realities…but he didn’t kill anyone over it. That said, if he did fuse realities, I would have expected Anders to have dressed up in medieval outfits and used a more primeval weapon to murder…which in this case would have been advantageous, since he certainly wouldn’t have been able to kill seventy-seven people with a low-tech weapon like he did with a GUN.

Violence in Video Games

I don’t play a lot of video games. When I do play video games they are almost always turn-based war games simulating historical time-periods. I enjoy recreating historical experiences and consider the games a learning experience as well as relaxing and entertaining. Ask me how I know more about the geography of the world than your average joe and I’ll report it was due to an old game called Empires. Ask me how I know about the geography of Europe, the Middle East, the United States – I’d say various World War II games, Medieval: Total War, and various Civil War games. Ask me how I know the names of commanders, of ancient weapons, about when clocks where invented or how horrible the devastation of the black plague was and I’ll reply in the same manner. Of course, I’ve also ready a LOT, but games help me “memorize” locations, situations, and so on in ways that a text alone can’t.

Sorry, ran off on a bit of a rabbit trail there – back to violence in video games. I’m not a fan of violent portrayals in video games. I find it disturbing that some games are created to allow individuals to play as the “bad guys” – and I don’t mean an anti-hero, but real “bad guys” doing really bad actions – raping, torturing, and graphically murdering. I don’t think there needs to be nearly the level of violence in video games in general as there is…imho, the attraction to video games is the challenge rather than the graphics (ala Minecraft’s success).

But, I’d also suggest that we don’t have a firm cause-effect link between what people play (in video games) and how they act in real life. I’d suggest that there are probably stronger corollaries between parental attention to children and their life actions. Sure, kids may play extremely violent video games, but I have to ask, where are the parents in the first place? Why is the child sitting inside playing video games all day anyways?

Conclusion

This article lacks merit and spreads FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt)….something we definitely don’t need. I’d suggest that publishers and reporters need to take a deep look inside themselves and ponder, “Am what I’m publishing and writing going to cause a zombie apocalypse?” Yeah, I don’t think it will either…but perhaps it is more likely than the internet or video games!

P.S.

I do support ESRB ratings on video games and offering similar penalties as for selling cigarettes to individuals who sell underage individuals high-maturity ESRB rated games.

I am open to other ways in which we can curb the use or overuse of the internet and violent video games by children and teenagers while maintaining individual freedom and constitutional rights.

The Cost of Our Purchases…

Image representing iPad
Image via CrunchBase

What is the expenditure in human life and quality to provide us with the American dream? I’d like to recommend Steven Musil’s article “Putting a human cost on the iPad” over at CNET. This post is based on a much more extensive investigative report just released by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza over at the New York Times. If you want the short version – see Musil’s article, for all the gory details see Duhigg and Barboza’s article.

Both look at the topic of working conditions in the factories that produce much of our technological gadgets (and this extends far beyond Apple‘s iPad including also devices by companies such as HP and Dell). Child labor, unsanitary working conditions, slavish hours, and explosions that have cost lives are some of the issues currently coming to the surface within these factories.

I’m not suggesting folks who own an iPad are bad…I’ve owned or do own products by Apple, HP, Dell, and so on. What I am saying is that now that the issue has been raised we need to bring it more to the front of our consciousness and advocate on behalf of the oppressed. I’m glad Apple has taken some steps in the right direction – but pressure needs to continue, and not just on Apple.

In the Scriptures James tells us (5:1-6), “1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! 4 Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.” (New American Standard Bible)

We do not directly profit (at least most of us) from exploitation, but we oftentimes indirectly benefit from it. I am challenged and humbled to consider that this passage addresses us. “You have lived luxuriously on the earth…” Ouch. That hits a little too close to home when I think about someone dying to bring me a “more affordable” electronic device.

Book Review: The Money Men (H.W. Brands).

Portrait of Nicholas Biddle by William Inman
Nicholas Biddle, Image via Wikipedia

I’d never heard of Henry William Brands before reading The Money Men. Despite the late introduction, I suspect that his books will now appear high on my reading list – if they are even able to approach the fascinating quality of this small volume. I do not recall the last time I have read a non-fiction book as voraciously as I have consumed this petite volume – in fact, there are only a few fiction thrillers I can think of which I have consumed in such a compressed fashion.

The Money Men is part of the Atlas Books / W.W. Norton Enterprise series in which “distinguished writers tell the stories of the dynamic innovators and the compelling ideas that create new institutions, new ways of doing business and creating wealth, even new societies.” I will be keeping my eyes open for other volumes in this series as well – hoping that they compare to The Money Men. Especially peaking my interest are Rich Cohen‘s The Record Men: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock & Roll, Tim ParksMedici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteen-Century Florence, and James Buchan‘s The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas.

But let us move on to a discussion of the book proper. It was published in 2006 and is a small hardcover book with attractive dustcover. Contains a total of 239 pages, but the first 206 contain the main narrative with additional resources filling the remaining pages – endnotes, a list of suggested further reading, and the indexes, etc.

The volume consists of a Prologue and Epilogue and five long chapters in-between. The first chapter entitled “The Aristocracy of Capital” discusses the nature of money and financial policy during and following the American Revolutionary War with a significant emphasis on  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Chapter 2 continues the thread by telling the events that led up to and the consequences of Andrew Jackson’s decision to end the national bank and Nicholas Biddle‘s (Bank President) extreme efforts to ensure the bank’s survival.

Chapter 3 tells the story of the American Civil War and how it changed the face of financial policy – in part as a consequence of a stronger federal government and the needs of wartime finance.

Chapter 4 tells the story of the severe speculation in gold in the post-Civil War era under President Ulysses S. Grant and Chapter 5 concludes the story by recording the times of J.P. Morgan and his significant effects upon finance.

The volume reads in a very easy manner – it is both professional and yet accessible. At the same time, my endeavors to understand financial history and policy are still not complete and while The Money Men has filled in some gaps, it does not provide the complete picture I had hoped to garner. That is not to say anything negative of the volume – for it is not a primer in financial history or policy.

I oftentimes judge the quantity of a volume on several factors, such as:

  • How well the volume holds my attention.
  • How quickly I read the volume.
  • How much new or interesting information the volume provides.
  • The clarity with which the author writes.
  • The extent to which I underline, highlight, and write comments or other notations into the text.

By all of these measures, H.W. Brand’s The Money Men deserves the highest praise. The one thing I would like to see is an article by Mr. Brands analyzing the recent financial recession (2008 and on) in light of the historical story he weaves in The Money Men.

Brands remains largely neutral throughout his work and yet in the Epilogue I thought I detected an echo of approval for the economic system at the conclusion of his history. Is this a correct interpretation of his Epilogue? If so, could Brands provide us with additional insights or reflections based on recent events?

For anyone who is interested in history, finance, or politics, I would add this to your “must read” list. It is an excellent and fascinating read!