Friday, March 31

Internet noise

The United States is moving ahead to allow internet providers to sell customer browsing history and related data - and the savviest internet users want to thwart the sell-off and warp the product.

There are two approaches: block your provider from viewing data or overwhelm the provider with data. 

VPNs  - or virtual private networks - block some of what the provider might see, and those with access to work or school VPNs are making a point of signing in every time they start to browse. "While VPNs are an important privacy tool, they have limitations," explains Klint Finley for Wired. "The most obvious: You need to trust your VPN provider not to track you and sell your data itself."

The second approach is directing your browser to head to all kinds of bizarre internet sites. "Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to let internet service providers sell your browsing data on the open market," explains Emily Dreyfuss, also for Wired. "This decision angered a lot of people, including programmer Dan Schultz. After reading about the vote on Twitter at 1 AM, he turned off Zelda and coded this ghost currently opening tabs on my machine."

So I headed right for the little ghost machine that's called Internet Noise, clicked the button and watch a parade of nonsensical sites, one every few seconds: godmother soap, macrame basket, wood squeegee, silvar dollar blueberry, venom catamaran, the hyena, concrete option, porthole chest and on and on.

Nothing too incriminating there for insurers, financiers, advertisers, campaign organizers or other creeps who want to accumulate, categorize and sell our data. The terms are certainly not as incriminating as those used to research my murder mysteries - especially the two set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit.  


On the bottom of  the bare bones Internet Noise page created by Schultz are five suggestions for protecting privacy: install https, donate to the Electronic Freedom Frontier, consider Tor or using a VPN, or install Privacy Badger.

And don't forget to scream at your provider. Give them a call and find out what data they are collecting. Try to opt out - but don't trust them. More articles will be coming out about which providers offer the most privacy protections - and I doubt Comcast will make the list after donating to politicians to get this legislation passed. With luck, some providers may even discover that ensuring privacy offers a big competitive edge.

The Scream in pastel, 1895, by Edvard Munch, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. 

Wednesday, March 22

Judgment

Evil has more than one form. It's  purpose can be to control or disrupt, and emotions encompass resentment, fear and humiliation. Much depends on motivation whether greed, jealousy, envy or anger as well as methods like favoritism, arrogance, psychological or physical harm. The combinations are endless and can spread throughout a community, with many throwing up their hands and suggesting there is no way to stop the crimes. And so, evil becomes a collective force. 

Still, each evil deed - either to commit or resist evil - is an individual act. 

A restaurant has fired a waiter at Saint Marc restaurant in Huntington, California after he asked four women for proof residency, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Journalist Christine Mai-Duc describes the stunned silence of the diners for the Los Angeles Times: "'It was kind of hard to process because we’ve never experienced this,' said [Brenda] Carrillo, 23, who lives in Santa Ana and works for an organization that provides social services to families and youth... Diana Carrillo said the encounter left all of them shaken. 'I’ve never felt so judged in my life…. It sends a chill through your entire body.'"

A Guardian article ties the incident of blatant prejudice with two acts of violence committed by people opposed to undocumented migrants and take vigilante action: the shooting of two green-card holders from India in a Kansas bar and a Sikh man shot in Seattle after being told to "go back to his own country." . Pundits and politicians whip up anger about social problems, arguing that legal systems and proper authorities do not do enough. Vigilantes respond by taking the law in to their own hands to destroy what they deem as evil and, in turn, often become evil themselves. They are impatient to fix social or legal systems and, in civilized communities, are prone to error.

Fear of Beauty examines the tendencies of belligerent evil in an Afghan village and Allure of Deceit explores a more quiet form of evil linked to the urge to do good by an individual based in the United States.

Image is from Descent into Hell, circa 1530, by Domenico Beccafumi, and Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 16

Discrimination fears

Americans, always ready for a celebration, will don the color green and join parades and parties on March 17, to commemorate Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Many who celebrate won't realize just how much the Irish were despised a century ago, suggests "The Wearing of the Green," an exhibition at the Eli and Edyth Broad Museum of Michigan State University.

"Such eagerness to celebrate Irish cultural identity has not always existed in this country," notes the introduction. "During the pre- and post-Civil War years, Irish immigration reached unprecedented levels, and with this emerged the stereotyped image of the heavily accented, irresponsible, inebriated, quick-tempered 'redhead,' typically named Paddy or Bridget. Supported by 19th-century social-scientific theories of evolution, and embodying conventional Victorian-American ethnocentric views, cartoons and caricatures further portrayed the Irish as childlike, apelike, or even subhuman."

Old prejudices faded with time and Irish Americans also abandoned some traditions  and assimilated.

The earliest Irish immigrants were mostly Protestant who were followed by less wealthy Catholics. Ireland's population swelled in the 19th century, and by 1830, and limited land combined with unsustainable farming and tenant arrangements could not support the population. "It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845-1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States," explains Brendan A. Rapple for Countries and their Cultures and Everyculture.com. "As many as 1.5 million individuals perished of starvation and the diverse epidemics that accompanied the famine. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mid-1840s until 1860 about 1.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States..."

Rapple goes on to describe the stereotypes and cartoons of Irish as "pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages" - with widespread disdain for Catholicism, large families and a willingness to accept low wages in the face of prejudice.

Cartoons disparaging the immigrants were common in the 1800s and early 1900s. "Produced for wide public dissemination, these images can therefore be understood as social barometers, providing glimpses into the American cultural scene of their day and the often negative stereotyping of various ethnic groups," notes the introduction to "The Wearing of the Green."

Discrimination was blatant during the 19th century with "many ads for employment were accompanied by the order "NO IRISH NEED APPLY," explains Victoriana Magazine. "Nativists reacted to increased Irish immigration with violent riots and increased demands for limits on immigrants' rights.  These nativist groups considered the immigrants as a threat and regarded the Catholicism of the Irish as an alien and rebellious religion and culture."

Of course, the history of a harsh welcome for the Irish immigrants invites comparisons to receptions for modern immigrants and refugees, especially those fleeing the civil war in Syria. "In the Past Lane" recalls a time when Americans regarded some Irish immigrants as terrorists. The Given Day, a memorable novel by Dennis Lehane captures the mood about immigrant communities and anarchy in the early 20th century.

Today, more than 32 million, or 10 percent, of Americans claim Irish ancestry, according to the US Census Bureau, and despite the surname, yes, I am one. More than 35 percent have completed higher education. "The world's first St. Patrick's Day parade occurred on March 17, 1762, in New York City, featuring Irish soldiers serving in the English army," notes Sean Dunne for Irish Central. 

The United States has more than 3.6 million people with Arab ancestry, which encompasses immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Moroccan, Iraq, Jordan or Yemen and represents a little more than 1 percent of the population, reports the Arab American Institute. Like the Irish Americans, Arab Americans have a median income that is slightly higher than the nation as a whole, and 45 percent have completed higher education.

Many Americans have learned from history and protest any form of discrimination. But not all.

"We live in an era that has unleashed all manner of odious, racist rhetoric," writes Francine Prose for the Guardian. "The bar for what retains the power to shock us is being raised daily. But some comments still cut deep. 'Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,' said Iowa Representative Steve King over the weekend."

King has since insisted that his comment was about "western civilization" and not race. He worries about a changing culture from the increasing numbers of Hispanics, Asians and other immigrants, too. A century ago, the Irish were "somebody else's babies." But the greatness of western civilization is epitomized by the regard for all humanity, regardless of where those people might live on this planet of ours. Especially here in the United States, we and our ancestors are someone else's babies.
  
Cartoon of "poor house" of Irish immigrants, courtesy of Victoriana magazine. US Marines treat an Afghan infant in Delaram, courtesy of the US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 7

Lessons for all

Many of the more than 8,700 documents on CIA hacking tools released by WikiLeaks are technical. But not all. Among the files is a quick summary of Practices of an Agile Developer by Venkat Subramaniam and Andy Hunt, a book readily available on Amazon. The advice is timely and could be useful for any leader. 

Practice #1 – Work for Outcome

Blame does not fix bugs. "Instead of pointing fingers, point to possible solutions.  It is the positive outcome that counts."

Practice #2 – Quick Fixes Become Quicksand

Beware of land mines such as quick fixes and shallow hacks Do not code in isolation to ensure more than one person knows about a certain piece of the project...

Practice #3 – Criticize Ideas, Not People

Negativity kills innovation... Take pride in arriving at a solution rather than providing whose idea is better. "There is no absolute best, only better.  Despite the popularity of the term, there is no such thing as 'best practices,' only better practices in a particular situation."

Practice #4 – Damn the Torpedoes, Go Ahead

You definitely need to read this section for yourself - basically admit your mistakes and back up your opinions with facts (pros and cons). "Do what is right.  Be honest, and have the courage to communicate the truth.  It may be difficult at times; that is why it takes courage...."

Practice #5 – Keep Up with Change

Learn iteratively and incrementally. Get the latest buzz.... Read voraciously. "Keep up with changing technology.  You do not have to become an expert at everything, but stay aware of where the industry is headed, and plan your career and projects accordingly."

Practice #6 – Invest in Your Team

"Raise the bar for you and your team.  Use brown-bag sessions to increase everyone's knowledge and skills and help bring people together.  Get the team excited about technologies or techniques that will benefit your project."

Practice #7 – Know When to Unlearn

"One of the foundations of agility is coping with change.  Given that change is so constant and pervasive, does it make any sense to keep applying the same techniques and tools you have always used?"  Expensive mental models are not discarded lightly: "Learn the new; unlearn the old.  When learning a new technology, unlearn any old habits that might hold you back.  After all, there is much more to a car than just a horseless carriage."

Practice #8 – Question Until You Understand

 The best question to ask – Why ...? "Keep asking Why.  Do not just accept what you are told at face value.  Keep questioning until you understand the root of the issue."

Practice #9 – Feel the Rhythm

Agile projects have rhythms and cycles.... Time boxing – setting a near-term, hard deadline for an activity that cannot be extended. "Tackle tasks before they bunch up.  It's easier to tackle common recurring tasks when you maintain steady, repeatable intervals between events."

Chapter 4 – Delivering What Users Want

Quotable Quote – "In warfare, as in software development, the situation can change quickly and drastically.  Sticking to yesterday's plan despite a change in circumstances is a recipe for disaster."

Practice #10 – Let Customers Make Decisions

Decide what you should not decide: "You do not want to have to make decisions that are business critical by yourself.  After all, it is not your business."
"Let your customers decide.  Developers, managers, or business analysts should not make business-critical decisions.  Present details to business owners in a language they can understand, and let them make the decision."

Practice #11 – Let Design Guide, Not Dictate

 Design should be only as detailed as needed to implement. Strategic versus tactical design – strategic is the up-front design before requirements are known "A good design is a map; let it evolve.  Design points you in the right direction.  It is not the territory itself; it should not dictate the specific route.  Do not let the design (or the designer) hold you hostage. "'No Big Design Up Front' does not mean no design.  It just means do not get stuck in a design task without validating it with real code.  Diving into code with no idea of a design is just as dangerous.  Diving into code is fine for learning or prototyping, as long as you throw the code away afterward."

"White boards, sketches, and Post-It notes are excellent design tools.  Complicated modeling tools have a tendency to be more distracting than illuminating."

Practice #12 – Justify Technology Use
  • Blindly picking a framework is like having kids to save taxes. Pick technology and frameworks based on statements like – "It is too hard to ..." or "It takes too long to ..."
  • Does it really solve the problem?
  • Will you be tied to this technology forever?  When technology changes, will you be able to change the design to match technology?
  • What about maintenance costs?
  • Do not build what you can download – reinventing the wheel
  • "Choose technology based on need.  Determine your needs first, and then evaluate the use of technologies for those specific problems.  Ask critical questions about the use of any technology, and answer them genuinely."
Practice #13 – Keep It Releasable

  • Checked-in code is always ready for action... Check out the latest source.  Run your local tests.  Check in.
  • "Keep your project releasable at all times.  Ensure that the project is always compilable, runnable, tested, and ready to deploy at a moment's notice."

Practice #14 – Integrate Early, Integrate Often
  • Never accept big-bang integration
  • "Integrate early, integrate often.... start integration early and continue to do it regularly."
  • "Successful integration means that all the unit tests continue to pass.  As per the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm."
  • "For prototypes and experimental code, you may want to work in isolation and not waste effort on integration.  But do not stay isolated too long; once you learn from the experience, work toward integration quickly...."
Photo of young girls learning to use computers in Eastern Afghanistan, courtesy of Todd Huffman and Wikimeda Commons.