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Another Tedious Rant on HTML-Styled Email

June 26, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Our college is moving toward using the now-common practice of sending HTML-styled email as newsletters from Departments to keep alumni and others up-to-date on current events. I expressed resignation about this practice and was asked to clarify what I was objecting to. Here's what I wrote:

It's the idea of sending html formatted email. This has become a common practice and companies like MailChimp and ConstantContact encourage people to do this because you can collect metrics: they put web-bugs and create fake links in the email that you can use to estimate how many people opened the email or clicked on links, which is very persuasive to people looking for ways to measure the impact of communications. But a primary way people get compromised is by getting an email that *looks* like it came from your bank or retailer -- or college/university -- that has links that install malware or lead you to disclose your login information. These links are easier to detect if you're making a decision based on the URL, but email programs like Outlook or Mail.app (especially the versions on the iPhone and iPad) make it difficult or impossible to inspect URLs before clicking on them. And they load URLs (for graphics and stylesheets and web-bugs) that disclose information even if you just open the email.

When people ask me about security, I always tell people to set their email client not to look at html email and not to click on links unless they've looked carefully at the URL and made sure it's going where they think it is. So, for example, when I get an email with a link that claims it's going to "The College of Natural Sciences", but is actually:
http://www.alumniconnections.com/links/link.cgi?l=5605708&h=260505&e=UMS-20140422160344
I don't click on that link. It's probably OK -- it is from the CNS newsletter in April. But if I click on it, I'll disclose information that perhaps I don't want to disclose. And I don't know anything about "alumniconnections.com". If I want to go to a page at CNS, I'll go to the CNS site and find it, thank you very much.

Sorry for the long answer. As I say, this has simply become an accepted practice in marketing -- and I expect they have the metrics to show it works. :-/ But from a security standpoint, it's a disaster. It gives malicious entities a style sheet for how to make an email that *looks* like it was sent from the institution. And it trains your end-users to click on insecure links in email. And so, although these techniques may work for you, they will also work for the bad guys too.

Making progress on our Makerspace

June 22, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Since the launch of Makers at Amherst Media, we've been trying to maintain momentum. I continued Friday meetings at Amherst Media and we continued to get the word out and to seek funding. Late in the spring, we were notified we had received a Public Service Endowment Grant. This led to our project being cited in a letter to President Obama from the Chancellor on the occasion of the National Day of Making and subsequently appearing in the materials distributed by the White House after the event.

Jim Lescault suggested launching a new cable access program to commemorate the Day of Making and, going forward, provide a way to highlight and celebrate events in our Makerspace. So, with Nick Ring as Director, we shot our first episode which started running on Wednesday. And now I need to come up with ideas for more episodes going forward.

We're hoping to run a couple of workshops yet this summer and then more through the fall. Things are starting to come together and I'm hopeful that we've hit the right moment to catch the cresting wave of interest and support for building a Makerspace. I've been trying to encourage everyone to envision what we would build if resources were no object. Here's my idea:

We should build a co-working/business incubator space with a big common workspace, as a Makerspace which we could use for workshops and drop-ins. Attached would be a set of carrels, cubes, and small offices which entrepreneurs could lease to launch small business ventures. We could provide a spectrum of resources for everything from the casual hobbyist to the serious entrepreneur. I see this fitting perfectly into the new Amherst Media building.

I've pitching this idea and trying to persuade people that this is possible. We're not there yet, but we're "Making" progress. We can do this.

Observations of a Balanced Aquarium

June 21, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

A couple of months ago, I described my idea to have students create balanced aquaria and since then I've set one up and have been collecting observations so I have some idea about what to expect if I have students do it. It's been fascinating.

I initially went up to Pelham to start building my aquarium. There's a wonderful little vernal pond I know up there -- almost more of a vernal puddle. It just a depression full of wet leaves with lots of copepods and other interesting critters. I figured it might be a good place to get the decomposer part of the ecosystem. There's also a reservoir that I thought I might be able to find some nice filamentous algae in. But I had forgotten that up there, the water is practically just rain water and the reservoir is basically oligotrophic. I could see a few newts, but no algae at all.

I drove next to Podick Cole Santuary, which is surrounded by agricultural fields and has a beaver pond (with attendant swamps and marshes). I found some nice scummy floating filamentous algae and scooped it up.

I had constructed the apparatus, filled it Poland Spring water, then I added some leaves and water from the vernal pool and some water and scum from the beaver marsh, sealed up the top, and I was in business:

I observed copepods and ostracods immediately. There were some collembola on the water surface. I think there was a big planarian, although I couldn't get a good look at it: It might have been a small leach. After a few days, I saw a small dragonfly nymph.

The data are complicated and interesting. The program I'm using to collect the data is pretty minimal: eventually I want to have something set up that will send all the data to a server that aggregate and summarize everything. But for the moment I'm just collecting it over the serial monitor of the Galileo.

At first I thought the big spikes in CO2 were happening at night due to biological activity and when they stopped it was because the copepods had died. But I saw that there were still some copepods, although it was clear that there were fewer. As I caught more glimpses of the nymph (who seems bigger) it now seems more likely he's been eating them. But at first, I didn't have reliable time-stamps on the data and, once I did, I found that the big spikes were happening during the day and the variation was correlated with something else: warm sunny days. When the sun shines in, it warms up the aquarium, which reduces the solubility of gas in water and drives the CO2 in the atmosphere, where it gets measured.

Around this time, I also noticed something new: snails. At first they were tiny -- smaller than sesame seeds. They would move around on the inside clearing off the algae and aufwuchs growing on the inside of the bottle. And they grew as well: now they're peppercorn or caper-sized. (Note to self: encourage your students to actually measure things they observe, rather than to simply use cooking analogies). As they grew, they became more efficient at hoovering up all of the algae. And then the CO2 really began to spike.

The spikes of CO2 got higher and higher and higher. I began needing a log axis to plot the data. I showed them to Phil who asked "What does it mean to have more than a million parts-per-million?" Good question, I thought. I did some investigating it turns out that the sensor is really only valid between 400 and 10,000 ppm. So it's not clear what those spikes mean -- if anything. Probably, I should simply truncate the data at 10,000.

The newest excitement has been seeing a slime mold (or molds) active. I recognized it immediately as some kind of slime mold, confirmed by @Genevieve.

It moved around, but also seemed to split up and then rejoin again. I shot a few time-lapse sequences (not really good enough quality to share), but which confirmed that it was moving around in real-time.

I had seen only a very small number of copepods in recent days: almost none. But then on Thursday or Friday, I noticed a vast number of really tiny copepods. There must have been a big hatch of eggs. I also noticed the slime mold looking like it was growing fruiting structures:

It's been a fascinating natural history project -- for me anyway. And I think my students will enjoy it too. I've gained a lot of insight regarding the additional tools and resources we might want to put in place to make the project really work well. I've realized that it might be really helpful to have quantitative light sensors in front of and behind the aquarium to measure optical loss. It might be hard to calibrate that, however. Having a temperature sensor seems pretty critical. Those are cheap. I also want to look into making adaptors to use cell phones as microscopes: if you could just press those up to the bottle to take pictures it might be really helpful for collecting imagery and trying to identify what we're seeing inside.

The Death of Natural History

June 21, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I read with interest the post Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers by Jennifer Frazer. This is a topic I've written about several times as well and the general thrust of the article mirrors the experience of my life almost perfectly. I originally went into science wanting to study natural history: I liked catching snakes when I was a kid. When I got to be about a junior in college, I discovered that pursuing a career in the life sciences had basically come to mean studying some molecule in some membrane somewhere and spending your whole life chasing funding to keep your lab afloat. And I said "no thanks" and turned aside.

I still get to do some natural history. I have my students do natural history projects for my writing class. We've mapped the locations of patches of garlic mustard and checked "potential vernal pools" identified by the state GIS system and, last fall, performed a survey of local terrestrial gastropods. Currently, I'm planning to have my students study balanced aquaria this coming fall.

I'm not even the only one in my department. There are a handful of faculty, mostly non-tenure-system faculty, who still engage in some natural history work. But mostly not.

Where I believe the article misses the mark is somehow attributing the decline in natural history to a lack of respect or appreciation of natural history as a topic of study. That's not really what's happened. What really happened was a strangling of the funding for basic science and the conversion of faculty effort and evaluation from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of funding.

This is simply another aspect of the neoliberal framing and capture of our society. Knowledge is no longer valued as an end in itself, but only in terms of its return in dollars. Natural history isn't worth anything unless people are willing to pay for it.

It's the same framing that makes global climate change not worth understanding: as long as the profits (from oil sales, etc) can be privatized and the costs (drowned cities and devastated coastlines) can be commonized, the neoliberal overlords who dole out the dollars have no use for natural history. Indeed, when people care about natural history, they want to conserve nature and stop habitat destruction. How inconvenient!

So painting the issue as merely a sad happenstance completely misses what we need to fix about our society if we hope to fight back against these trends.

With apologies to Emily…

June 14, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

i met an eft
upon the way
beneath a leaden sky
he did not tarry long with me
just bid a curt goodbye

had he but lingered
there with me
i might have stayed awhile
for his cold-blooded honesty
and unimpeachable style

Drupalcon Wraps Up

June 6, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

After the closing session of Drupalcon, we started our last evening with a sprint working on the Amherst Media website. I found and fixed several problems and we identified a code fix that will need to be written. I know *what* needs to be written, but I don't have all the info for how to write it. I'll take a run at it when I get home.

Afterwards, Nick and I had dinner in the hotel. It's a beautiful spot on the 18th floor with a nice view of the skyline, but it was almost totally empty. There is a lot of good food nearby, but it seems a shame to waste the space. We dined by ourselves in a large dining room and enjoyed the view.

We tried out Lyft to get a quick ride over to the Congress Street bridge to see the bats. Lyft is just moving into Austin and is currently battling the entrenched interests that enable taxi service to be a profession that can pay a living wage, rather than an army of contingent freelancers. Currently, to avoid violating the law, you can't pay for the service (although the drivers are getting paid by Lyft). A young woman picked us up within 3 minutes and gave us a friendly, courteous lift to see the bats. I can see that Lyft is going to destroy taxi services, but will in turn get killed by self-driving cars as soon as those become a thing.

Watching the bats is a celebrated event in Austin. Hundreds of people turn out to watch them fly out at night. Last time I had stood down in the park, but this time we stood on the bridge (since I figured that the hundreds of people up there couldn't be wrong). In point of fact, you couldn't see them very well from the bridge. You can't really see them that well from anywhere: they wait until after dark and are themselves dark. You really only get a glimpse that suggests their outline as they fly. We were in fact standing at a great spot and could see gales of bats flitting out along the riverbank. There was a boat with red light illuminating the bats for a river cruise and now and again, you could see how many bats were coming out.

Finally, we participated in Drupal Trivia Night. An MC provided entertaining patter while asking 6 rounds of increasingly obscure questions about Drupal and other CMS technologies. Our team was composed mostly of newbies and we only averaged about 25%. But we weren't worst -- mostly because a couple of other teams seemed to be competing for lowest score.

My initial take on Drupalcon was biased by my experience in the exhibit hall and the first couple of days of the schedule. The longer you wait, however, the more the technical discussions come to the fore. I probably would have had a better experience if I'd simply skipped the presentations and only attended the BoF sessions. But several of the presentations were quite good. And I learned a lot about Drupal and the Drupal community, so I have no regrets about coming -- it was totally worth it.

I was disappointed that the next US Drupalcon is back on the west coast. Since it had been in Portland last year, a lot of us were hoping -- indeed expecting -- an east-coast location next year.

This morning, I fly back just in time for Hack for Western Mass. I'm sad to miss the Drupal code sprints, but will be glad to do my civic hacking for Holyoke too.

Community Media Drupal and Drupalcon

June 4, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

During the weekend preceding Drupalcon Austin, I spent two days closeted with the core developers of Community Media Drupal. I had been aware of the Open Media project, which left off with Drupal 6. The developers that wanted to move to Drupal 7 reworked the project to address a number of limitations, but the project has struggled to clear the last blocking issues to create a release. Stefan Wray wrote up a nice report about our meeting although the stuff I did went under the radar. I had created a patch to fix a problem with the Feeds Cablecast module (and, for my efforts, was made a maintainer and learned how to commit a patch and roll a release). I also found and fixed a persistent bug with the menu display on Safari. I learned a lot and helped move the Amherst Media site forward quite a bit.

Drupalcon has been somewhat less fun/interesting. As an academic, I feel rather out of place. I've been using Drupal for a very long time -- 8 years anyway. But the open source community has evolved a lot. Where it used to be people creating software to "scratch an itch", it's now completely dominated by business people trying to productize everything. And much of it is hype about Drupal 8. Drupal 8 will be Wonderful. Drupal 8 will be Powerful. Drupal 8 will be Restful! Drupal 8 will cure cancer! You should marry Drupal 8 and have its children! It's all kinda creepy.

I've never really liked conferences — even academic ones where I sort of fit in. But I've suddenly realized why: it's because they're not all about me. Maybe someday someone will do a conference that is about me -- with sessions singing my praises and studying my works in awed and reverential tones. I might enjoy that.

Democracy happens

May 11, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

On May 10, 2014, the delegates to annual meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association choose Barbara Madeloni as president. It's hard to overstate the significance of this tectonic shift in the organization.

Every two years, the organization chooses a president by election, but the practice is for the current president to be re-elected for a second term and then, when term limits prevent running again, for a two-term vice-president to become president. Occasionally there is a challenger, but challengers have usually -- perhaps always -- been defeated. In fact, that's how this whole thing got started, I think.

Several years ago (and if I were a journalist, I would go back and document all this, but I'm not, so these are just my recollections). Several years ago, at MTA annual meeting, the delegates passed a motion calling on the leadership to make no agreement that included high-stakes test scores in teacher evaluation. Then, in January, many local union presidents woke up with their members mobbing them with demands to explain why the press was running articles trumpeting that MTA had signed just such a deal with the Department of Education. Presidents were livid.

This was just one of many defeats that the leadership has tried to explain away as victory: "It's better than it could have been" or "It might have been much worse". There has been a generation-long challenge to public education with teachers being villified and the institution so badly damaged that the whole idea of public education is being brought into question. It's been a death of a thousand cuts.

I recall someone offering themselves as a challenger for president that year and being defeated. The ground wasn't yet prepared for a change of direction.

Activists have been trying for years to get the MTA to move toward an organizing model -- to activate the rank-and-file membership to stand up and demand change -- but with little success. When the leadership directly contravened the will of the delegates, a group of people got together and formed Educators for a Democractic Union. Each year since then, they have worked together as a caucus to advocate for a more activist stance. And this year they put forward a candidate for president with a year to really organize.

Barbara Madeloni was a uniquely qualified candidate for the role. As a former high-school teacher, she had credibility with rank-and-file teachers. As a professor, she understood higher ed and could represent faculty. And as someone who'd been driven out of her faculty appointment for challenging the corporate take-over of teacher certification, she offered hope to people daunted by the status quo.

I think her opponent was blindsided and, by the time he realized what was happening, the movement was unstoppable. He, and the rest of the MTA leadership, had simply assumed that he would win. It was his turn. When it became clear that it was actually going to be a contest, it was too late to organize a meaningful campaign. The only message his candidacy presented was more of the same. With one exception: he and several of his supporters expressed outrage over the successful campaign tactics that EDU employed. His campaign speech, which lacked vision and complained about his opponent's tactics, came across as petty and negative.

Barbara did everything right as a candidate: she worked tirelessly on her campaign, visited dozens of local unions, and carefully crafted her campaign message and her speech. She and her campaign advisors spent months honing the campaign speech and measuring every word. She had obviously practiced it and timed it carefully. She had five minutes and she used every second. It was a visionary speech that resonated with the audience and created a sense of optimism that teachers and faculty can aspire to more than watching public education dismantled piece by piece right before our very eyes.

When the vote came in, it wasn't even especially close. She won by 97 votes, or around 7%. Her acceptance speech was also uplifting and acknowledging the hard work to come. She was not elected to be our hero or savior, but rather to kick us in the ass and put us to work on the front lines defending education. It's the only way we're going to win. And if we organize and activate the membership, we can win. We will win.

Educators for a Democratic Union

April 27, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

In 2010, when I attended the MTA Annual Meeting, there was a bitter division between the leadership and rank-and-file members, who felt like they'd been sold out. The leadership had cut a deal with state government to allow the state to complete for "Race to the Top" funds. But the deal, inconveniently, directly abrogated a statement that had been adopted by the previous annual meeting that required the leadership to not sign on to any deal that used student test scores in teacher evaluation.

This was the last straw for many people who have felt that the the MTA does not adequately fight for teacher's interests. Rather than organizing and trying to confront the interests that have been trying to roll back gains that teachers won in the past, they've been focused on minimizing losses. A group of people formed Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) to try to shift MTA toward a stance more focused on organizing and fighting for teachers.

This year, EDU is running a candidate for president: Barbara Madeloni. I've written about her a couple of times already. When she first started running, her candidacy seemed like a long shot. But the response to her at 60 or 70 locals has been overwhelming. She is an outstanding candidate: she has the academic credentials and the street cred and the personal history of standing up to the man.

At the beginning, the MTA leadership seemingly didn't seem take her candidacy very seriously. But as she's gained momentum, they've begun attacking her and trying to emulate the successful characteristics of her campaign.

In addition to supporting Barbara's candidacy, EDU is trying to address the issues directly as well. Teams are drafting new business items to compel the MTA to not back down from supporting retiree health care (where, again, the leadership has tried to cut a deal rather than openly fight for teachers), bilingual education, minimum wage, adjunct faculty, and, once again, the role of high-stakes testing in teaching evaluation and determination of level 4 and level 5 schools.

The last time I attended the annual meeting, I left in disgust with the feeling that ideas were not welcome. With the chance to make a difference, I'm willing to re-engage and try again.

UMass Resource Allocation

April 14, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Since I arrived at UMass Amherst, it has been confronted with stark choices in the face of dramatic budget cuts several times. People still talk about the cuts in the late 80s, before I arrived. And I still vividly remember Chancellor Lombardi describing how he planned to minimize the damage of the cuts he was compelled to make in 2003.

We are not today faced with such stark choices. Instead, we have an opportunity in a moment of relative calm, to reflect on how resources are allocated on campus and what system should be put in place going forward.

Prior to this process, I had little understanding of how resources on campus are actually allocated. That is, I understood that the campus receives revenue from various sources, like the "state allocation" and "tuition retention" and "grants and contracts". And I understood that my department received funds in the form of GOF and faculty lines. In between, were shadowy figures like deans and the provost, who were important somehow, but their actual roles were mysterious to me. And I had little or no knowledge about how my department compared with other departments. Or how the activities of any department connected with those sources of revenue.

After completing the first phase of building a strategic plan for the campus, the chancellor began to lay the groundwork for moving to a new model for resource allocation. Now the Joint Task Force for Resource Allocation (JTFRA) is issuing their report, after several months of work and weeks of public feedback. Their current recommendations are that we continue the process and begin testing "an alternate resource allocation model". This new model will provide a lot more information about how funds are allocated.

There is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about this new model. People worry that this process will inevitably lead to everything being monetized and all decisions being driven by bean counting and the bottom line. That might be true, except for the Strategic Plan we've been building.

Through the strategic plan, we know what we want to do and where we're trying to go. Now we need to figure out how to get there. If all we had was a resource allocation model, we might be tempted to use it to establish our goals. But we already have a plan, well elaborated, that charts the path we want to follow. And the resource allocation model can help us identify the means.

Several years ago, I was in a conversation where one person said, "I don't like to play politics" and another said, "Ah, but that's still playing politics -- that's just playing politics badly." I think the same is true here. Defending the status quo means defending a situation in which you have almost no knowledge of the actual financial situation of the University or the consequences and implications of our actions.

We need to monitor the exploration of resource allocation systems closely. We need to educate ourselves. And we need to ensure that whatever system we put into place provides the information we need to make decisions effectively: this probably means we need more than purely financial data. We need to become and remain engaged in the process. And that is, I think, a key goal of the whole exercise. If we have more information, we can make better decisions.

Poŝtamikoj el pasinteco

April 12, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Hodiaŭ mi ricevis epoŝton de ulo en Connecticut kiu sendis al mi bildojn de letero kiun li trovis inter la paperoj de sia avo. Li klarigis ke sia avo parolis Esperanton kaj biciklis tra Eŭropo en 1931. La letero estis de 1956 kaj li tre volis scii pri kio temas kaj petis min traduki. Jen tio, kion mi tradukis:

  Dolni Kounice 21/8/1956

  Estimata sinjoro!

  Mi ricevis vian leteron 20/8, sed tia por kiu vi lin 
  adresatis, jam efektive neloĝis al adreso Dolni Kounice, 
  sed forlasis tian malĝojan monaton 6/3/55 kaj iradis de 
  sian gepatroj en la ĉielo. Kun ŝi fortiris mia lasta 
  bela punkto de mia vivo. Mia fratino estis jam multe 
  jaron malsana kun la galo, kaj maltrankvilo de 
  lastan jaron rapidis ŝia morto.

  Ŝi ofte rememoris vin kio vi faras kaj ĉu vi vivas. Ho, 
  kia ĝojo havis fratino ĉe via memoro!

  Mi estas ankaŭ jam maljuna kaj mi sopiras baldaŭ kunveni 
  de mian karan.

  Pardonu, ke mia letero neestas bone skribita, mi konas 
  malmulte Esperanto, sed mi pensas, vi komprenos tion.

  Salutas vin kore,

Li dankis min pro la traduko kaj diris ke sia avino ĉiam diris ke la avo estis la originala hipio, kiu volis unuigi la mondon per Esperanto kaj arto post la unua mondmilito.

Community Television, Free Software, and Maker/Hacker Communities: Aspirations of Freedom

April 12, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

Below are my remarks from the 2014 Science for the People conference.

ABSTRACT

Growing corporate control of media, software, and consumer products over the past 50 years has led to three largely separate movements to preserve the ability of ordinary people to access the means of production of mass media, computer software and, most recently, the technological hardware of modern culture. The movements share an aspiration that transparency and community participation are fundamental to democracy and an egalitarian society. Understanding their history and the reactions to these movements can provide insight into current and future efforts to secure freedom.

----

I was unaware of the activities of Science for the People at the time. Being 6 or 7 years old, I was probably busy watching Captain Kangaroo. Looking back, however, I perceive that there is a common thread running through a number of other communities, or movements, that have shared similar goals, strategies, and aspirations. Looking back at Science for the People through the lens of these other movements may offer some insights. Charting the successes and failures of all of these movements may help us find common ground and look for ways that we could unify these struggles around common principles leading to greater success.

COMMUNITY TELEVISION

The printing press, film, radio, and television all offered means to disseminate information widely: to create a mass market for ideas. Throughout history, a constant tension has existed due to the capital that has been required to utilize these tools. This has consistently created an environment which favors ideas palatable to the owners of capital.

In the late 1960s, Sony introduced the Portapak — a portable video camera recorder system — which dramatically reduced the costs for producing television programming. A number of video collectives, such as the Raindance Foundation, sprang up with the goal of creating alternative forms of communication.

George Stoney, a documentary film-maker and professor at New York University, co-founded the Alternative Media Center with Red Burns which, in turn founded the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (today the Alliance for Community Media) which lobbied for government regulation to support community access.

Stoney said that "cable access" was about more than access. “We look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access,” he said. “It’s how people can get information to their neighbors, and their neighbors can get out on the streets to organize.”

The transition to cable television provided an opportunity for communities to require cable franchises to offer resources for public access. In 1969, the FCC included language that first encouraged public access and by 1971, required providing Public, Educational, Government (PEG) facilities and channel capacity. In 1984, the Supreme Court struck down the FCC regulations, but Congress passed legislation that rescued public-access television, allowing franchising authorities to require public access.

FREE SOFTWARE

At exactly the same time, Richard M. Stallman quit his job at MIT to begin writing software for what would become the GNU project. Stallman had benefited from a software community where people freely shared code and he had seen how this dramatically increased productivity. Then companies began requiring programmers to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) in order to get access to the source code. And began to file patents on algorithms.

Stallman believed that, as a matter of freedom, users must have access to the source code of the technology systems they use and the ability -- indeed obligation -- to pass that right on to others. He realized this when the lab got a new printer. Previously, he had modified a printer's software to notify people when their jobs printed -- or to broadcast an alert when the printer was jammed. But the new printer was closed source and, although a colleague had the source code, he was not allowed to share it with Stallman due to an NDA.

My personal experience was similar: I wrote an application for my doctoral thesis using a piece of commercial software and, just as I was about to graduate, the company went bankrupt and a new version of the operating system broke my application. The company ultimately resuscitated enough to get out a new version that fixed the problem -- and I was able to show my work and get hired -- but the experience taught me that one should never base anything important on software where you can't inspect and modify the source code yourself -- a principle I live by today.

Stallman began building an operating system, which he called "GNU" for "Gnu's Not Unix". Little by little, with contributions by many authors, the project assembled a compiler and utilities for a Unix-like toolchain. Ultimately, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation to support the GNU project. But not everyone agreed with his moral position regarding freedom.

Eric S. Raymond initiated a competing movement around "Open Source" which created an alternate conception of software freedom, which was friendlier to commercial interests. The ultimate effect was to coopt much of the community and mindshare. Open Source ultimately subverted the moralistic goals of the Free Software movement for what has operationally been wider success.

But the GNU project might not have been able to gain a foothold at all, but for the fact that the owners of Unix, AT&T, had been enjoined from entering new markets due to a Department of Justice consent decree in 1956. This resulted in AT&T distributing Unix source code without support which in turn, created the ecosystem where patches, fixes, and extensions were exchanged openly that Stallman had experienced.

Similarly, the Internet and the World Wide Web would never have been created by commercial interests. Corporations would have been much more likely to build something like cell networks -- and the past 10 years has seen a concerted effort by those interests to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Cory Doctorow has called it a War on General Purpose Computing.

My iPhone seems like a computer -- like my computer -- but in fact I have limited control of how I can use it. The only software I can install has to be approved by Apple. I can't even copy files to or from its filesystem. And, although it has both a cell chip and a wifi chip, I can't share my cell connection to users over wifi unless I agree to pay a third party money. It's not really my computer anymore at all.

MAKERS/HACKERS

The Maker movement is a reaction to this trend to increasing corporate control over the products of consumer culture. The goal is to enable people to make products for themselves, so they can control all of the affordances of the product. The Maker movement includes more than just computer code, but the hardware, the enclosure, and everything. So Maker culture is also about prototyping and using 3-D printing to build physical objects. Or using a lathe. Or knitting and weaving.

Maker culture is a reaction to runaway capitalism. In his book "Makers", Cory Doctorow writes:

Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That's not to say that there's no money out there to be had, but the money won't come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like 'General Electric' and 'General Mills' and 'General Motors' are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.

Maker culture sees itself fostering those smart creative people and providing a landscape where they are free to rework, remix, and reuse basic fundmental elements to innovate and Make things.

CONCLUSIONS

Science for the People acted on the conviction that science is inevitably political and, without oversight, offers tools to those who would exploit and oppress people. Technology has empowered the exploiters, but also the people as well — probably more than anyone expected. All three of the movements described here represent attempts to strike a balance that preserves some measure of Freedom for the people. Of the three, only Community Television found a political solution -- or minimally -- an accommodation.

Many of the benefits that Workers were able to extract from Capital during the early part of the 20th century, were due to fears of Communism. The suppression of Communism (McCarthyism, etc) and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union emboldened Capital and enabled a neoliberal shift, especially in the US, that has disempowered workers and let wages stagnate for 30 years, while returns to Capital continue to grow. Loss of revenue, due to growing inequality and tax cuts for the wealthy have limited the ability of government to counterbalance the power of corporations and monied interests. The public narrative has shifted substantially to the right since the 1970s.

Community Television leveraged connections in the political system to extract a revenue stream to fund access to the tools of mass communication. An ongoing threat to community television, however, is the shift from television and broadcasting to streaming and unicasting. The revenue stream, as currently embodied in legislation, is tied to broadcasting and may not persist going forward.

The Free Software Movement remains a small part of what is a thriving market for open source software. Linux is the dominant server platform and Free Software is at the heart of the internet and nearly every commercial operating system. But the Open Source movement has enabled commercial interests to parasitically capture many of the benefits of Free Software without necessarily having to participate in -- or contribute back to -- the development community.

The Free Software movement has led directly to an Open Hardware movement, which is providing a fertile ecosystem of tools and resource for Makers. Maker culture draws from the Agile development process: rapid prototyping and early release of beta products, and focuses on not simply making a product, but also creating "instructables" that explain how someone else could make one. There is a growing library that new Makers can draw from in trying to create new projects.

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit who is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship, spoke here at UMass recently to promote his new book "Without their Permission". He pointed out, "You Have No Choice But To Be Entrepreneurial." The jobs that people trained for don't exist anymore. We are all free… to be unemployed — provided we're not in debt and have the education and technical skills to be creative and find capital. Unfortunately, without some new economic arrangement that empowers people to avoid becoming endebted wage-slaves of the system, I very much fear the Maker movement will be a genuine path forward only for privileged elites.

Ohanian disagrees. He admits that you may have a number of failures before you succeed. But you only need succeed once and then you're set. Who knows who might create the next Facebook or Snapchat? I was reminded of the ad for the lottery: You can't win if you don't play!

Still, as the demotivator says, "Quitters never win, winners never quit, But those who never win AND never quit are idiots."

Technology has enabled direct communication among people (monitored by security agencies) more so than anyone had previously imagined. Repressive regimes that have tried to shut down this communication have failed, due to what Ethan Zuckerman has called the "cute cat theory of digital activism". You might be able to shut down just activists, but if you try to block social media generally (and the resident lolcats), then ordinary people will get annoyed, rise up, and overthrow you.

Unfortunately, although social activism on the internet may be good for pulling things down, it's not yet shown that it's effective at building stable institutions. And that is our challenge going forward.

REFERENCES

Doctorow, C. 2012. http://craphound.com/makers/Cory_Doctorow_-_Makers.txt

Lasar, M. 2011. The Unix revolution—thank you, Uncle Sam? http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2011/07/should-we-thank-for-feds-for-the-success-of-unix/

Olson, W.D.S. 2000. The History of Public Access Television.
Ohanian, A. 2013. Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed. Business Plus.

Stallman, R. 1985, 1993, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010. GNU Manifesto. https://www.gnu.org/gnu/manifesto.html

Starr, I and Venman, B. 1988, 2005. Amherst Community Television: History and Cable Advisory Committee PEG Programming, Organization, and Management. http://www.glendalecentral.com/amherst/thumbs/actv.html

Vitello, P. 2012. George C. Stoney, Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 96 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/arts/television/george-c-stoney-documentarian-dies-at-96.html

Zimmerman, B., Radinsky, L., Rothenberg, M., Meyers, B. 1972. Towards A Science For The People. http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~schwrtz/SftP/Towards.html

Zuckerman, E. 2008. Cute Cat Theory: The China Corollary. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2007/12/03/cute-cat-theory-the-china-corollary/

Great Maker Session

March 29, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

On Friday, I sent a note to the Maker mailing list inviting people to an unboxing of the stuff I ordered for my balanced aquarium project. Everything has come in, except the CO2 sensors, which should arrive in a week or two. I promised to bring the box, unopened, so people could participate in the joy and mystery of opening the box.

Earlier in the day, interspersed with my other tasks, I finished unboxing the rest of the Galileo development boards I received from Intel. I tested them and updated their firmware, so they'd be ready to go.

I got out an LCD shield from DF Robot first. It looked lovely and snapped seamlessly into place. But when I connected the power, it didn't seem to work. I checked the connections and it powered up for a minute and then was down again. I found if it wasn't connected quite solidly it seemed to work, but as soon as I pressed down on it, it stopped. Then I realized what it must be: the shielding around the ethernet jack causes solder points on the bottom of the shield to short out. After a bit of experimentation, I cut out a bit of plastic tape and covered the top of the ethernet jack. Then I could connect it solidly and it worked flawlessly. Well, it powered up, anyway.

When I copied the test script in from the DF Robot wiki, it didn't work. Nothing seemed to happen. So I googled a bit and discovered this post which describes how to replace the Liquid Crystal library with an updated version. After initially putting it in the wrong place, I fired it up and, Success! I was able to diplay messages on the LCD.

Next, I got out one of the pH probes and connected it to the risers on the LCD Shield -- how wonderfully convenient! You can just plug it in! I grabbed the test code for the pH probe and munged it into the LCD display code, so it would show its output on the LCD. Nothing: a pH of 0. I had remembered seeing something about the LCD shield using analog pin 0, so I had switched to a different sensor pin but then realized that I was just counting wrong. I moved the plug and, Success! I was getting pH readings! And that's where I how far I got before it was 5pm and time to open a beer, sit back, and talk about other things.

I was initially skeptical that the data were good, because the pH meter was proposing a reading of 3.83 for its buffer solution. A bit of reading, however, suggests that the reference buffer for storage is supposed to be pH 4.01. That sounds like we're in the right ballpark anyway. So far I'm very pleased with everything from DF Robot: quick service, good prices, and good documentation.

Balanced Aquaria

March 24, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I recently received a grant of five Intel Galileo development boards. These are like arduinos, but beefier, with ethernet and micro SD-card readers. I've been planning to use them with my writing class to have the students perhaps write a little code but, mainly, generate some data that they can use to write about. And I think I've come up with a great idea: balanced aquaria.

When I was a kid, my dad had students create balanced aquaria in his ecology class. They would put some pond scum in gallon pickle jars, seal them up, and then watch. I remember one sat on his window ledge for at least 20 years, quietly photosynthesizing.

More recently, you can buy eco-spheres available in the mass market: even Target has them.

I think I'll have my Writing in Biology students investigate the dynamics of balanced aquaria. I got a little grant to pay for some sensors to let students collect data about what's going on inside.

I've been thinking about this for a long time. What you probably really want to know is dissolved oxygen. But it's hard (read expensive) to measure dissolved oxygen. I spent a lot of time looking for some way to do it for cheap. I found this fascinating bioboard project that offered some tantalizing ideas, but nothing concrete.

Then I discovered that sensors to measure atmospheric CO2 are much less expensive. I believe that measuring the CO2 in the air in the balanced aquarium will give me a satisfactory estimate of the available oxygen, since the two should be in equilibrium with each other.

I'm planning to hook up CO2 sensors and pH sensors. I also got some LCD shields so we can see the data in real time.

Once I get the stuff, I'll do some pilot testing to see what kind of data we can get and what kind of infrastructure I can put in place (with MQTT maybe) to collect and display the data. It should be a lot of fun.

Continuingly Employed

March 19, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

In the last round of collective bargaining, I served on the non-tenure-track faculty team and, among our other accomplishments, we completed negotiations for implementing "continuing employment". Until now, I've been appointed on term contracts -- usually every three years. These were typically formulaic, but there was always an element of stress involved as the deadline approached: Would the reappointment process go smoothly? Had anything changed? The University was equally happy to get rid of the administrative load in managing all the paperwork that had be copied and passed around and stamped and signed and countersigned.

There was some question what to call these provisions. Originally, the term "continuous employment" was used but, at some point, the University representative decided that it should be called "continuing employment".

Under the new process, for new employees you have two one year contracts followed by a two year contract. You are then evaluated for "continuing employment" after the first year of the two year contract: if you don't pass, the last year is your terminal year but, otherwise, you are reappointed afterward with no fixed end term.

It's not tenure: they can still let people go if they decide that the work isn't going to continue. But they can't arbitrarily replace one person with another. And another provision of the new contract sets different levels of criteria based on faculty rank (Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Senior Lecturer II).

And today, I finally received my "Notice and Acceptance of Reappointment" letter And having signed the letter, I guess I am now "continuingly employed". Here's to many more years in the service of the University of Massachusetts Amherst -- one of the worlds greatest universities!

@limako

spent afternoon writing a php script that outputs a KML file showing, for each mongoose, the locations of all the traps it got caught in. — 6 hours 13 min ago
got to see some Ameivas! https://t.co/1fflxmP9yo16 hours 26 min ago
is enjoying another beautiful day in paradise / ekuzas projekton transformi herpestajn datenojn por ellerni la diversajn XML-ilojn de PHP. — 18 hours 13 min ago
notes the forecast: today, isolated showers with a high of 87 & a low of 76; tomorrow, the same; the next day, the same / estas en paradizo. — 1 day 19 hours ago
RT @DulcimerBand: My week on Twitter? Moral of the story: nobody sees my tweets unless one of you retweets it. Ha ha ha ha. — 1 day 20 hours ago

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