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Comment Bad, But Things Could Be Worse (Score 1) 85

The situation in Boulder is worrisome. As someone who goes to CU Boulder, I can tell you watching entire foundational linings in construction zones be swept away by the flooding is a surreal experience.

I often treat Boulder as a second hometown, and I can tell you I've often privately berated their "nuclear-free zone" policy: "oh yes, I'm sure the giant anti-nuclear forcefield channeling the powers of Mother Gaia will repel any maverick ICBMs that stray too close to Boulder county." Given the flooding and general trend to keep old plants open indefinitely, I can say that I'm genuinely relieved by it for the first time. I'm also relieved by the fact that government and administration seem closer to planet Earth than most leadership tends to be during even these (hopefully) small disasters.

Comment Public Interest in Crypto; Why Email is Broken (Score 3, Interesting) 362

Until recently, the public hasn't cared about cryptography's political/privacy ramifications, let alone about crypto itself. As a technical person, I concede that the learning curve is steep; to even make basic judgements on the safety of others' cryptosystems like, "well, does it use AES?" typically takes several months of training that don't always sink in. One of the better jinns to emerge from the NSA Spying Pandora's Box has been increased public interest in crypto/general information security. In my present personal opinion, a better project for the EFF et al. to engage in rather than continue to prop up the fairly vulnerable and incriminating Tor system (given the people intent on breaking it) is launch a policy to educate laymen on principles of encryption use (things like what a public-private cryptosystem is, what a digital signature is, general advice on what to use and what not to use--that sort of stuff).

Email was created around a time when it was used by a few thousand academicians and not expected to carry messages between business partners, political activists, and loved ones. Its lack of inherent security has driven the layering of security ameliorations on top of the basic protocol, most of which don't work terribly well (PGP is fractured, hard to use, doesn't support rich email, and is generally hard to use, for example). The same goes for HTTP. I agree that it's probably time for a new spec, but I don't know where or how to begin the creation of one, let alone how to get the public on board to transition, though again, the spying fiasco may generate the the impetus needed.

It's still interesting to me that mail, which I'd generally consider far less inherently secure than secured electronic communications and as having a far lower "reasonable expectation of privacy," receives all kinds of legal protections that, say, even email exchanged purely through Gmail (which has all kinds of security precautions like DMARC, SSL/TLS, and STARTTLS) doesn't. I think this reflects a long-term interest in western policy-making to incrementally convert "free societies" into police states, as others have observed. It looks like the governments of the US, UK and collaborators are simply waiting for mail to become completely obsolete so all communications are fair game for eavesdropping. It brings to mind what Ray Bradbury said in Farenheit 451: the government didn't have to outlaw books until most people were so fed up with them that no one noticed when the crackdown began.

Submission + - DOJ: We don't need a warrant to track you (rollcall.com) 1

GovTechGuy writes: The Department of Justice maintains it does not need a warrant to track an individual using location data captured from their cellphone. That has prompted Maine and Montana to pass laws banning warrantless cellphone tracking; unfortunately, Congress doesn't appear close to doing the same.

Comment C++ Debugging and Lasertag Robots for Kids! (Score 1) 119

The comprehensive changes sound generally good, abstract though they are. Since we're dealing with abstractions, I'll keep it abstract:

If English schooling is anything like American (apologies, I haven't got much of a clue--I'm coming at this as I hear it as a "yank"), it will take time to implement these changes, and by the same token, it's comparatively easy to write a wishlist of changes that "sound good." The pessimist within murmurs that this seldom translates to real systemic improvement, which demands close attention to detail, a willingness to piss off certain obstructionists to realize a certain goal, thoroughly invested critical thinkers at the helm, and long-term planning. When I hear Brits describe their government, those are seldom the things suggested (seems to be a pretty universal phenomenon), but we'll see. This could turn out well for them. I'm not going to start on American schooling.

To the points about all the new comp/info sci, and the programming in particular, there are several problems with this that I notice:

First of all, teaching elementary or secondary school-aged kids multiple programming languages is a terrifying proposition. Firstly because it won't really work for most (if any) of them, for the same reason the "New Math" programs in the US failed (most children learn concretely most of the time; those few who can reason abstractly won't see the value in it until they have a grounding in the intuitive, concrete principles, which New Math glosses over) and for other reasons as well, like the fact that much of any abstraction will utterly fail to impress the other 80% of the kids in that age range. Secondly because programming languages are idiosyncratic and all demand practice, for which there's no substitute. It's far better to practice and gain experience with a single language than it is to swim in several (for the experience of saying "Oh! The language wants me to do it this way." rather than the expectation of growing up to become an [insert language] guru). Are we to assume English schools are going to create "immersive" programming environments in which children learn to bootstrap every facet of applications they themselves build to do the rest of their schoolwork? Thirdly because programming languages change so quickly that all but the general ideas and practice of building logical systems will be obsolete by the time they're adults. Fourthly because I seriously doubt the UK really has the resources in terms of trained and practiced teacher-programmers to do this right. All of these taken together mean that if this proposal is realized, it will waste a lot of time, money, and resource.

My personal advice to the British government and education system (because they have no doubt been sitting on the edges of their seats in anticipation of my pronouncement) is to bootstrap computing education with little exercises accomplishing little but hopefully meaningful tasks like turning a lightbulb on or off using a very simple programming environment and a very straightforward language. Make no mistake: this is a feet wettening exercise and little more. Anyone who shows extra interest can be given supplementary material. Then you slowly show how programming is the same thing as algebra, according to the same principles--slowly enough that just about everyone gets it. You ramp up the involvement of math in solving problems in science and computing. Use tons of visual aids: graphs of functions and networks and et cetra. Before they're through middle school, they must take a basic logic/critical thinking/statistics/epistemology course to establish correlation doesn't equal causation and how argument works. By the time they're in high school, the school should be organizing internships in computing-related fields and sending especially bright students to take classes at colleges and universities (full disclosure: this is what I did for a lot of my high school and it's one of the best things that happened to me). At every stage, for all the reasons mentioned, and the fact that you'll be having 40-60-year-old teachers trying to provide some of this instruction, you must stress keeping things simple and actually getting the important concepts.

This proposal isn't perfect, but it's something to work with. Importantly, it's much more realistic than the "teach kids several programming languages so they can reason abstractly and build robots before they hit puberty" notion.

Comment Re:Expect more of this. (Score 5, Insightful) 608

Almost everything in the parent post is correct. But I also feel I've heard this post far, far too many times. I don't often have the "How Could Linux Gain Real Traction?" conversation any more. I already know all the lines. Anyone who's cared for long enough learned the lines in 2003--or possibly earlier: "The reason Apple succeeded where Linux...", "Linux just needs a critical mass to be accepted...", "People don't choose Windows; they are used to it because...", et al. Unfortunately, in all that time, little has changed. The reality is that even as all the different, fragmented little Linux distros and spins and flavors that were meant to be usable asymptotically approach the "It Just Works" point before most grow beyond their means and recede into bloatedness and metaphorical pretense, none has managed to offer something--anything--that Mac OS and Windows don't that ordinary people care enough about to incentivize the switch--and all the pains associated with switching. Believe me when I say I'm on the F(L)OSS side here as an idealist, but until/unless someone with some actual leverage comes along who sees how to seriously disrupt the desktop OS duopoly with some killer feature that everyone needs as they work to avoid twisting users' wrists, prove they can play that game better than Microsoft and Apple, somehow monetize it without becoming Microsoft or Apple, and are in it for the haul, things aren't likely to change. The closest Linux has come is Mark Shuttleworth. I'm not sold on his being that. My coworkers still complain about real problems with the Ubuntu boxen that have been forced on them. (Most) people don't want community gurus; they want support, familiarity (which includes not having peers staring cowishly at their desktops because they're running KDE) and a promise to go from A to B--repeatably. To the point about Android: I don't want a smartphone OS on my desktop. If Android changes enough to become Windows 7 with a Linux kernel, that will be nice. I don't exactly see it revolutionizing the desktop computing world, though. If Android Desktop came with some analogue to Adobe's Creative Suite and approachable full-fledged office and development environments that blew competition out of the water, we might be in business. But realistically, what I should really be doing right now is putting down the pipe and taking a cold shower to wake me from that dream.

Comment IP Law and Vanishing Works (Score 5, Interesting) 128

It seems to me that one of the most compelling arguments against the status quo of our IP law is how it ephemerizes most works by preventing their circulation and their movement from one format to another. If the owner of the distribution rights of the works is uninterested in moving a work, say, from a vinyl record to a CD, then the only way to find the work on CD is to break the law--even if the person interested would be willing to spend money for the work. When you add in constraints like the fact that most records are no longer being pressed, you see that the effective "half-life" of the average work is vanishingly short. What this effectively means is that only the most popular (or most lucrative) works make the format transition for any new format. All the other works are left to more or less disappear. Even with my mediocre understanding of the history of art and culture, I am worried by what this means in the long-run. What percentage of the greatest books, albums, movies, games, etc. of the 20 and 21st centuries will be available to future generations? Unless you define these to be those works that enjoyed the most commercial support, I'd say a slim minority. Remember that many of the most celebrated works of earlier eras languished in non-recognition for the lifetimes of their owners--often longer. Shouldn't we be doing more to plan for the protection of our cultural treasures--the things that should someday belong to everyone? We don't know what will and won't be considered a cultural treasure in a hundred years, but the myopia of large media companies coupled with the scarcity created by IP law means that almost all contenders in that hypothetical contest would be disqualified.

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