Open Government

I grew-up with the Internet and one of the strongest ethos that I benefitted from is the online community’s open source culture. Computer nerds or geeks love chatting and posting online where they can discuss the latest technologies and share neat hacks and solutions to their problems. As a student I spent time learning Linux, eventually settling on a distrobution called Gentoo where I even contributed bug reports and fixes. My age at the time did not matter, in an open source model your contribution is reviewed by others and if it works they accept it.

This is why I enjoyed Paul Ford’s opinion piece on Healthcare.gov. Ford says that open source should be the default for government applications and I agree. These systems are created with taxpayer dollars and we should have access to the technology our money is paying for. Furthermore we already have a tradition of freedom of information. It would be good for civic health to give software developers and other people another avenue to participate in government. In the open source model you do not need to trust anyone because you can inspect everything yourself.1 I was taught the same ethos in science, where as a chemist you document your lab procedures so that someone else could duplicate them.2 No one has to trust your results because they can run the experiment in their own lab.

Of course it makes me sad to see that Connecticut might be rolling back its freedom of information law. We have one of the strongest freedom of information laws in the country. Other nations like China and Mexico have consulted with our FOI experts to develop their freedom of information regimes. Of course we must be sensitive to victims and they should not be harassed, but protecting them is not incongruent with releasing important information. Harassment is already a crime and we can strengthen that protection to make penalties harsher if crime victims proclaim they do not wish to be contacted. It is important for citizens to learn and understand what happened in these tragedies from official sources, even if the details are uncomfortable.3

Meanwhile even if we did make criminal investigations and evidence secret it is likely the information would get out. There have been numerous stories about state police sharing details about Newtown before they released their report. Even when Tom Foley was trying to prevent the media from learning about his car crash the Hartford Courant managed to get it from a source. Of course this is to say nothing of the impact of organizations like WikiLeaks and people like Edward Snowden. When people see information that is vital to the public interest their instinct often seems to be to release it, even at personal cost.

  1. This of course also requires education so people can interpret and understand the information. There are numerous instances of people including the media reciting incorrect facts in spite of the existence of contradictory primary source materials. If people refuse to believe facts there is often little you can do to persuade them. 

  2. Of course the frustrating part is failing to duplicate the experiment exactly. You then waste much time isolating what variable you failed to control, or figuring out what potential error existed in the published experiment. 

  3. Also it builds a record of public evidence that contradicts conspiracy theorists. 

Copyright and a Digital First-Sale Doctrine

As a law student I had to research and write a paper for what was termed our upper-class writing requirement. The difficult part of writing papers in law school is finding novel material to cover. Fortunately the copyright seminar allowed me to explore an area of interest that I had without needing to be novel. So I researched the history of first-sale doctrine and made an argument that we should have one for digital goods. The first part of the paper is a review of the current law, and towards the end I lay out my proposal. Since I doubt this would merit publication I uploaded it to Scribd for your enjoyment.

Copyright and a Digital First-Sale Doctrine by Matthew Zagaja

Rebooting

After I got back from my trip to Las Vegas the other day I finally had a chance to try out the new cleats I bought for my cycling shoes. I use Speedplay X 5 pedals and have been pretty happy with them. Their best feature is that they’re fairly easy to clip in and out of. However in the past month or so I’d been popping out of them with my right foot. A scary thing if you’re going up a hill. When you use these pedals you are both pushing and pulling with your legs to get the bike to move. However after a twenty mile test ride the new cleats and regreasing the pedals seemed to fix the problem. So I put it through a real stress test yesterday: a 42 mile ride.

Up to now the fastest ride I went through was about 31 miles so this was a new personal best. I was quite tired at the end of the ride but the bicycle worked perfectly. My body maybe less so. It was probably a poor idea to not bring any granola bars or other food on the ride. By the end I was exhausted and out of fuel. Unlike the first three quarters I was mostly cruising through the last leg, but I made it. Besides feeling sore all over the impact of this ride was to reboot my sleep schedule. I easily fell asleep before midnight and then woke-up at 8 a.m. this morning. A big change from my recently typical wake-up between 9 and 10 a.m.

Also I have to give a shout out to Bicycles East in Glastonbury for replacing the cleats on my bicycle shoes. The old ones were fairly beat up and they took the time to extract them after I bought the new ones. I bought my road bicycle from them years ago and after a several year hiatus during law school they still remembered me. They seem to have the best selection of bicycles and accessories that I’ve seen at a shop. They also are rather knowledgable about all the products and bike problems. In an era where people could be getting creamed by online sites like Nashbar stores like Bicycles East win by competing on knowledge and customer service.

The ING Hartford Marathon and Community

I am not a runner but I can appreciate the ING Hartford Marathon for its positive impact on Hartford. I have a few friends running in it and have been surprised to see friends from farther away in my Facebook feed make their way to Hartford for the event. People that run have a kinship with each other that I have seen in cycling and other activities that foster a sense of community. With the absence of Whalers Hockey, I think that this event is the one that puts Hartford on the map.

The other day I was at a coffee for a candidate for Board of Education and the candidate managed to win over a Republican over their shared background in hockey. About a month ago I was cycling down a street in my town when my tire blew. To my luck the house I stopped in front of was home to a cyclist who helped me fix my flat, and then when the new tube blew up he lent me a wheel. For cyclists this a leap of faith because wheels are one of the most expesnive components of the bicycle. In Democratic politics I’ve regularly seen people open their homes to campaign workers and volunteers just because they are Democrats.

Of course the most important feature of all these communities is that they are welcoming. There are many kinds of cyclists and I do not really care if someone is riding a brand new carbon fiber Trek Madone or a steel fixed gear bicycle from the 1950s.1 Runners come in all shapes and sizes and finish the marathon. People enter politics or become entreprenuers to tackle a wide variety of problems. When more experienced people in the community are willing to help the newbies, everyone wins. It’s what turns it from a simple hobby into a community.

  1. This is not meant to confuse people who ride bicycles with cyclists. Plenty of people ride a bicycle for transportation without interest in it, much in the way people might vote without being into politics or use an iPhone without being a technology geek. 

Sometimes Barriers to Innovation are Cultural

When I was a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute we had to complete three projects in order to graduate. One project is called the IQP and is an interdisciplinary project designed to expose students to working with people in different fields. My project involved working with a start-up that wanted to create a social network that encouraged the installation of renewable energy systems.1 The entrepreneur had a website built and his intention was to have us spend time populating the site with information. This did not jive with the educational goals of IQP so our project advisor set it up so that we would research ways to improve the website. However retrospectively I think we were working on the wrong problem. The question wasn’t how to create a website to encourage adoption, it should have been how to encourage adoption of renewable energy generally.2

I thought of this when listening to NPR’s Planet Money podcast on the automated check clearinghouse. The podcast describes how our system of money transfer between banks is much slower than the system that Europe uses. The United States could choose to create a system that would transfer money instantly but the consortium of banks that uses ACH decided against it. The technology is here and would have many benefits, but for cultural reasons (and some perverse incentives) the banking system is declining to adopt it.

The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. It’s not enough for science and engineering to solve problems if people do not adopt the solutions.

  1. I was not pleased when I was assigned the project at the time because other projects involved more tangible outcomes like improving water quality and sanitation in Namibia. Building a website was not interesting technically, I had made them before, and the engineers working with the company viewed it as working on a solved problem. 

  2. My general sense from interviews we conducted with installers and users during the project is that the costs in time and money are high up front for a slow payback. Government incentives do help, but if I were to do it over again besides looking at creative financing I would look at supply-chain issues and programs that target developers of new housing stock or new homebuyers that would roll the upgrade into the new house purchase. Elon Musk figured this out when creating his Tesla cars. They are not marketed to people looking to save money and invest, they are marketed as luxuy vehicles superior to the Mercedes or Jaguar the buyer is already considering. 

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