Monday, September 23, 2013

When It Has to Work – Technology in the 2013 Boulder Flood

We don’t get a great deal of rain here in Boulder, Colorado; so the flood took everyone by surprise.  Sirens and panicked texts from evacuating friends kept me awake for days. I saw parks and places I loved underwater. It was terrifying and in the damage is still everywhere to see.
I used to take this bridge to work
As the county digs out from the mud and the rubble, everyone is taking stock. Despite the devastation, there was one thing that went right during flood: the coordination of emergency services and technology.

After graduate school, I joined thousands of other bright-eyed degree holders hunting for the next big opportunity. Having once worked for Uncle Sam and being a devout follower of technology, I began searching for a space where those fields connected. I hit a break when I read about Governor Hickenlooper’s  adoption of Google Government Apps, a type of tool used  to improve efficiency and usability of state services. I read a good deal about these programs and attended an online symposium highlighting their potential.  While the future of applied geospatial analytics seemed academically interesting to a layman, I never imagined I would soon be depending on such tools in an emergency.

It started raining on Monday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, I was annoyed enough at the persistent damp to check the weather report which called for five more days of rain.  That night around 8pm, my smartphone uttered an unfamiliar chime and displayed a warning message. I clicked through and came across a page like this one:

By Wednesday afternoon, everyone was talking about the flash floods. Social media lit up with pictures and videos of college students riding inner tubes down washed-out footpaths.  I went to Target and bought a few gallons of fresh water and some Cliff Bars in case the power cut out. All the while, the little red area on my alert map kept growing and the emergency alarms became more and more frequent.
On Wednesday night some of my friends living near the creek had to evacuate, but had no trouble finding where to go. We had a phone tree in place and everyone made themselves responsible for regular check-ins online. As a precautionary measure, I moved my car out of the basement lot and parked on the second floor of a nearby garage. 
That may have been a mistake, the building was sinking
Following the advice of my Google Public Alert page, I packed a bug-out bag with food, dog chow, water, and the original hand written draft of my thesis. Just in case I needed to make a break for it with my loyal hound, I plotted a safe course to the nearest open shelter that took dogs.

On Thursday night, sirens started blaring around my building, the toilets stopped working, and there was an unconfirmed report of a 30 foot wall of water heading down Boulder Creek. Other than dash out into night and head for the hills, I didn’t know what the sirens meant. Thankfully, my public alert page came through for me again. I was in an area close to a likely flood zone, but not so close that my block was being evacuated.
Corgis are particularly vulnerable to flooding given their shortness
The weather gave us a little break on Friday before starting up again. By the weekend, the worst of it was over.  People were able to walk around and assess the damage. The same social media tools that saw my friends and I through the flood were put to use by volunteer groups working to get food and help to people who needed it.

It’s tempting sometimes to focus on the negative aspects of the information age: pollution, privacy infringement, twerking, and so on. However, when faced with serious decisions, when you need your smartphone for something more than music or football scores, when big data has to work, it’s good to know that there are people out there developing more than snazzy advertisements and fingerprint readers.

My profound thanks to the Boulder Fire Department, all our first responders, Governor Hickenlooper’s Office of Information Technology, Google,, The American Red Cross, and everyone who reached out to help Boulder County in our time of need. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Consider the Cheeseburger

Despite our differences, there are more things that tie Americans together than threaten to tear us apart. We all live on the same piece of land and (presumably) under the same laws. We band together in times of crisis, and mourn together in times of loss. We drink the same water, breathe the same air and, despite race, creed, gender, or income, need to eat. In this country, we eat burgers.
Freedom tastes even better with bacon
Now, I can already hear the muted roar of critical readers, but before you scroll down to the comment section to give me hell, hear me out. I know that certain religions have their qualms about this iconic sandwich, and there are lots of US citizens who foreswear meat altogether, but the great beauty of the burger is that there is a patty for everyone. Veggie burgers, Boca burgers, chicken, turkey, tofu, or plain old beef; if you care to look, you can find a grillable ground-up disk that’s right for you. There are expensive burgers, cheap burgers, exotic burgers, and burgers that aren’t even burgers at all.
In addition to sheer majesty of the meal itself is the communal act of making burgers. The neighborhood barbeque is one of the most quintessentially American activities I can think of. There’s something about standing around a grill with friends, watching the fat sizzle and feeling the heat of the coals that just feels right. But there’s a dark side to the burger, and despite my love of cow and country, I’d be remiss to not point it out.
Those are lookin' real good, Oog
As a proviso to this next section I’ll remind my readers that I grew up on an organic beef farm. We raised our stock from udder to plate and drove them to the slaughterhouse ourselves. The life of a cow is hardly a romantic affair, but we did our best for them. Our animals were grass fed, had room to run around, and were free to seek what bovine pleasures they could find on the ample hills of southern Maine. Then and now, I eat beef with a clear conscience, but looking at the state of mass farming today, I can tell you that all is not right in Burgerville.

The great American sandwich has a problem. It boils down to the inescapable truth of demographic expansion, there are more of us in this country, and in this world then there ever have been. There’s simply not enough open land or ranchers to do things the right way and so we’ve fallen into some very dangerous shortcuts. Crowded conditions, an all-corn diet, growth hormones, and huge doses of antibiotics to keep open sores from festering, that is the grim reality of our current agricultural detente. However you may feel about animal rights, there are some things that are just wrong and there ain’t a religious text anywhere that won’t bear me out.
It turns out they have good reason to be mad
Worse than the gross practice of corrupting our national lunch, are the policies being enacted to defend that corruption. So called “ag-gag”laws prevent people from reporting abuses at factory farms and companies like Monsanto are insulating themselves against any oversight whatsoever. They have gone so far as to employ mercenaries, genuine hired killers, to handle their security. It’s one thing to ignore the suffering of a cow you’ll never lay eyes on, but when someone comes after the Bill of Rights and the free flow of information, they’re going to have a fight on their hands. That’s at least as American as the cheeseburger.

With Congress stuck in a rut, this may all seem like yet another hopeless 21st century issue, but technological innovations are solving problems all around us, even between the buns. Behold the Burger 2.0:

In a society hungry for new ideas, one of the visionaries behind Google is helping to serve up an entirely new approach to the way we look at meat. Is it beef? Not exactly. Is it a vegetable? Not even close. Burger 2.0 is a fundamentally new foodstuff, a lab-grown synthetic biomass mixed with breadcrumbs and dyed with beet juice. It’s the beta version of the type of food made by the replicators on Star Trek.
Synthetic Biomass. Hot.
Now, I will admit that the idea of generating detached genetic tissue from a bovine cadaver could, at first, seem a little unappealing. The imagination reels at the prospect of splicing together different species to form new and exciting burger variations like the Rat-Mammoth Whopper™ or the Chimpanzee-Cat Mac™. Why, who knows what forbidden delights this technology will give us access to…
The future is going to be sort of gross
If this all seems like too much, if you can’t stomach the thought of carving off a slice of fleshy abomination, ask yourself this: do you know what’s in your burger now? How many animals in what types of conditions went into the grinder? Most people would probably rather not think about it, but silent ignorance isn’t going to solve the problems before us.

No doubt, it will take us a while to perfect this technology and it will probably take even longer to get over our squeamishness. Ultimately though, the burger has to change and we will have to change with it. When considered on the grounds of sustainability, widespread availability, and basic ethics, technologies like the burger 2.0 seem very appealing.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fahrenheit 2013

Unless you've been hibernating under a rock in Antarctica for the last decade, you've probably heard a few things about The Khan Academy
Nerd Demi-God and less-cool version of Ironman, Bill Gates, has called the program “The future of education” which is high praise, no matter what you think about Windows 98.
With eBooks rapidly devouring the ink and paper publishing market and student loan debt threatening a generation of young scholars, the ivory towers of academia are slowly (oh so very slowly) beginning to realize that the ol’ fashion Socratic method of higher education needs a major overhaul. This long overdue reconstruction will not be without its casualties, chief among them being textbooks.
also tenure
Now, I have a lingering nostalgia for textbooks. On my first day of middle school in Maine we inherited the weather-beaten social studies tombs from the class ahead of us. Our first assignment was to make our own covers for the decaying texts out of butcher’s paper so that they could limp on for yet another year. Over the months, kids would decorate their homemade wrappers with stickers and doodles. It was a simpler time, a gentler time, a stupider time.
Seriously Maine, what is wrong with you?
I’m happy to say that the days of the homemade cover and the outdated textbooks beneath them are coming to a close. Soon, these quaint grade school relics will join microfiche and cave paintings in the dustbin of education media history. Our grandchildren will view them through museum glass and scoff at their primitive construction.

Don’t pity the textbook; the textbook is your oppressor. The textbook deserves what is coming to it. Think about it, when was the last time you reached for a textbook to look up some timely and relevant information? Don’t lie to yourself, that’s exactly what the textbooks want. By the time a book is researched, written, approved by committees, and finally printed, more relevant information on the topic has probably come to light. Now, I recognize that this doesn’t hold true for philosophy, literature, or the fine arts. But why would the sciences, mathematics, and history, fields which strive for the acquisition of constantly updated empirical facts and emergent theories, tie themselves to information transmission technology that hasn’t changed much since the Guttenberg printing press?

Worse than the financial burden of old fashion textbooks is the process these books go through just to get approval. Would you rather have kids getting their reading assignments from a professional educator with years of experience or from this guy?

It seems surreal, but due to the way textbooks are printed and distributed, our entire 21st century education system hinges on the biased decisions of a few backwater yahoos. Oh, and if your little angels are having a hard time swallowing this tripe, doctors across the nation are more than willing to aid their academic digestion with a rainbow of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. That’s how far the Luddite dogmas of entrenched textbookocracy are willing to go to protect their doomed business model. Textbook publishers are in the business of profit, not content, because they have to leave that to the politicians. This is no way to run an education system.

Thankfully, technology has reached the point where we no longer have to wait idly by until government policies rise to meet the challenge. E-readers like the Kindle, iPad, and Google Nexus are getting cheaper and lighter by the month. I predict that within five years, savvy companies will be handing out these gadgets for free on every college campus around the world. God willing, they’ll be doing the same thing at every grade school. Innumerable texts will be available for free via Google Books and other services putting a Library of Congress in every child’s backpack. Local municipalities will be able to weigh in on which books they feel ought be part of their curriculum without foisting their views on the rest of the nation. Best of all, the textbook beasts which have dominated our schools for so long will finally starve to death.

University students, you can help speed the process along by boycotting that den of inequity your schools dare to call a “bookstore.” Parents, you can equip your children with reading material they will actually use and be a voice for modernization in your local PTA. Teachers, principals, and school board members besieged by funding limitations, this is the time to cast off the old models and put your dollars where they will do the most good.

It’s the Information Age, let’s teach like it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Good Innovation Gone to Waste

Like many business story tellers, I mostly read and write tales of startups finding their muse online. But not everyone with a brilliant innovation is fishing it out of the ethereal streams we call the internet. Some people are finding inspiration in unlikely places such as a…

I regularly attend events at New Tech Boulder so I've seen innumerable startups give their pitch. Most promote a new online service or burgeoning non-profit group. When I saw Brian Jerose of Agrilab Technologies (a member of The Unreasonable Institute) standing in front of a heap of decaying cow poo, I knew I was in for something a little different. His outfit captures the waste heat generated by happy little microorganisms living in compost and uses that heat for something useful.

I grew up on an organic beef farm, so I figured Brian and I would have quite a bit to talk about. As he explained it, by utilizing the heat off compost you not only capture otherwise wasted energy; you bypass the need to create that heat by other means. In Boulder, this means less coal burned and subsequently less carbon released into the atmosphere. Plus, by using that heat to service greenhouses (with a convenient supply of high quality soil nearby) you encourage local food production thus saving on the gas and labor needed to transport foreign produce. Even the most stringent of climate change skeptics must surely be able to appreciate the economization inherent in such a process.
My folks used to say it was the smell of money
We chatted after the event and he was kind enough to let me tag along the next day for a tour of Boulder’s premier waste management gurus: Western Disposal. There’s always something interesting to see at a dump, but Western Disposal is more like an open air mining operation than a big heap of random trash. Heavy equipment rushes about moving and separating piles of various refuse into smaller piles to be shuttled off to their respective recycling plants. Boulder citizens come and go, some dropping off large debris, some picking up truckloads of mulch.  After touring around a bit, we came to the pièce de résistance, a big steaming acre of decaying vegetable mater.

Brian lit up like a sunrise. He dug a hole in the nearest mound so our tour group could all feel the heat coming off it. He and our guide hopped up and down with excitement over the grinding and watering machinery. It was like watching two children on Christmas morning, but instead of a tree there was an enormous crushing apparatus and instead of presents there was, well…
It’s important to remember that innovation is not just occurring online. From our hospitals to our schools to the way we produce food, every aspect of our lives is being touched by the pace of changing technology.. I will continue to be inspired by those who create investment and job opportunities from discards of other industries. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Internet Law Roundup

I’ve heard it said that barbed wire was what finally brought the Wild West to heel. No system of laws or military force could ever equal the understated power of a barrier that caused pain to those who touched it. With the dissection of the open prairies, we lost the cattle runs that used to crisscross the land. The wild boom towns like Tombstone and Dodge City quieted down and slowly adopted respectable airs to accommodate the “civilized” folk pouring in from back east. The cowboy, an enduring symbol of American freedom and independence, disappeared forever into the realm of myth and legend.

My generation witnessed the internet in its boom town days. We saw the rise and fall of outlaw programs like Napster and Kazaa. We watched internet gold fever go from bonanza to bust in 2000. The greatest economic monoliths of the day have laid their foundations in the ephemeral soil of cyberspace and we, we lucky few, have been here to see it happen. Unlike the wild west, the influx of new people and new ideas has not shrunk the potential of this digital frontier. Instead, year by year we are seeing the limitless potential of unfettered creativity and shared information. Despite this success, there are legislators and judges the world over seemingly ready to create a whole new kind of barbed wire.


ACTA – An international treaty that grants broad authority to signatory governments to punish individuals who violate copyright laws. It also carries implications for ISPs who will have to establish monitoring practices to ensure the letter of the law is met. If this act provided a net benefit (no pun intended) to authors, musicians, researchers, and other innovators it would stand as a testament to modern international cooperation. As it’s written, it provides significant protection and litigation tools to serial prosecutors like the Record Industry of America (RIAA) and zero benefit to artists and creators. Furthermore, the most egregious copyright violators in the world (namely Egypt, Brazil, China, and the Ukraine) are not subject to its enforcement.

Status: Signed by 29 countries including the US.  Although there are some efforts underway to curtail frivolous lawsuits at the federal level in the US and the treaty has met significant resistance in Europe, ACTA has laid the foundation for extensive international control, monitoring, and restriction of digital information.

ThePatriot Act – “Freedom isn’t free” became the unofficial Orwellian mantra of post 9/11 legislative philosophy. One terrible day in September 2001 has dominated our nation’s international relations and domestic security priorities for more than a decade. Under the auspices of combating terrorism, the federal government gave itself carte blanche to monitor and evaluate practically all electronic communications. The good news: it works (kind of). The bad news: the very concept of blanket surveillance is anathema to a free society. If you are going to read only one piece of legislation related to internet freedom, make it this one. Pay particular attention to Title V which covers the secret subpoena process employed to force service providers to surrender information about their clients then threatens them with persecution if they reveal that such a request has taken place.

Status: currently in force and extended until 2015 putting it conveniently out of the press until after the midterm elections.
PIPA – a virtual clone of the now-defunct 2010 Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeit Act (COICA), this act is similar in many ways to its larger cousin ACTA but is written with the specific interests of the United States in mind. It contains a critical focus on “foreign” websites but its main focus makes it ultimately unenforceable. After all, how many multinational corporations have their base of operations abroad? How many “American” online companies own servers or data centers in foreign countries? These unanswered questions highlight how the creators of barbed wire laws don’t necessarily understand the broader implications of their work, much less the technology they seek to control.

Status: After a brilliant and unified direct action campaign by a number of internet paragons and concerned citizens, this act was banished into legislative limbo.

SOPA – The Stop Online Piracy Act is essentially the House version of PIPA. It promises to “promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation” but the text of the bill offers little toward these ideals other than to equip vested interests with an arsenal of legal justifications for shutting down websites they see as “illegitimate.” Further, this bill blithely heaps responsibility for its enforcement on search engines and advertisers and places them under the scrutiny of the Justice Department and a drastically expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

Status: like its counterpart in the Senate, SOPA was forced into its grave by the collaborative resistance of a concerned public and internet patriots like Google, Yahoo, and Wikipedia. Make no mistake, SOPA and PIPA may be buried for the time being, but as long as patent trolls continue to hold sway in D.C. there is a risk that they will reanimate and roam the earth again.

PAA and FISA – I’m not even certain if the links I’ve provided are actual reflections of the bills in question, which should be some indication of their shadowy nature. These intelligence acts are the corner stones of the megalithic government surveillance program under the NSA known as PRISM (Officially “SIGAD US-984XN"). In 2003, citing privacy concerns, Congress discovered the fortitude to defund a similar initiative launched by the government research body known as DARPA called the Information Awareness Office (IAO)
Probably because the IAO office logo looks like the evil spaceship from Stargate
Obviously, that was not enough to contain the program or even slow it down. It is difficult to gauge exactly how large this program has become because. Thanks to Title V of the afore mentioned Patriot Act, the service providers subpoenaed to feed information into this system cannot legally protest or even reveal to their clients that their personal information has been compromised. Thankfully,this has not stopped some of them from trying.

Status: Active and growing, but impossible to truly comprehend due to classification.
Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss
So there you have it, these laws are the most glaring examples of online legal barriers that cause harm to those who touch them. I know my list is incomplete, but if you drop me a message in the comment section I will try to expand it.

We live in an age of asymmetric threats to our national and personal security. In the face of these enormous challenges I understand and even appreciate the impulse to force controls over the situation. Ultimately though, the imposition of rigid and poorly considered laws on free and private communication is far more ethically problematic than the issues those laws attempt to ameliorate.

These pieces of legislation must be studied, evaluated, and, where necessary, resisted and repealed. At a very minimum, every artist, innovator, and advocate for the promise of technological advancement must insist on greater transparency in our legal system. It’s bad enough to festoon the open prairie with barbed wire, but if we can’t even see where it is, all of us are certain to find ourselves tangled and bleeding.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Big Box Book Bust

Let me start by saying that I love bookstores; I always have and I always will. On top of loving the smell of new paper and the inviting rows of pristine covers; I am a firm believer in the inexorable power of words and have dedicated a portion of my adult life to their mastery. Nostalgia aside, there are changes coming in the next few months that are going to up end the entire publishing industry. The model that writers, agents, publishing houses, and booksellers have relied on for years is on the verge of collapse. Books, as we know them, are about to change.

Barnes and Noble announced last week that it had endured a terrible quarter. To soothe the effects of its financial losses, the largest bookseller in the United States is shuttering twenty stores this year. What’s more, they’re abandoning the Nook Color™ property because of its poor performance against the Kindle Fire and similar devices.  If current trends in traditional book v. eBook sales continue (and I believe they will) this move is the strategic equivalent of playing chess without a queen. At a guess, I would give the company less than a year before it follows Borders into the annals of literary history. I don’t doubt the dedication or tenacity of Barns and Noble’s leadership, but I’m afraid the writing is on the wall.
The staff at By The Pen apologize for pun you’ve just endured
The importance of the impending demise of the last great chain of brick and mortar of bookstores cannot be understated. While online book retailers like Amazon continue to grow exponentially, without B&N the profitability gap for most of the literature industry will become unbridgeable.  Most, if not all of the big five fiction publishing houses won’t survive this transition. The editors, promoters, agents, and authors that depend on them will abruptly find themselves without a paycheck.

I won’t lie, it’s going to be a giant mess, but this is a rare age of adaptation and enterprise. There are innumerable opportunities for entrepreneurs to put their skills to work and help shape the next generation of literary agencies, bookstores, digital publishing houses, and on-demand book crafters. Online distribution networks and simplified copyright procedures (see the youtube model) are cutting down the barriers between authors and their readers. Freelance editing is shaking off the distemper of its youth and gaining greater legitimacy by the month.  Finally, free social media and analytics programs are putting the most sophisticated marketing techniques ever conceived directly into our hands.

We’ll miss Barnes & Noble, just as part of us misses drive in movie theatres, but there’s little time for melancholy reminiscence when faced with so many promising opportunities. Stories will always retain their power; the twenty first century is just finding new ways of getting them in front of readers.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Google is Floating a New Idea

Consider the humble magic of a balloon. They represent clear evidence of the impossible. By all rights, gravity is an indomitable tyrant, but balloons casually ignore it. This simple defiance captures young imaginations at a glance. But despite what toddlers may say, apparently losing a balloon to the whims of the upper stratosphere is not always such a bad thing.

In the age of novel concepts, one company is exploring a new method of providing wireless internet service to some of the most remote areas on planet earth. Project Loon is a peculiar innovation from the minds at Google Labs. It is exactly what it looks like, a shiny blimp that floats in the sky and beams internet service to users on the ground below. As Google Fiber snakes its way across the land and sea, the first prototype Google balloons (Galloons? Balloogles?) are taking to the skies in New Zealand.

Consider what these benevolent blimps could do for remote areas that have previously not had access to reliable connectivity. Combined with initiatives like Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child Program, Google Loon could be an important piece in creating a truly connected world. Rural farmers could check prices for their goods on the international market. Teachers in the most remote villages could have real-time hangouts with astronauts. Aid workers could direct needed resources to areas hit by natural disasters. The possibilities are endless.

As promising as this technology is, I can only envision some of the issues it will face. What if one of these Balloogles floated over the reclusive nation of North Korea? Last year, the Korean People’s Army almost flipped their collective lid over civilian launched balloons carrying flyers. I can’t imagine they would have a positive reaction to a vessel that was beaming down unfiltered Wikipedia. I doubt the DPRK has the military technology necessary to shoot such an apparatus out of the sky, but that wouldn't stop them from trying.
I'm aware there is a difference between a zeppelin and a blimp
Taking this hypothetical a step further, what if that controversial balloon floated over the Bohai Sea and hovered above, say, Beijing? After all, what laws govern an unmanned, unpropelled aircraft launched from international waters? This strikes me as another example of how slow legal systems are in comparison to the progression of technology; they literally can’t keep up with a balloon.

While Google Loon may be susceptible to wind, ground fire, regional laws, and angry birds it’s still an incredible idea. When I was a kid, my mother mollified my post-balloon-loss-depression (PBLD) by having me play a game. We would watch the colorful helium bubble for as long as we could, then come up with stories about what adventures it would go on after it floated away. I think those who balk at innovations like free floating internet blimps may have to resign themselves to similar acts of creative acceptance. In any case, I look forward to letting a few off the string and watching what happens.