antipaucity

fighting the lack of good ideas

on open-source

I am a huge fan of FLOSS: free/libre open-source software. My website runs on CentOS Linux, one of my home machines runs Kubuntu (you Gnome users are lost), I use emacs (down you vi fiends!), Anti-Vir, Crimson Editor, Firefox, Apache, PHP, BitTorrent, Python, WordPress, and so many more I can’t count them all.

I have often thought about how/whether I can contribute to these projects. The ones I use are all worthy of support, and I suspect many more would be if they got some momentum behind them. And I don’t have the time, skill, desire, or energy to try to pitch-in on bug fixes, feature adds, porting, or any of the other thousand and one things these projects ask for.

I contribute by linking back to those projects. I tell my friends and family about them, and try to get them to use them and spread the love, so to speak. On a few projects I have contributed to their donations page. And I contribute to those projects by releasing libraries of my own.

Code I’ve written, mostly in the forms of low-level data structures and little utility functions, may not be very sexy, or even ever get used, but I put it out there for folks to grab.

I love the determination and drive shown by those pushing forward on FLOSS projects, and I wish I could contribute more. Maybe some day I’ll be able to, but for now, thanks for your efforts.

do not attack iran – and see what happens

The International Herald Tribune had an editorial recently on Iran and the current United States’ administration’s use of preemptive strikes. [original story]

In general, I would say that it is wrong to start wars. However, the IHT article seems to go along well with the post I wrote about nuclear proliferation and the dangers of totalitarian rulers. Or rather, it goes directly against what I said. All of the reasons to not execute a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear capability, and its alliance with terrorists, are old and tired.

The author is apparently unfamiliar with US law. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes, “if undertaken without formal Congressional declaration, it would be unconstitutional and merit the impeachment of the President.” It is an established fact that periods of armed conflict under a set number of days, or directly tied to iminent threats are not covered under US law regarding the declaration of War on the part of Congress. He also writes, “if undertaken without the sanction of the UN Security Council either alone by the United States or in complicity with Israel, it would stamp the perpetrator(s) as an international outlaw(s).” This is not relevant. The United States does not answer to the United Nations, it answers to its own laws and treaties it has signed. If the United Nations will not undertake to follow its own rules, member states may, can, should, and will.

The United States, along with many allied countries, invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Whether or not they found any weapons of mass destruction is irrelevant for the time being – Saddam had consistently defied international bodies, and the US merely stood up for what the UN claimed to promote.

Those in power have a responsibility to do good for their people – and for those others whom they can. When a leader, whether it is Adolf Hitler, or Slobodan Milosovic, or Saddam Hussein, oppresses his own people to the point of killing them merely becase they displease him, he is no longer fit to rule.

The IHT article goes on to list volatility in the energy market, international dislike, increased terror acts, and increased muslim fundamentalism as potential problems to such an act. Iran’s potential to ‘hand over the bomb’ to a terrorist group is not in doubt. And that terrorist wouldn’t likely use it on them. They would be far more likely to use it on a prominent target in the west.

In an ideal scenario, Iran would capitulate to economic sanctions, and diplomatic avenues. But we live in a far from ideal world.

Is the United States perfect? By no means. Neither is any other country. However as a nation, we have been blessed with power, influence, and backbone. I don’t want it to come to the point of needing to make a strike against Iran to hold them accountable for atrocities they are and have been complicit with. But if no one else will take a stand, I pray we do.

the strip club

Obviously I have too much free time in my head. Yesterday, while celebrating the end of my rather blasé database course, my friend Matt and I decided to go hit up Cook Out for milkshakes – and yes, I got my all-time favorite peanut butter mint 🙂 – and it dawned on us, through some unknown sequence of conversation, that a perfect name for a furniture refinishing business would be ‘The Strip Club’.

That’s right, you can bring us your old, tired wood tables, chairs, and dressers, and we’ll smooth them down, and polish them up. No blowing through any jobs – we’ll do our work by hand. Is your bookcase taking a beating? Let us scrape off that old finish and massage-in the new. You can even bring in your buffet in the buff, and we’ll wax it for you.

Alright, I’ll stop now, but it was fun while it lasted :).

the good, the bad, and the ugly

I have had many teachers through the course of my life, and expect to have many more as time goes on. But something I have been able to identify very quickly about every teacher I’ve ever had, are their strengths and weaknesses of teaching the topic at hand.

My favorite college professor is Dale Bryant, the long-time computer science teacher at Hudson Valley Community College. Dale’s approach to teaching was fun, energetic, and engaging. And he was under the impression that if you wanted to learn, any way you could was great. If the way he discussed and presented material didn’t click with you, he didn’t mind if you went searching elsewhere for an explanation that worked for you. This happened many times with my friend John Deignan who would routinely ask me questions about programming concepts in general: object-oriented issues, library questions, the ‘how does this work’, and the ‘why do it this way instead of that way’ questions.

For John, Dale’s explanation of template classes and functions in C++ didn’t gel. But with both more time available, and an understanding of his personality, I was able to come up with a metaphor that worked for him.

I have been fortunate to have very few teachers who were bad, and even fewer who were ugly. One of my first-semester instructors at HVCC, in trying to teach us Excel and Access discovered that she didn’t know how to do the assignments in the book. And her idea of teaching was to ask questions of the class, and then practically shout the answer out if no one spoke up within about 10 seconds.

Contrast that approach with my calculus teacher who had (either on his own, or discovered) come up with little songs and ditties to help us remember how to do derivatives – including his famous quotient derivative rule song to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it”. Or my discrete structures professor who would crack jokes about having an 8AM class full of computer science folks who don’t start cogitating until lunch time.

Unfortunately, this semester I have had the experience of having another bad teacher. The first day of class sounded promising, and I was actually looking forward to his approach, but he quickly showed an inability to teach. He may know the material, and be able to perform the tasks required in database consulting and administration, but he can’t teach it. I had a leg-up on the rest of the class in having taken a couple database classes in the past, and of designing and implementing several on my own for either other classes, or personal projects. But when even the folks who have been to every class aren’t “getting it” (not just those who have missed half the classes), I have to wonder whether or not he knows what he’s doing.

The common trait across all the good teachers I’ve had has been interest in the subject. Whether it’s literature, composition, programming, terrorism, or something else, good teachers are interested in the material. The common trait I’ve seen across those few excellent teachers I’ve had has been the ability to connect with students, and not hold themselves above the student, but rather to remember what it’s like to not know yet.

The bad and ugly teachers I’ve had have shared something too, they’ve all been unable to communicate – and they’ve all forgotten what it’s like to not know. Some of them haven’t known the material, or have not cared. But they’ve all been unable to connect with their students.

I don’t know how good teachers appear. It might be by birth, upbringing, discipline, predisposition, personality, or because they had a great teacher who inspired them. Maybe it’s a combination of all of those factors. To those who are just blasé, I hope you can become better. To you who plain suck – please quit: you’re doing more harm than good.

But to those great teachers out there, thank you for your efforts – we notice.

beware the fury of a patient man

John Dryden was right.

A single, dedicated man is nearly impossible to stop. And one who waits a long time before exacting revenge is even harder – the target never knows that it’s coming.

I took an introduction to terrorism class during the spring 2000 semester at Hudson Valley Community College. The class served as a presentation of the causal factors behind terrorism, and how defenses against it are developed. As part of the class we were broken up into groups and given the task of picking a target, and then installing defenses against threats we thought to be most probable.

My group picked an embassy (using floor plans of a structure in downtown Troy NY). We decided that we could defend against anything other than kamikaze-style missions and nuclear weapons, but that it would be incredibly expensive to do so. In order to provide round-the-clock guards, we decided to station about 30 Marines at the embassy, install 30+ security cameras, maintain an extensive armory, and put metal detectors and X-ray machines at each entrance.

We had planned three routes of escape/attack for our building: the roof, the river (which was conveniently a few feet from the back door), and the front door. While we didn’t decide to station a helicopter permanently at the embassy, we were prepared for up to three to land on the roof and cart away refugees. To beef-up our external defenses, we installed 4 guard towers on the corners of the building, and put a Phalanx CIWS unit on the roof. We also armored the dock doors (which shielded our planned boat from the outside world) so an attack would not be likely to destroy one of our escape routes.

But the real issue we were most worried about was someone who didn’t bring a metallic weapon with him to the embassy, and yet was still dangerous. A rope, ceramic knife, cane, or any of a thousand other items could be easily smuggled inside the embassy, perhaps even in plain view, and there was nothing we could do about it. That dedicated individual, who may be operating under a shroud of not caring about his own life, would be practically impossible to stop – or even identify.

Even after that class, I have spent a lot of free time noting problems with physical security at various locations. The primary point I noted, due to my employer’s proximity, was the airport. I realized that taking-out the entire fuel supply for the airport would be a trivially-simple task for anyone who could shoot well at long ranges, and who acquired a few incendiary or tracer rounds. Positioning himself back a few hundred yards, and firing a handful of incendiary rounds into the large fuel tanks at the airport wouldn’t be hard – especially considering the fact that they are only typically behind chain-link fencing. And if shooting wasn’t his strong suit, he could just rent a moving truck, and slam through the fence into the tanks.

While performing my more-or-less mindless job of cleaning rental cars, I thought about how those tanks could be protected better. I designed several soft-armored ‘curtain’ arrangements made from layers of Kevlar and thin Lexan sheeting which could be suspended around the tanks from simple frames, and would provide a great deal of bullet resistance.

Stopping a kamikaze driver wouldn’t be too hard, either: just put in place some concrete or steel posts/barriers, and any civilian vehicle would be stopped from getting too close. Stopping a suicide pilot would be difficult, if not impossible, but defense has to stop somewhere.

From both my class experience and further personal reading, I am convinced we spend a lot of money on securing the wrong things. Yes, preventing some nut-job from hijacking a plane is a good thing. However, I think it would be a boon to airline security if people with legitimate carry permits were allowed to bring personal firearms onboard – in the passenger cabin, not just the baggage area.

A primary deterrent to crime is the thought that maybe the person about to be attacked will defend himself. In areas where legally carrying weapons is either inhibited or prohibited, criminals have a much easier time than where carrying weapons is allowed or encouraged.

It would seem to me that it would be a more effective use of security dollars to invest in real physical security and intelligence rather than what Bruce Schneier refers to as ‘movie-plot security’. We’ve spent money to make cockpit doors more-or-less invulnerable, but pull 84-year-old grandmothers out of line to be screened more thoroughly. Security is about identifying the most likely threats, and responding to them. It’s not about coming up with a possible attack, and defending against it alone.

When I worked on the embassy protection project, I kept trying to come up with other attacks that the proposed defenses would be able to handle. And if something we were proposing was really only useful against one highly improbable action, it was listed as discardable if it couldn’t be afforded.

We need more people coming up with real security devices, like my proposed curtains, rather than coming up with movie-plot scenarios.

government excess

According to Wikipedia, either a senator or a representative to the United States House of Representatives is paid an annual salary of $165,200. This year, the United States Senate was scheduled to be out of session for over 5 months. Even assuming they worked an above-average number of hours each week (and we’ve all seen C-SPAN, so I don’t think they can reliably say they do) – say 50 – they are only working about 1500 hours per year, not counting time spent on vacation, campaigning, giving speeches, attending rallies, and building dedications.

Being generous, it could be said they work 1500 hours per year, and are paid approximately $110 per hour. They also get preferential benefits, retirement packages, assistants, and the ability to spend other people’s money (they do control the nation’s purse, which is funded by taxes on our wages). They typically get free transport to and from home (via car and plane).

The United States has 435 representatives, and 100 senators (just for the states). So, we spend $88,382,000 on just raw salaries for those in congress annually! I find this appalling, personally. I think everyone should be entitled to whatever pay they can legitimately claim, but only when contributing to the profitability of their employer. The government’s job, though is not to be profitable, but to provide a legal system under which the citizenry can live, work, learn, and play. The government is supposed to be in the business of protecting its citizens. This means punishing crime, maintaining a military, and opposing oppressive activity. Beyond these, it should stay out of the way, and let its citizenry go about their business.

Unfortunately, governments also view themselves to be in the position of furthering their own power – even to the detriment of legitimate activity on the part if their citizens. Overall, I believe our government is among the better ones on this planet, but it still seems to go out of its way to impose more restrictions on its citizens than encouraging freedoms and liberties. In general, we have enough laws – we don’t need more, though we could probably use fewer. Our elected lawmakers, though, seem to think that if they don’t enact some form of legislation, that they’re not doing their job.

But spending tax dollars on pet projects, funding social programs, and attacking each other (and the citizens) is ridiculous. A cursory inspection of the federal budget shows a large number of programs and projects which could be better-run, -executed, and -managed by private industry. The same is true of state budgets. Beyond providing for basic services like police, military, roads, courts, and setting basic rules for those activities, I think the US federal government, and the state governments to large extent, waste fantastic amount of taxpayer money.

Several months ago, I wrote an article outlining a way of replacing our current, progressive tax system with a flat tax. What I left out of that article was a more focused reduction in spending. Especially the federal government, but states are guilty, too, funds projects that have no business belonging to the government. I’m all for funding research, the military, courts, police, and basic services like keeping roadways in good shape. But I think we spend far to much on other things that should be handled by private organizations – either mostly or entirely.

I think that most of the medicare and medicaid system should be turned over to private insurance companies, with an accompanying reduction in medical lawsuit fines and awards through capping and deauthorizing medical professionals from practicing medicine with too many formally-filed complaints and censures.

I think that airline passenger screening – the job that was federalized following September 11, should be returned to private contractors who report to the airlines, not the government. The airlines have a large vested interest in their passengers not being crazy, and paying for screeners, already being (I think exorbitantly) funded out of ticket costs ($5 per flight), should be passed-on to passengers directly from the airlines. I find it hard to believe that each of my flights really costs $5 to screen me – it only takes three tickets to pay one screener for an hour. Factor in some overhead for equipment, and I think we’re being overcharged.

My previous thoughts about social security, as outlined in my article on the flat tax, still stand. I think we’re paying into a system that can not provide for its users in a sustainable fashion. We should be able to leave social security and invest our own money for ourselves – or not. America was built on strong individualism, and if someone won’t provide for themselves, I think they shouldn’t be mollycoddled by the government. Those who can’t provide for themselves should be taken care of by their families when possible, charitable organizations, and only by the government as a last resort.

Before I am accused of being a military fanboy, I do want to say that I think the military has excesses, too. I believe soldiers are underpaid for their service, but that the military encourages a wasteful approach to using supplies. Training is very important, as is proficiency in a soldier’s occupational specialty. But the famous $20,000 coffee pot on the C-5A Galaxy is nuts. Put a Mr Coffee in there for $30 from Walmart. Some things have to cost a lot of money, like airplanes and tanks, but firearms don’t necessarily have to. In the quantities the US military purchases rifles, an M16 should be a couple hundred bucks at most. They could even switch to using something like the ubiquitous AK-47 which can be manufactured for less than $200.

Closing the loop, I think elected officials who are only scheduled to work 7 months out of the year need to start thinking about how much benefit they can bring to those who elected them. Not by building some bridge, or monument, or rail yard in their district, but by encouraging those who voted for them to help themselves. If they’re going to continue to be paid $165,200 per year, they can afford to buy their own plane tickets – they don’t need taxpayers to subsidize government VIP transports. Senators, representatives, judges, etc are civil servants – not masters. They’re supposed to be serving us, and I’d like to see them start doing it.

a day without immigrants?

Yesterday was the self-proclaimed ‘Day Without Immigrants’ – in which many immigrants, especially of the hispanic and latin persuasion, marched to show support for immigration reform.

I have met many immigrants, all of whom have come to this country legally, and they are all working hard to make a living for themselves, and to get ahead in the world. I wonder, though, how many of those who marched yesterday (many with police escorts!) were legally in this country? I hope it was most or all of them. If not, the INS lost a fantastic opportunity to arrest and extradite those who are here illegally.

But the real issue is not immigration reform: it’s enforcing laws we already have. We already have laws to handle becoming a citizen – and I know several people personally who have been naturalized to the United States. It was a fairly simple process, too, at least from what they’ve told me. They applied for green cards, work visas, resident visas, and whatever else they had to to complete the process of relinquishing their previous allegiances, and declaring themselves, before witnesses and with an oath, to be citizens of the United States of America.

America is a nation of immigrants – some of us have ancestors going back to the Mayflower, while others took the oath last Wednesday. But we’re all here – as Americans. Whatever the reason people have for leaving their former country in favor of the United States, I’m happy they’re here. As long as they follow our laws, and come here via legitimate channels, our country will continue to grow and prosper.

But those folks to sneak in and work for slave wages under fear of being extradited, I want them gone. Ship them home – they’re breaking our laws, and are criminals here. People who hire them, knowing they are here illegally, for whatever reason, should be punished: they’re criminals, too.

It’s really not that hard to become a US citizen, or to get permission to be here legally. I just want everyone who wants to be here to follow those rules.