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The personal journal of technology journalist and conference speaker Randall S. Newton.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Mark Felt, American Hero--And My Own Private Watergate

It will be thirty years this August since Richard Nixon resigned in shame, ending one of the darker periods in American history. Today, finally, comes word of the identity of a man who has until now only been known as "Deep Throat." Former FBI executive Mark Felt finally admitted that he was the "confidential White House source" who met with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward several times, guiding the Post's investigation just enough to keep it on track.

I was in college in those years. I had selected journalism as a major while in high school, long before Watergate began. During the height of the Watergate crisis, Mark Felt was a campus speaker. I was impressed by his stately bearing and his personable yet strong presentation. Compared to many campus settings, conservative Baylor was probably a cakewalk for a G-man like Felt, who spoke at many colleges, often to hostile reaction. During the question and answer, I asked him what kind of person the FBI recruited. My friends laughed at me afterwards, for asking a "Boy Scout meeting kind of question." But I wanted to hear him put into words what I saw on the podium. I don't remember the specifics of his answer, but I do remember he spent more time describing a person of honor than anything about college major or grades.

When I think about Mark Felt (whom I have suspected for years to be Deep Throat--I'm kicking myself for not having that prediction in print), I think about my own "Watergate" experience. During my senior year at Baylor a disgruntled football player started feeding me "inside" information about the football program at Baylor. He told of rules ignored, parking tickets fixed ... minor stuff compared to modern college football scandals, but stuff that shouldn't have been happening, especially at a Baptist university that espoused a higher standard. My advisor at the college newspaper (James Batts, a great teacher and seasoned veteran newspaper reporter/editor) cautioned me to be very careful, but to continue to pursue the truth. After weeks of trying to put together a story, I thought I had enough to confront the head football coach. This was the man who is now a legend at Baylor, Grant Teaff. I called him on the phone and read the first paragraph of my article. I could feel the anger coming through the phone. He insisted that I get myself down to his office immediately. When I arrived there, the director of the athletic dorm was also there (many of the allegations concerned rule violations in the dorm). Wayne Hatcher and I had worked together two years earlier, when I was a resident assistant in the same dorm, before it was converted to athletic use. By the end of the meeting, Teaff had successfully refuted all but the most minor accusations, Hatcher had convinced Teaff that I wasn't the kind of "journalism student radical" he originally assumed me to be, and we departed on good terms. I knew coming out that I no longer had a story, but I had done the right thing by going to the coach before the article was published. My "Deep Throat" had been a little too enthusiastic, exaggerating his claims; I suppose that came with sitting on the bench for four years.

I learned a lot from the experience: never rush to judgment, wait for all the facts. And, that I didn't have the "go to the jugular" passion to become a star reporter. I hated the confrontational aspect of reporting.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Gold Star Outrage

Various news sources are reporting this morning about the Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers who share in having lost a son or daughter in servive to America in the Armed Forces. It seems that Ligaya Lagman, of Westchester, NY, isn't good enough to join Gold Star Mothers. Her son, Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Lagman, was killed last year in Afghanistan in a firefight with Taliban insurgents, but her request for membership was denied because she is a permanent resident of the US, but not an American citizen.

This is simply outrageous. When the organization was formed, perhaps no one gave thought to the need to be more inclusive. But in this day and age, when the American melting pot is a rich as ever, it is nothing less than heartless and cruel to deny Ligaya Lagman, or any other mother of a fallen soldier, the dignity and honor of associating with those who best know her grief.

My heart goes out to each and every parent in this country who has lost a child to war; no less because of their country of origin. Gold Star Mothers should feel the same way.

According to the daily newspaper in Springfield, MA, The Republican, there are 30,000 members of the US military today who are the sons and daughters of immigrant parents, whom themselves are not yet American citizens. To limit the honor available to them or to their families is unthinkable.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Bear that Relieves Himself of Prime Numbers

Why would somebody create an "educational" website that uses a common vulgarity (transitive verb) to describe how an animated bear delivers prime numbers?

Monday, May 23, 2005

An Eloquent Good-Bye to the "Simpering Voices" of the Left

Keith Thompson writes an eloquent good-bye to today's liberalism in The San Francisco Chronicle: Leaving the Left: I Can No Longer Abide the Simpering Voices of Self-Styled Progressives"

Key quotes, if you don't have time to read the whole article:

A turning point came at a dinner party on the day Ronald Reagan famously described the Soviet Union as the pre-eminent source of evil in the modern world. The general tenor of the evening was that Reagan's use of the word "evil" had moved the world closer to annihilation. There was a palpable sense that we might not make it to dessert.

When I casually offered that the surviving relatives of the more than 20 million people murdered on orders of Joseph Stalin might not find "evil'" too strong a word, the room took on a collective bemused smile of the sort you might expect if someone had casually mentioned taking up child molestation for sport.


In the name of "diversity," the University of Arizona has forbidden discrimination based on "individual style." The University of Connecticut has banned "inappropriately directed laughter." Brown University, sensing unacceptable gray areas, warns that harassment "may be intentional or unintentional and still constitute harassment." (Yes, we're talking "subconscious harassment" here. We're watching your thoughts ...).

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

TiddlyWiki and the Birth of Morphing, Cloning Blogs

I discovered TiddlyWiki today. After a minute of poking around, I had yet another one of those jaw-dropping discovery moments ("Oh my, this IS interesting") that seem to be happening more often these days. (Another one of those moments happened last month; I would have posted about Ajax long ago, but I'm still trying to comprehend [insert "woo-woo" music here] the deeper meaning.)

TiddlyWiki creator Jeremy Ruston calls TW "an experimental microcontent WikiWikiWeb... It allows anyone to create personal self-contained hypertext documents that can be posted to any web server, sent by email or kept on a USB thumb drive to make a WikiOnAStick." Elsewhere he calls it "a reusable non-linear personal web notebook" which is a much better summation. Ruston elaborates:

"A TiddlyWiki is like a blog because it's divided up into neat little chunks, but it encourages you to read it by hyperlinking rather than sequentially: if you like, a non-linear blog analogue that binds the individual microcontents into a cohesive whole. I think that TiddlyWiki represents a novel medium for writing, and will promote its own distinctive writing style."

A wiki, by definition, is a web page or site that anyone can write to or edit. It seems that TiddlyWiki, by emphasizing the personal aspect of wiki technology, has created a wrinkle on blogging that will be swiftly adopted as the technology matures. If you click on a TW hyperlink, the browser doesn't load a new page. Instead, the content swiftly (don't blink) re-arranges on the page, to bring your selected item to the top. This re-arrangement isn't based on your internet connection speed, but on the speed of the computer you are using (since the content is already downloaded).

When a reader edits TW content, it doesn't change the original but instead creates a new TiddlyWiki on the reader's website, PC, etc. Blogs with comments enabled allow for a bit of two-way dialog; by comparison, it seems that TiddlyWiki use could lead to blogs that morph and clone as readers create, then edit, their own versions.

There must be a million web programmers out there who are looking at TiddlyWiki and saying "why didn't I think of that?"

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Google Releases Web Accelerator

Today Google Labs released another interesting product for beta testing, a web accelerator. It tries to improve surfing by pre-fetching material, caching popular pages on Google's web servers, parallel downloading, and "differential fetching"--trying to determine only what has changed on a page.

I've just downloaded the Firefox version (requires 1.x) of the Google Web Accelerator. There's also a version for Internet Explorer.

John Battelle comments on it here; Search Engine Watch goes into more detail on its functions here.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Natural Link Between Open Source and Homeschooling

Ted Leung is a software engineer, Open Source advocate, author, blogger, and, along with his wife Julie, a homeschooling parent. In this post Ted summarizes and expands the concepts of Doc Searls (co-author, "The Cluetrain Manifesto"), Thomas Friedman (New York Times columnist, author of "The Lexus and The Olive Tree," "The World is Flat," among others) and John Taylor Gatto (former Teacher of the Year, homeschooling advocate, author) to describe the natural link between open source methods and homeschooling.

Leung first quotes Searls:

Stop and think for a second here. How much of the world's best open-source code is being created by people who were trained to write that code in school? How much of it is the product of mentoring and self-education instead? How much of the intelligence behind it is as different as fingerprints?

What if the old industrial schooling system is as threatened by open source as the old proprietary software system?

Then Leung launches into his own thoughts.

This value system [described by Friedman in "The World is Flat"] is the value system of open source, of blogging, of home schooling, and other trends towards decentralization. And the value system of the traditional/industrial school system (not just public -- many private schools have the same philosophical orientation) are the reason that we prefer to homeschool.

As a former homeschooling parent, what others are saying about the natural connection between open source methods and homeschooling immediately clicks with me. Both are based on principles and methods that run counter to the prevailing organizing culture. In both cases, the conflict is between the institution and the individual. Homeschooling counters the one-size-fits-all and we-know-best mentality of public schooling with individuality and home-centered responsibility. Open Source methods counter corporate development methods and organizational hierarchy with peer-based production, peer-based decision-making, and modular development methods that scale up well for projects of any size.

Newton's First Law of Institutions is worth quoting here: The needs of the institution are always more important than the needs of the individual. Whether that institution is a software company or a public school, it will act in ways that encourage the status quo health of the organization if there is a conflict between the needs of the institution and an individual in it.

Microsoft Chairman and co-founder Bill Gates recently gave a speech in which he condemned the state of high school education in the U.S.:

When we looked at the millions of students that our high schools are not preparing for higher education – and we looked at the damaging impact that has on their lives – we came to a painful conclusion:

America’s high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.

By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

As Gates notes in his speech, he looks at this from two directions, employer and philanthropist:

I’m not here to pose as an education expert. I head a corporation and a foundation. One I get paid for – the other one costs me. But both jobs give me a perspective on education in America, and both perspectives leave me appalled.

When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow. In math and science, our 4th graders are among the top students in the world. By 8th grade, they’re in the middle of the pack.

By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.

The software industry today is being forced to recognize the value and importance of Open Source, not only for its particular software contributions, but also for its production methods. Open Source works partially because it de-institutionalizes software development. A huge part of the solution Gates seeks for U.S. high schools requires the de-institutionalism of education; a good model for it lies in the successes of the homeschool movement in this country. Decentralizing control, decentralizing responsibility, and decreasing student count per teacher are all part of the solution.

Our local high school participates in a Gates Foundation program designed for rural schools. I have been watching the progress and changes they have made. They are good changes, but they don't go far enough. They are still based on the needs of the institution. I don't think we as a nation have the courage and the vision to force schools to make the truly radical changes that are required. We need more renegades. The renegades who turned their backs on the software industry and rewrote the rules for software production and intellectual property have made a profound contribution to society. The renegades who turned their backs on the education system, becoming homeschoolers, have affected meaningful change for the sake of their own children, but it has done little for everone else. What we need now, in both environments, are renegades on a mission to reform from within.

The link to Julie Leung above is to her blog, where she also comments on these issues; she adds an interesting spin on the notion of "elite" that is well worth reading.

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