Texas Repulicans

Yesterday the Texas Republican Party released their platform. It’s terrifying. It starts out innocently enough saying that they plan to uphold the constitution and that everyone is created equally. However, that’s the end of the good stuff. As I tweeted out yesterday there’s a portion that says that they do not support teaching children critical thinking or anything that could lead them to question their current belief system or parental authority.

I can’t think of a better definition of science than critical thinking, questioning current beliefs and authority. When a scientist makes a discovery that doesn’t conform to the current scientific paradigm(program) accepting the results for the experiment REQUIRE these abilities. Looking at the faster than light neutrino fiasco of the past year is a perfect example of this. Scientists saw a result that was highly suspect (faster than light speeds), but they were willing to accept it, if it passed enough tests. They were critical of the results, didn’t accept it on face value, they were willing to question the current paradigm (relativistic physics) and the authority of nearly 100 years of work based on that paradigm.

This is also a case of biting the hand that feeds. Texas’s growth has been fueled through science, technology and research at businesses. With Houston as the center of the oil world, which is driven by better science of getting oil out of the ground, new technologies to do so and the research for increasing the conversion rates from crude oil to gasoline and other goods, you’d think that Texas would understand why it’s important to have scientists. While Texas doesn’t have as many Tier 1 research universities as California (3 vs 9) these three are extremely powerful and wealthy. UT is the 3rd richest in the country and Texas A&M is the 10th. They are both research powerhouses in the academic world. Creating policies that negatively impact the education system that feeds these schools is only going to hurt their abilities to compete in the future.

The Texas Republicans also want to “Teach the Controversy” with equal air time for every side of the argument. In this case when they get to evolution I hope the controversy they discuss is the recent disagreement between Evolutionary Biologists Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson, because that’s the biggest one going on in Evolution right now. However, I know this is not what they mean. They plan to teach the “controversy” of creationism in science class. This is as dangerous as not teaching critical thinking.

If you couple the lack of critical thinking with teach the controversy approach, you have a recipe for disaster. You create students that are unable to really understand the differences and take what the teacher believes at face value. If the “biology” teacher is a creationist (which has happened in some states) then they will not adequately teach evolution and the students will not understand why creationism is wrong and evolution is scientifically accurate. They will be unable to critically reason the differences. This is a terrifying prospect.

These are not the only areas that Texas Republicans are showing that they are out of touch with the youth of America. The DailyKOS has further analysis  a lot of the bad policy stances that are coming down the road in Texas from Republicans.

Upholding of Citizen’s United

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), upheld the controversial Citizen’s United ruling of two years ago. I’ve written about some of this in the past and I’ve talked to many people about the implications of this. However, there are two major tenets in this ruling that matter. One: that you cannot limit the amount of money spent during a campaign because that restrict free speech. Two: that two separate groups can raise funds and use their right to speech without corrupting the political candidate. Additionally, there were some ground rules that were established as to when you are considered breaking this ruling and in violation of the law. One of these is that the two groups cannot coordinate their strategies and that the two groups must remain independent of each other. 

In this most recent ruling, the SCOTUS essentially has stated that there hasn’t been any reason to revisit their previous ruling and that it now also applies to states. This is important as Montana had laws on the books that limited the amount of money that could be donated. This law was put into place to fight corruption in 1912.

This ruling is difficult because on one hand, at what point can you limit the amount of money someone wants to spend of their own money on political speech without restricting freedom of speech? If someone is willing to let you put ads up and pay money for it, isn’t it your right to do so? That part of the ruling is really difficult to argue with. However, The part that isn’t hard to argue with is the lack of independence. This has been pretty well displayed during the Republican primary. Without some of the mega funders campaigns effectively folded. Santorum is a prime example of this where his primary doner pulled out and that ended his campaign. Was this person willing to fund him because their views aligned extremely well or was Santorum changing his views to align more closely with the doner? We’ll never know to be sure, but it’s likely that there was conversations between parts of the campaigns and the doner.

In the US we will likely continue to have huge doners and this will likely continue unabated until we are able to pass a law or constitutional amendment to make this sort of donation illegal. Many liberals argue that the 1st amendment for free speech wasn’t designed to allow the wealthy to say whatever they want. That it was to give an equal voice to everyone. Sadly, media is run by people that wish to make a lot of money. Until we figure out a better way to disseminate political information that is unfiltered, we will likely continue to have the same unbalanced views portrayed.

Climate change more than melting ice caps

Yesterday I heard a report on NPR about how climate change is interacting with natural wild fires. I found an article about the paper, which was published originally in Ecosphere, which discusses some of the long term impacts of the climate change on wild fires. To do this, the group used 16 different climate models which ranged from very favorable emission numbers to catastrophic emissions numbers. This allowed for a wide range of different types of human activities and reflective climate changes in the area to be tested. This is important as it gives the article much more validity than if they had simply decided to use the worst case, or best case. Of course, there will be people that will argue that man has nothing to do with the climate and we aren’t impacting it. However, that’s sticking your head in the sand. We know we have impacted the climate in the past (hello Acid Rain) and have actually fixed it though changing our behavior (Acid Rain again).

Just using the climate models isn’t enough to really predict how and where wildfires will occur in the future. The wild fire itself had to be modeled as something where the conditions it could exist in can be tested. The group decided to model wild fire in the same way that movement of animals are modeled. Under certain circumstances it’s likely that an animal group will move into a specific type of environment. This is based on the amount of water, the amount of vegetation and the temperature. Wildfires need the exact same resources to exist. However instead of being lush and moist, the area needs to be dry, but with enough water to have had plant growth to a certain size.

By combing the two techniques the team was able to show that the West is going to be burning a lot more frequently than they are not. This of course creates a serious problem. People like to live in those areas. People don’t like to leave their houses when there are disasters, which means that we’re going to have more people burning, like the one in Colorado.

The authors, in the NPR interview, argued that this means we need to learn how to live with wildfire in the same way that we’ve learned how to live with floods and earthquakes. How can we do that though? It is likely to be more difficult than flooding because you can’t just build a mound of dirt as a ridge to prevent fire from moving further. With water you can do this with varying success. With fire, that mound of dirt will eventually grow grass on the mound and would just as easily catch fire. Even stone walls would be passable as a strong wind could blow embers over the wall or heat the wall to the point of material catching on the other side.

These are issues that we will have to resolve in the next 10-30 years. This seems like a long way off, but time has a habit of sneaking up on you and before you know it we’ll be having wildfires like we had in Texas last year and are having in Colorado and New Mexico now. I’m glad we’re aware of the extent of the risk now though.

Lean as a tool for new and mature companies

Today, I finished the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Despite the focus on entrepreneurship, I think this book has applications at many levels. First though, I must say that I’ve been using Lean for several years and I walked into this book with an understanding of Lean and how  to apply it at a company. What does Lean mean though? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean cutting staff, reducing the amount of money you have or anything along those lines. It’s a methodology for managing projects, processes and products. It does this by basing decisions on actionable data.

What is actionable data? Well, it’s data that you can do react to quickly if the data is showing trends. This could be a positive trend or a negative trend. If you see something going well and a process is improving over time, (which is abnormal processes typically go out of control over time) then you want to understand how and why it is improving. If it is getting worse over time, you want to understand why and work to improve the process. This isn’t just for machines but also for business processes.

Once you have valid metrics there are several different things you can do. You can simply jump in and try to fix whatever problem is there or you can take a different track. The other track is to do some root cause analysis of the situation. This is called the Five Whys. This is a series of questions that ask Why to understand the real cause of the problem. In one case you may have had a new employee upload something to the production server and it kills the production server. Understanding why might not be as simple as saying, don’t do that again. First you might want to know why the action of the employee took down the server, was it something he did that no one else would have done or was it something else. As you dive down you may realize part of the problem was lack of training but there were issues that would have arisen eventually from someone else. This deeper understanding allows you to make changes at multiple levels rather than installing knee jerk reactions.

That’s a reactionary use of Lean, some other interesting uses of Lean have to deal with experimenting with your product. Ries argues that most companies wait to long to engage customers and put too much effort into the first version of the software. He argues that a company should create a minimum viable product that can be tested to get the basic point across of the end product. Doing this early allows for experimentation with customer feedback. In the software world this is pretty easy to do. You can get to something that early adopters can use and then test changes. As you can route different users to different versions of your website for the product you can have slightly different tests to see what increases the metric that matters. Getting people to continue using your product, but you need to have very targeted metrics to understand what is actually happening with your software. If you use the incorrect metric you will do a lot of work that isn’t driving usage and isn’t driving your revenue.

If you decide to change the way users interact with your GUI, it would be useful to have a goal metric to truly understand if the GUI is an improvement over the previous GUI. This could be tracking the number of clicks it takes to get to an important function. The number of times the user uses your product, the number of times a new user uses the product, but stops using a specific GUI. Once you see your metric moving in the correct direction and you can be sure that it is the result of your changes, then you should end you experiment understand why the users reacted the way they did and try to learn what you should test next.

The early goal is rapid experimentation with purpose and data to back up the decisions you make. These techniques will work with any company, but will also be very successful for a startup.

Ex-Pat Entrepreneurs

This morning on KUT I heard about a plan here in Austin to encourage Mexican Nationals to start companies based in Austin. This initiative is being pushed by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Austin’s IC2, an incubator. I think this is a great idea. This will allow a great cross pollination of ideas between Mexico and the United States. Bringing together people with great ideas leads to more interesting ideas. This is something I really loved about my Master’s program. I was continually surrounded by people with big ideas, vision and energy.

I think that this idea also can help Americans see that people in other countries can have and do have, fantastic exciting ideas that can drive technology, the economy and employment. With our US-centric view of entrepreneurship and venture capital we tend to overlook this. It’s not fair and it short changes potential collaborators, because we assume that Americans have the best ideas.

This collaboration also shows that resources in America can be used to help develop entrepreneurship within a community of immigrants. We have seen some of this with Silicon Valley and the Indian and Chinese populations there, but we have not see it with another community in the US or with a Latin American culture. I think that this experiment will be useful in spreading knowledge and developing future entrepreneurs in Mexico to the south.  It will also likely lead to an increase in entrepreneurship within Mexico over time. It will not happen immediately, but a group of these entrepreneurs will eventually move back to Mexico and will start companies there or at least subsidiaries in their home country. This will produce more legitimate work for Mexicans in Mexico that could offer wages that can compete with the drug cartels and develop a larger business community.

This type of growth is important for Mexico, as it will increase the amount of resources for Mexicans to develop their own businesses. It will increase legitimate pressures on the government to fight corruption and make efforts to reduce the impact on organized crime on the government. It will provide employment for highly capable graduates from Mexican universities which will continue to drive improvement for the country.

Most of this is a decade or two in the future, but there will be a great deal of benefits for both Austin, the Hispanic community in the city and for Mexico. Austin will benefit, because it will continue to grow as entrepreneurs will bring more money in, more jobs and new ideas.

The Mexican nationals will fuel increase knowledge sharing between the US and Mexico and will act as de facto ambassadors for their home country. They will educate people on the real Mexico and show Austines that Mexico has a great deal to offer besides amazing food.

Stuxnet, Flame and security

First of all, I’d like to thank all my readers, I’ve had over 10,000 views in my first year of blogging. That’s amazing and is so many more views than I expected to ever have. Thank you for making it well worth my time to blog!

Recently a friend of my asked me to comment about the latest cyber attack, Flame, uncovered by Kaspersky, a Russian security firm. It’s still not entirely certain who unleashed the attack, but at the time I argued that it could have been Israel acting alone as they have a very capable tech sector. They put out high quality software, they have security experts and they have some serious R&D from US companies like MS and Intel.

Flame targeted Iranian computer systems, very much like Stuxnet did. At the time, it was unclear who released Stuxnet, which attacked Iranian centrifuges. It could have very easily been Israel acting alone or with some help from the US. Being a realist I fully expected the US to be involved, however I did not expect Obama to have issued the order himself. Based on history it is equally likely that Flame was initiated by the US as well.

Flame targeted data being sent over the internet such as PDF, Office and AutoCAD data and did not actively attack anything like Stuxnet did, according to Kaspersky. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not being used by a spy agency. It’s also interesting to note that the infected computers are all outside of the US, which indicates that it could very easily be a US spy agency as they are not usually allowed to spy on US citizens.

These two programs leave me with a great deal of concern, because “the Pentagon has concluded that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force.” Does this mean that if Iran responded with military force that our own Pentagon would argue that they were justified? I don’t think they would, but essentially they already have.

Aside from the risks of war it also gives greater leverage for a regime like Iran’s to argue for a more suppressed internet. They can now without any worry claim that they are doing it for national security. They are doing it for that reason, their centrifuges have been attacked (Stuxnet) and their people are being spied on (Flame). In addition other repressive regimes will likely use Flame as justification as a crack down on the internet. There may also be repercussions for Microsoft as Flame exploited a weakness within their auto update.

This also raises other concerns about what other types of cyber programs Obama has given the OK to. As he is the most technically savvy president we’ve had since the rise of the Internet, I think he fully understands the choices he is making. With Bush it may have been argued that he didn’t really understand as well what he was approving as he doesn’t have an in depth knowledge of how people use the internet and how systems interact with technology. He also wouldn’t have a good understanding of how viruses like this could turn against their creators. In this case Obama should. He should know that once in the wild a worm can mutate in a way that could turn against the people that released it and that we could destroy ourselves.

I think that these actions will weaken our position in any negotiations with Iran and possibly other countries that we have pushed for a more open internet. They could, rightly perhaps, argue that we only want the internet open, so it’s easier for us to infiltrate.

I don’t believe that’s the reason. I believe that the internet is the an amazing tool that has improved people’s condition to at least some extent. It has allowed for freer flowing of knowledge, but it can be used for wrong just as easily as any other media or communication tool.