Time is Saved

The Electronic Frontier Foundation just won the most important legal case you didn’t know about this year, and protected the existence of the Olson Time Zone Database.

San Francisco – The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is pleased to announce that a copyright lawsuit threatening an important database of time zone information has been dismissed. The astrology software company that filed the lawsuit, Astrolabe, has also apologized and agreed to a ‘covenant not to sue’ going forward, which will help protect the database from future baseless legal actions and disruptions.

Surprisingly enough, the world’s timezones aren’t kept by an inter-government committee, but by a few intrepid volunteers. This was really important to protect, and you should consider becoming a member of the EFF to protect these kinds of things in the future.

The Future of Libraries

The metafilter comment that’s been circling about what the massive cut to library funding in California really means:

Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. Forget trying to form grass roots political activism by creating a society of computer users, forget trying to be the ‘people’s university’ and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook (well, that is if they had any of their 2 hours left when they were done). What were we doing during the nineties? What were we doing during the boom that we’ve been left so ill served during the bust? No one seems to know. They come in to our classes and ask us if we have any ideas, and I do, but those ideas take money, and political will, and guts, and the closer I get to graduation the less and less I suspect that any of those things exist.

I’m a big supporter of libraries. We give annually to our local library (both financially and books and DVDs). I think Librarians are some of the few folks that really get what Copyright should be, and are very reliable advocates for sane copyright policy.

But at the same time I’ve got substantial frustration with parts of our libraries. I’m involved with multiple organizations that create really high quality educational content (MHLVUG and the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association being the topic examples). For 9 years we used the Mid-Hudson Library System space (for a fee) with MHVLUG. It was a great space, but there was a huge missed opportunity, as our relationship with MHLS was always just that of a tenant. At the end, MHLS cutbacks meant we had to find another space, where we moved to Vassar College.

Contrast this with the Astronomy events I’ve led at Vassar College’s Farm Preserve. Not only were we given space, but we were wrapped into their series of events on the Farm Preserve, with joint advertising by the College. That led to huge turn out, and lots of positive feedback for both the College and our group.

The Library could be this kind of thing. And if it was, it would have the Hubble effect, where the citizenry were so invested in the organization that they wouldn’t let it get cut. There are some libraries that are thinking about, and embracing these kinds of ideas. The Fayetteville Free Library is doing some amazing things with setting up a Fab Lab. Lauren Smedley is an inspiration to what the future library could be, and lots of kudos to FFL for hiring her to try to make this happen.

I’m hopeful by nature, and I think our libraries will transform, eventually. But I do think it’s going to take a new generation of librarians to think past just books, and think about community at a broader level.

Tech Volunteerism

Twice in the last month I’ve been contacted by friends I’ve made in the local tech community with questions about tech volunteering they are doing, or planning to do for local non-profits. I, hopefully, was able to provide them with some pointers and info to help them out.

I find that awesome. Not the me helping them out part, but the fact that they’ve gotten engaged and are giving back some of their vital skills to local organizations in need.

Over the past couple of years, through my work with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, and the IBM year of service, I’ve realized that tech volunteerism is quite a rare thing. While there are a lot of techies in our area, when most of them volunteer, they do so in a non tech role. They are board members, and program leaders, which is good and important, but the very real technology needs are often overlooked.

Those conversations, plus a few other in the last month, have made me really start thinking about more ways to encourage and nurture more of this in our area. I’d love to have a peer group where I could share these experiences, and learn from others. This is a whole other master plan.

So, if you are a techie of any sort (developer, designer, it guru), consider giving those skills back to your local community. It’s something very few can give, and very many need.

Open Source Tractor

NPR did a piece this morning on the Open Source Ecology project:

Jakubowski moved to Missouri, where he eventually bought 30 acres in the town of Maysville. He grew wheat, raised goats and tended a fruit orchard. But then one day, his tractor broke.

“I came from an institution of higher learning, so I had no practical skills,” he says. “I picked up a welder and a torch and started using it.”

Jakubowski actually made a tractor from scratch, using square steel tubing that he bolted together.

“A tractor is basically a solid box with wheels, each with a hydraulic motor,” he says. “So, conceptually, it’s actually very simple. And when I first did it, it was like, ‘Wow, a tractor’ … I was amazed to find this actually works.”

It’s a pretty amazing effort to identify the 50 most critical machines to modern existence, and create open source versions of them that can be built from raw materials.

Centers of Gravity

The past couple of years something interesting has been happening with the Linux Users Group, it’s growing. After a long number of years of lulling in the low 20s and sometimes teens in meetings, we’re now regularly in the 30s and ran up past 40 folks twice last year. Our last meeting had 34 people in the room for the lecture, and 19 come out to dinner afterwards (and this is all in a new location that’s slightly harder to find). I’ve had various theories as to why, but another one cropped up last night after the Hudson Valley Drupal Meetup: Telecomuters.

There is a new reality out there, with a very large chunk of the population telecommuting. But giving up an office means giving up lunch with colleagues, and the small talk and hallway chatter that gets the brain juice flowing. These things are really important for a healthy psyche, and a healthy business, so people are reaching out for new face to face venues to get those interactions. This has taken the form of coworking spaces, regional conferences, and users groups. These are becoming new centers of gravity for the tech world.

Last night, after the Hudson Valley Drupal Meetup, some really cool connections were made between local folks, and I’m really excited to see what comes out of it. None of it would have ever happened without this growing constellation of face to face technical communities we’ve got in the Hudson Valley: MHVLUG, Squidwrench, and emerging so, the Drupal Meetup.[1] I am really fortunate to be a part of this, and to have great peer Organizers in Sean Swehla and Ben Stoutenburgh that are equally dedicated to fostering this. While each of these entities are distinct things, they feed into each other very strongly, which is becoming a great virtuous spiral.

If you haven’t checked out your local technical community, you are missing out. Start with Google and Meetup and see what’s going on, because you might be really surprised and impressed with what’s in your own back yard.

1. I play favorites here because these are the groups I’m actively involved with, but we’ve got a more comprehensive list at the HVSTEM Calendar.

Skills for the 21st Century

Maybe the real missing skills for a 21st century leader are buiding a house:

I agree that a liberal-arts education provides those intangibles. But maybe it’s time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions.

The problems that today’s college-going generation will face in the future are enormous—and the stagnant economy is just the beginning. Climate change, fossil-fuel constraints, rotting infrastructure, collapsing ecosystems, and resource scarcities all loom large. Meeting those challenges will require both abstract and practical knowledge. For example, some scientists have fretted over the world’s limited supplies of rock phosphate, which is used in agriculture. Because we live in a country that has more people in prison than in farming, most people could not tell you that phosphorus is one of the three vital nutrients needed to grow food crops, nor could they name the other two, potassium and nitrogen (the latter of which is produced mostly by burning finite fossil fuels). Even if students never work in agriculture, such knowledge could help them as aspiring businessmen, future policy makers, or mere citizens.

This isn’t about going back to the land, but about a merger of the skills of our grandfathers and the skills of our emerging world. Understanding a range of these skills is important to navigating the complex world we live in.

Economist on Labor in China

Via Mike Daisey’s blog I was led to the following bit by the Economist:

Anyway, that’s one angle: sweatshops are awful, but working a tiny rice farm is clearly worse, judging by the workers’ own preferences. However, the stance one takes on this depends on the question one is asking. An article on hardships in the garment industry in New York in 1909 might have elicited the response that things couldn’t be too bad since people were still immigrating from eastern Europe by the millions to take these jobs. Clearly they were better off working in a sweatshop in Manhattan than leading a miserable existence of poverty and repression in a shtetl in Poland. But at the same time, these workers were angry enough at the conditions they were subjected to that they staged the massive shirtwaist strike that year. Needless to say, that kind of politically free labour organisation is much harder to conduct in China because the state bans the formation of independent unions not controlled by the Communist Party. There’s a sequence in Mr Daisey’s piece where he describes seeing Foxconn’s perfectly open blacklist of employees who are to be immediately fired and not accepted at other factories because they are “troublemakers”; Mr Daisey notes that in a fascist dictatorship, you don’t have to resort to euphemisms the way management does in democracies. And that, too, rings true from my talks with underground Vietnamese labour activists. It’s hard to say how big the discount is on the manufacturing price of an iPhone due to the Chinese state’s ability to repress the formation of labour unions, but it’s not zero.

And I think that really hits an important point. Manufacturing in a totalitarian state means that there is an extra pressure against wage increase because labor organizing is a punishable crime.

There is some other great stuff in the article as well, so you should read the whole thing.

Tip of the Day: Google Maps styling

Tip of the day: If you are trying to embed Google Maps in a website, and things look horribly wrong, make sure that the following css style rule exists for your map div:

#whateveryourmapdiviscalled img {
   max-width: none;

Google maps makes really interesting abuse of width for it’s layout. I’ve got img max-width at 98% for the rest of the site so that images scale down correctly in the responsive design, but for google maps, that just causes chaos.