Dad. Assistant City Manager. Surviving.

Category: Opinion Page 1 of 2

Please, everyone, let’s listen to a voice of reason like Walt Mossberg.

Be Crazy Like Steve Jobs

I’ve read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. I’m waiting on a copy of Becoming Steve Jobs from the library. And I’ve been reading the disagreements over how Steve Jobs has been portrayed (Medium, NYTimes, Daring Fireball). All the fighting and PR seems to me to have gotten out of hand.

Steven Levy with Medium hits home:

In the long run, though, I believe that the disagreements about Jobs’s personality will have diminishing importance as future students of technology and culture seek to understand what Steve Jobs actually did, and how he did it.

Steven is right on, but it’s only a small point in a bigger article about the “war over Steve Jobs”.

The benefit of these biographies of Steve Jobs is learning about Steve’s mindset. He questioned every assumption in every project and made sure they aligned with a bigger vision. That’s what we need to remember about Steve Jobs. That’s what we need to focus on.

Do you want to change the world like Steve Jobs? I don’t think you need to read a book. Just be crazy:

The Problem with New Open Source Social Media Platforms

The problem with the new, open source, social media platforms?

They (typically) don’t run on basic php/mysql web servers. Plain and simple.

I’ve written lots on open source before (see here), so needless to say I see a lot of value in open source software.

These new, open source, social media platforms I’m talking about include diaspora* (explanation here), MediaGoblin (explanation here), and (explanation here). Each of these require server resources above the standard shared server. Thus, the cost is to high for your average user. Typical shared hosting costs anywhere from $5 to $10 per month. Typical virtual private hosting (the next step up and able to run these platforms) costs anywhere from $15 to $25 per month. That’s a big difference for your average hobbyist. Like myself.

Sure, you can find pods or installs of this software to use. But part of the need for these platforms is that you can host and own your content. And there’s no guarantee of ownership when you’re using someone else’s install and someone else’s server. If I wanted someone else to host and manage my content, I’d upload my pictures to flickr or Google+.

I’ll compare to the WordPress content management system (on which this site is built).

WordPress has a huge user base. WordPress powers 23% of the web. Nearly a quarter of all websites run on the open source WordPress software. It’s not all self-hosted, like this site. Much of it is run on, an install of the WordPress software maintained by Automattic. But for most everyone else, it is self-hosted and runs on cheap, shared hosting.

And this is why I think WordPress is so popular. Cheap, shared hosting.

Cheap, shared hosting that any hobbyist can afford. That any business can afford. That any non-profit can afford. That any government can afford.

So here’s a shoutout to everyone working on the likes of diaspora* and MediaGoblin (and many others, and all the future open source platforms). Design it to work on cheap, shared hosting and on php/mysql. This combination powers most of the web. And it allows us hobbyists to run your software. I really want to use it and tinker with it and contribute to the code and contribute back to the communities around them.

But I can’t on my shared hosting plan.

Edward Snowden’s Lawyer

Edward Snowden’s lawyer, a look at the disturbing treatment of whistleblowers. On working with Snowden:

The secrecy of Radack’s work with Snowden requires two laptops beside each other: one standard Windows, and another running an encryption setup that she asks me not to describe in detail. There’s no Wi-Fi anywhere in the office; it’s too hard to secure. “I joke that I use drug dealer tactics,” she says. That means burner phones, paying in cash, meeting in person. “It’s a terrible way to work as an attorney, but you have to.”

On Jesselyn Radack’s own privacy:

Leaving the house in the morning, she spotted a black van idling on the street outside. She walked up to its window and asked the men inside if they needed anything. They said they were there for her neighbor, but were stumped when she asked for the neighbor’s name. “It’s about intimidation,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re surveilling you all the time, as long as you think they might be.”

And on Radack’s own treatment as a whistleblower:

One day, she got a call from her office telling her agents were gearing up to arrest her that night. The tip turned out to be wrong but it took a toll, sending her into a panic and aggravating her MS [multiple sclerosis]. Her pregnancy miscarried that night.

Scary. And shocking. Great work by The Verge.

Elon Musk on Process

Following up on my last post about Elon Musk, I’ve got another quote from the same article in Wired I want to share:

The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.

This is one of the reasons startups can innovate so much. How do we get government to this point? In some situations, having a process is good. But I’ve seen it get to the point where employees don’t question anything – they just follow the process.

Elon Musk on Risk and CYA

Wired magazine is running a great series on Icons to celebrate their 20 year anniversary.

For November, they profiled Elon Musk, an entrepreneur associated with Tesla Motors, PayPal, and SpaceX. This quote really stuck out to me; he was talking specifically about building space rockets here, but I think we all see this:

So, yeah, there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.

It’s sad, but that’s completely applicable to government. We have to create a culture in government that accepts risk and failure as a consequence of constantly improving.

I’ve got another quote from the same article I’ll post later.

The Need for Will to Get the Important Projects Done

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spoke at the POLITICO Pro Transportation launch event recently. I found Mayor Reed’s talk interesting, especially since recently Governing magazine published a piece on the five biggest infrastructure projects that might not get finished. I mentioned it at the time, but pointing out the ten biggest projects and that half of those might not get finished is extremely discouraging. We need these projects, and we can’t get them done. And one of the biggest (Denver FasTracks) is right here in Denver.

One of the five biggest projects (and I’m sure it isn’t the only one) might be finished later than 2030. Does anyone realize that we are spending money and we don’t what the need will be twenty years or more in the future? We need light rail, water and sewer improvements, transportation improvements, today. Who knows what we will need in twenty or thirty years? That’s why I keyed on Mayor Reed’s talk.

Mayor Reed had this to say about the need for infrastructure projects and the failure to get them finished (12:30 into the video, emphasis mine):

I don’t have a problem with our ability to compete with the Chinese. I do have a problem with us sticking our head in the sand. Other people are making infrastructure decisions so much faster, getting them done, and getting them built out. We have the same capacity to do it. We have a will problem in the United States of America. We know how to figure out the financing, we have political leaders certainly at the local level and at the state level who understand that this is critical and we’re watching our country decay.

Our country has an incredible need for infrastructure improvements right now. Our infrastructure is in decay. And we desperately need to put people to work. Yet we can’t even find the will to get the most important problems fixed this decade (or the next).

That’s why I’m discouraged.

911 Call Center Accepts TXT Messages, Why Don’t More

A 911 emergency call center in Iowa has become the first in the nation to accept text messages (also known as short messages, or SMS).  The Black Hawk Consolidated Public Safety Communications Center is the dispatch office for emergencies in Black Hawk County, Iowa.  Many jurisdictions and governments are looking to deploy the same technology, but Black Hawk County is the first.  Sadly, the 911 texting capability only works for citizens on a single wireless provider (i wireless).

This news item notes that the ability to text 911 is helpful for deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens and kidnapping or abuse victims.  The company that deployed the technology has a press release here.

My own little rant here is that more governments and emergency districts (or any, really, because this service is very limited) need to deploy technology like this.  A few places (mainly universities, like the University of Kansas and the University of Georgia) are beginning to use text messaging to send emergency notices, but the communications need to be two-way and more widespread to be truly effective.

As a side note, this must be groundbreaking for the citizens of this area, as neither the 911 Board or the Communications Center seems to have a website.

Stop the East Campus Smell

Thank you, Athens!  Finally the Athens-Clarke County Government is dealing with a problem that has plagued eastern Clarke County and the University of Georgia for years.  [That wasn’t sarcasm, was it?]

The problem?  The wretched smell known as “poop on the Loop” or the “East Campus funk”- the smell produced by the North Oconee River sewage treatment plant that reminds me of rotten eggs or human feces.  Visitors, residents, and students get to smell this all the time, in the areas around East Campus (of the University of Georgia), the Loop (Highway 10), and College Station Road.

And this is completely an environmental issue.  In the Environmental Protection Agency’s brochure titled Reporting Environmental Violations (pdf), the first listed “sign of possible violation” is “strong, offensive, or unusual chemical odors.”  Want to see the miriad of compliance issues the EPA has found at this smelly plant?

Today, the Athens-Banner Herald published an article about a new sewage treatment plant, which is under construction and scheduled to open on February 12, 2012 (yep, Athens has to put up with the smell for two and a half more years).

Why has it taken so long to fix this problem?  I say long because the East Campus stench was occurring when I first arrived on campus (2004) and won’t be fixed until 2012, or 8 years.

In my opinion, the smell has taken this long to fix because it mainly affects the University of Georgia community, and especially the students of UGA.  The North Oconee sewage plant sits across the river from the UGA campus (see the location from satellite), in an area where mostly UGA students reside.

So thank you, Athens-Clarke County, for attempting to fix this problem after the taxpayers in your county have put up with this smell for a decade.  Why couldn’t you have just installed scrubbers or something in the interim?

If you would care to see more information, the EPA’s website on the North Oconee River sewage treatment facility is here.  Their compliance status (or really, lack thereof) is here, and other information is here.

City of Bozeman Causes a Stir


The City of Bozeman apologized and has said they will stop asking for social media passwords:

“We appreciate the concern many citizens have expressed regarding this practice and apologize for the negative impact this issue is having on the City of Bozeman,” City Manager Chris A. Kukulski said in a statement.

“This was an honest mistake,” he continued. “Human Resources, our Police and Fire Departments were doing something they believed was consistent with our core values. I take full responsibility for this decision and we will work hard to regain the trust and confidence of the City Commission and our community.”

*End Update*

The City of Bozeman, Montana, has caused a bit of a stir with a requirement in their job application.  Their job application requires potential hires to provide the City with usernames and passwords to any social networks they belong to:

Please list any and all, current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo,, MySpace, etc. [source: Background check waiver, pdf file]

They mention Google, but I wonder if that includes Google’s email service, Gmail.

The City doesn’t seem to be worried about the privacy implications of requiring applicants to give up their logins, because the city attorney had this to say to the local media:

“You know, I can understand that concern. One thing that’s important for folks to understand about what we look for is none of the things that the federal constitution lists as protected things, we don’t use those. We’re not putting out this broad brush stroke of trying to find out all kinds of information about the person that we’re not able to use or shouldn’t use in the hiring process,” Sullivan said. [emphasis added]

So trust us, we are only looking on your Facebook pages for things that aren’t covered under Freedom of Speech.

The local news station has a followup story here.

The City Manager provided the reasoning for the requirement for login information:

City Manager Chris Kukulski said the city checks the sites in order to ensure that employees who might be handling taxpayer money, working with children in recreation programs or entering residents’ homes as an emergency services worker are reputable and honest.

This might be true, but employers didn’t have access to this type of information prior to social networks, and still they made employment decisions.

I find it hard to believe that someone would ask for your logins on an employment application, let alone a public organization.  A respect for social networking tools would allow the City of Bozeman to spread the work about their community, but instead they are getting flamed on Twitter and elsewhere.  I take special note of this comment on Slashdot:

This has certainly done a lot of damage to our credibility as a tech friendly city (there are strong optics and software/service companies already operating here).

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