Friday, January 16, 2009

When Nerds Attack!

WKOW didn't know what it was in for when it posted this story on its website.   A young woman(I'm not going to use her name.) bought a laptop from Dell to take online classes from MATC.  Somehow, she managed to unwittingly purchase a laptop preloaded with Ubuntu Linux instead of Windows.  She was assured of compatability by Dell but, when the computer arrived, she was unable to install the software provided by her internet service provider and could not figure out how she was supposed to submit classwork in Microsoft Word format without Microsoft Word. Thoroughly frustrated, she contacted WKOW who eventually got her straightened out.

End of story?  NO!

The young lady, and WKOW, had inadvertently managed to embody everything the Linux/IT community hates about people who don't understand technology. Then WKOW advertised it on the Internet

The Dell rep that told her the computer was compatible with her needs was telling the truth (whether the rep realized it or not).  The software your ISP sends you is generally useless. Ubuntu works with just about any router out of the box.  The suite can save files in almost any format you want.  Our intrepid student had thrown up her hands and dropped out of school over issues a determined person with a little knowledge could've resolved in a few minutes.

Happily, WKOW managed to set her on that path but, in the process demonstrated that they also didn't have a clue what they were talking about.  They called Ubuntu ". . .an operating system for your computer similar to Windows that contains Linux."

That's the equivalent of calling a Honda Civic a conveyance similar to a Chevy Suburban that contains car.  And thank heaven they got Verizon to send a technician to her house to make sure some of that adware gets installed.

The flame war commenced.  WKOW got ten times its normal web traffic and a heaping portion of scorn from angry Linux users, some of whom actually started harassing the poor girl herself on her Facebook page.

As a semi-proficient Linux user myself (I run two flavors of Ubuntu in addition to three versions of Windows) I understand the frustration with people who want to treat computers like appliances and the media outlets who coddle them.  

Ubuntu is an amazing achievement.  It's not just some quirky tech fad, it's a social experiment. It's a fully functional, highly sophisticated operating system developed and supported by an open community of developers committed to keeping computing free.  There's no large corporation and no leverage to force hardware manufacturers to make sure their products are compatible. Yet Ubuntu is a remarkably feature-rich and user friendly operating system.

To people who've watched the Free Software Foundation fight endless court battles with corporate hegemons to keep open source alive, it's a little insulting to have someone refer to Linux like it's some sort of chemical additive.

A little realism would help, though.   As crushing as it is to watch someone casually shrug off something you're passionate about, it's bound to happen.  Not everyone wants the kind of control and flexibility from their computers that Linux users demand. Lots of people . . .  most people are always just going to want to turn the thing on and have it do as much for them as possible without their having to think about it.

Microsoft and Apple (especially Apple) have created a heavily packaged, tightly controlled world for those people and their discomfort upon straying from it is understandable.  Yes, it would be nice if they took a little more interest in just what that thing they use to check their email really is or at least took the time to rationally troubleshoot simple problems but, if they did that, who would nerds make fun of?

This doesn't totally absolve Channel 27.  It would've been nice if, instead of making a few phone calls on the girl's behalf, then airing a navel-gazing puff piece patting themselves on the back, they'd bothered to look into what Ubuntu actually is.  

In any case, they're probably less likely to do this having now generalized to the Ubuntu community the bile spewed by a few disgruntled trolls.  If nerds had been meant to be understood, they'd have better social skills.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Economic Penance

I'm a big fan of Paul Krugman (hence my second post in a row about him).  The Princeton economics professor, New York Times columnist and recent Nobel laureate is a bit of a lefty folk hero which, of course, makes him a big target of the right.

I was reminded of this the other day when I noticed a post by George Lightbourn at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, attacking Krugman's advocacy of a super-massive federal stimulus package to stem the incoming tide of economic disaster.  While Professor Krugman doesn't have the time to respond to every conservative's misconceptions, a post on his blog a few days later provides a neat contrast between Krugman's broad-based number crunching and Lightbourn's blind adherence to conservative ideology.

Lightbourn's argument is based on the supposition that the current recession is the result of an over-lavish lifestyle over the past few years.  During the days of wine and roses we over-spent and over-borrowed.  The recession is the inevitable fall back to earth after the housing bubble burst under our feet.  If the government were to take out still more debt in the people's name to prop up federal and state spending based on unrealistic economic growth, we'd simply find ourselves further in the hole. 

It's a compelling argument but thankfully (the last few years were hardly lavish), it isn't true. Krugman's post is based, among other things, on this figure from the Congressional Budget Office.

The small type underneath the image explains that the horizontal line in the middle is an estimation of the country's potential gross domestic product, what our economic output would be if we effectively used our resources, labor and capital.  The plot line is the actual level of GDP and that vertical dotted line indicates where we are now, with real GDP projected to keep falling well into this year.

The difference between projected GDP and actual potential GDP indicates that, without stimulus, economic output over the next couple of years is going to fall well below capacity. Krugman is suggesting that the Federal Government take the necessary steps to bring economic output back up to where it ought to be.

The significance of this is that stimulus advocates are not, as Lightbourn claims, trying to use government spending to continue an unsustainable level of economic output.  They're trying to nudge output back up toward its natural level.  The spending shouldn't have to continue as a recovering economy should start to return to capacity on its own.  

It's also worth noting that this graph discredits the notion that the previous few years were somehow unsustainably extravagant.  The housing bubble was unsustainable but rampant speculation in real-estate only ever pushed GDP to just at potential in 2006, the height of sub-prime.  Otherwise, the economy was somewhat abysmal by historical standards. A real boom looks like the late 1990s where economic output soared well beyond projected capacity then crashed down to . . . well, the Bush era.

Hopefully, with solid stimulus and needed reforms of our regulatory and tax structures, we can create a balanced economy that keeps output at or near capacity based on the production of actual goods, ideas and services, not speculative bubbles.  In the meantime, there are trillions of dollars in needed infrastructure repairs to keep us busy. 

Or we could could follow conservatives like George Lightbourn who want to boldly stay where we are.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Medical Mishap

I suspect that this is a hoax, or John Conyers needs to fire his staff.   Apart from the typos mentioned in Tapper's post and the subsequent smarmy comments, there's also the fact that the link to Conyers' website doesn't work as posted (the redirect works when the 'C' isn't capitalized but it's actually . 

In any case, the Krugman post it links to makes a valid point.  One of the primary priorities of the Obama administration should be reforming the healthcare system.  A functional health care system would save lives and bolster the economy.  The Surgeon General might well play a roll in shaping and selling needed reforms.

In Sanjay Gupta's highest profile appearance on the overall state of the U.S. health care system, he made an ass of himself trying to discredit a man calling for reform.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Overture to the University?

It's official.  The Overture Center is for sale. . . for a buck.  The Overture Development Corporation can't handle the center's remaining $28 million debt and wants to give the center away in exchange for financial security.  Unfortunately, the intended recipient, the City of Madison, isn't very keen on handling the debt.  The offer to sell doesn't appear to be exclusive, however, and other potential buyers are bound to come up.  Apart from some yet-to-be-formed rescue entity, the obvious alternative would be the UW - Madison.  It's unlikely, but interesting.

There's certainly precedent.  The UW - Green Bay has owned the Weidner Center for over 15 years.  While the UW - Madison was tossing together the Humanities Building, forty years ago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built the Krannert Center, a performing arts center almost the size of Overture in a metropolitan area that's still less than half the size of Madison.  But these were centers built by universities on their own initiative.  There are plenty of reasons a university purchase of Overture might not work.

The UW - Madison's operating budget is ten times the size of the city's but that doesn't mean it's any better able to absorb that much new debt.  Even if the UW System weren't in line for another round of budget cuts, it's doubtful the legislature would acquiesce to the Madison campus putting $28 million on the state tab. 

The debt would have to be retired with private funds and, though the university's donor pool is larger than the city's, it isn't untapped.  The UW is already working on overhauling its own arts facilities.  Replacement is still the most practical option for the crumbling Mosse Humanities Building and Overture's part-time concert hall couldn't come close to absorbing the School of Music's 300-plus annual performances.  Yet the fund for a new concert structure stands at $20 million and, with $18 million to go, the music school doesn't need the competition.  This goes for the Art Department's new building project as well.

Add to that the necessary operating subsidy for a center of Overture's size when the university's existing arts programs are already underfunded and there's a substantial, probably insurmountable financial hurdle. 

Still, the possibilities are intriguing.  Plans for the new concert halls are modest and there are no plans at all to address the shortcomings of the theatres in Vilas Hall.  For $28 million (and one)  the University could secure occasional use of much larger venues than it would build for its own programs.  Ownership of a massive world-class facility could also go a long way toward raising the profile of the University's arts programs at a time when they need to reach out to the community.

The ODC's timeframe is cramped.  They want an answer by the first quarter of this year.  In the short term, the corporation is burning through 200 grand a month in interest payments and faces forclosure if the buyers balk.  It's important to remember that, in the long-term, the Overture Center will be fine.  It's larger than the old Civic Center but the city's a lot bigger than it was 30 years ago, too.  It's still growing.  If Madison's government lags behind that growth a bit, maybe it's time for the University to step in and take a larger role in the city's cultural life, if it can.

Update 1/8/09:  So it turns out I was off-base fretting over the debt.  Apparently the ODC is planning on taking care of that themselves.