June 30, 2007

The Worst of the Web: Punditry 2.0

Category: Academic,Tech,Wikipedia — Biella @ 6:04 pm

Tonight, instead of minding my dinner, which did burn, I was drawn into and extended a pretty fiery IRC conversation on debian-devel on a topic that does not like to die: the merits and demerits of Wikipedia.

It is not worth summarizing the conversation here for it followed a pretty predictable arc. There were those who thought Wikipedia was novel and valuable, others who saw it as a pit of bad facts, and inaccuracies and a few others who saw it in ways negative and positive. I found the conversation somewhat ironic, because I usually find myself defending free software to outsiders much in the same way I was defending Wikipedia to free software developers.

I tend to be in the camp of admirers, and for many reasons, although, of course, I also was arguing that it is too early to judge the value of Wikipedia as it is in its infancy. Like Debian, since Wikipedia is an institution that has changed *a lot* in its short history, it is hard to make any hard and fast conclusions about its worth, impact, etc, although more modest and qualified claims are certainly in order.

The only reason I feel like I can argue anything about Wikipedia is because I am currently reading a dissertation on Wikipedia by Joseph Reagle. He not only has really insightful things to say about the collaborative culture driving the online encyclopedia, but also about the prolific commentary that has closely followed the heels of Wikipedia in the last few years.

Just today, he wrote a blog entry entitled, Punditry and The Web 2.0 debate, which so hit the nail on the head on the problems–not with Wikipedia–but with the peanut gallery (commentary) on Wikipedia.

As he notes, the problem is often not with the so called correct or incorrect judgments on Wikipedia (or other Web 2.0 phenomenon) but with the very debates themselves, because many of them are built on a shaky foundation of sand, but this punditry, as Joe rightly calls it, is nonetheless worthy of critical examination:

.. while I follow the discussion with interest, I actually don’t find it substantively engaging. Many of the arguments, particularly Gorman’s, tend to be characterized by unsubstantiated claims and the purposeful construal of nuanced issues as extremes — propping up strawmen for subsequent potshots. As I’ve already indicated, while it might bring pundits a sense of righteousness and attention, in the end “Time, not arguments, will utlimately tell.” (And, for this reason I appreciate Larry Sanger’s continuing efforts to implement his vision.)Why, then, do I find this discussion of interest? Punditry, communicative disorders, and history. First, I’m trying to come to an understanding of “punditry,” and I think Gorman’s recent bloggings is an exemplar. My sense is that sometimes people argue for arguments’ sake. That is, even if they genuinely believe the thing they are arguing for, attention, not persuasion, is the goal. (In a sense, perhaps it is a high-brow, and perhaps more genuinely held, form of trolling — another interesting phenomenon.)

While punditry has always existed, there is no doubt that the Internet has accentuated and facilitated this form of (often male) communication and it is great to see someone tackle this topic. Because let’s face it, there is a lot more “garbage” spewing from Web 2.0 or Wikipedia commentary compared to than the actual Wikipedia articles themselves.


Category: F/OSS,Hackers,Humor,Tech — Biella @ 5:25 am

This FUD is not spreadable, but it does make… , and was previously noted in Mexico last year.

June 28, 2007

Minimizing Lingusitic Drift for the Sake of Political Clarity and Integrity

Category: Academic,Ethics,F/OSS,Hackers,Research,Tech — Biella @ 6:24 am

I am finally catching up with the remarkably thick goulash of email and blogs entries that comes from traveling for well over a month and today I read one in particular When is Open Source not Open Source? that captivated my interest for it compellingly addresses the dangers that follow from diluting, or one might say hijacking, the term open source.

When people learn that I study “free software” one of the most common questions I get asked is: “why did I chose free software over open source?” The answer is quite simple: given that the bread and butter of my research covers ethics, freedom, and liberalism, free software is the obvious path to follow, yet I also feel like a lot of my work is still relevant to the open source camp because of the affinities between the two.

I have long maintained that the ideological gulf between open source and free software is not so great nor impassable, but more modest. As most know, both share a certain strong commitment to access and in a strict technical sense they refer to the same set of licenses. Philosophically there is agreement that openness and, especially, non-discrimination are essential for the quality of software and often by close extension, the vibrancy of community responsible for the software.

Of course, when pontificating the ramifications and implications of openness, they do part company and enter into different territories. Free software tends to flag rights and freedoms, while open source meanders into a discussion of markets, business, and competition and in this regard they do craft different visions of the social world and human behavior, etc.

But the case that Karl Fogel writes about, where OSI is strongly opposing the use of the term open source for licenses that don’t adhere to the definition demonstrates where the two positions join. As Michael Tiemann from the OSI succinctly put it:

“The FSF may have got the orthodoxy wrong, and the OSI may have got the interpretation wrong, but we both agree that prohibition of commercial use without special permission is antithetical to both positions.”

There is a unmistakable kernel of agreement and it is great to see the OSI taking such a strong stance in this regard.

Now, David Richard’s response, who seeks, I think, to essentially dilute the term open source, is as (or perhaps even more) fascinating for in a nut shell, and using a lot of florid religious imagery, it accuses the OSI of being too rigid! In his own words:

“I believe the OSI has a wonderful opportunity to continue being relevant and helping to lead the movement forward. If, however, y’all choose to define your denomination of this religion in a way that we don’t fit in, that’s fine. No hard feelings. It’s your choice. You’ll ultimately be excluding a large congregation and we for one will continue trying to build a church made up of others like ourselves.”

In response, I would say that the goal of F/OSS is not to be inclusive of anyone who wants to release bits of source code, but to create the conditions under which software, as it has been defined by the community, can be created. Join the “church” if you would like to make free/open source software as defined and you can go elsewhere (i.e., create a different term) if you are creating something different, even if it is only slightly different.

Integrity matters.

And again inclusiveness, if it comes at the expense of the main goal, is not a boon but a danger to F/OSS. The OSI will remain relevant by halting the dilution of the term OSI, not by expanding the definition so that it is left with no substance.

And in contradistinction to what David Richard maintains, however, there is a great degree of flexibility within this domain but it does not lie in the strict definition of F/OSS but in the realm of interpretation. You are also free, as Mako and I have argued elsewhere to interpret the significance of F/OSS in multiple ways.

And I think this is where the political strength of free software lies. There is interplay between a well-defined goal (in this case for creating free software) and a more flexible realm of interpreting the significance of these technical practice.

And we wold lose—and I might add, a lot—if we became flexible about the strict definition of F/OSS and inflexible about its political significance.

I get irked with folks like David Richards who would like to bend open source rules to meet their (often commercial) interests and I find it pretty naïve when folks say the political significance of F/OSS is just x (or worse should be x) for in reality its political significance lies in the fact that it has spawned multiple types of political and economic projects.

And there is something almost playfully ironic, (or at least it makes me smile) in this fact. Though there is strict definition contained withing F/OSS, this strictness has, at least to some extent, encouraged by an extreme and very healthy form of political proliferation and promiscuity.

More than anyone else I know, Mako has most passionately and thoughtfully argued for the importance of what I would call political clarity and integrity. That is, the importance of having a well articulated definition for social movements, for they act, as he says “a rallying point” to realize a social movement. Urging the Creative Commons to learn from F/OSS and dare to simultaneously narrow and more clearly define their goals, he states it quite nicely in the following terms:

“Free software advocates have been able to use the free software definition as the rallying point for a powerful social movement. Free software, like the concept of freedom in any freedom movement, is something that one can demand, something that one can protest for, and something that one can work toward. Working toward these goals, free and open source software movements have created the GNU/Linux operating system and billions of lines of freely available computer code.”

In essence, a definition that people can abide by, respect, and perhaps eventually cherish is the condition of possibility to make “working political code.” And given how hard it is to make social change happen (at least in comparison to build computer code), we should learn from what F/OSS has to offer.

And at the same time there is another lesson embedded in F/OSS. The Free Software Definition is well defined; but it must be emphasized, narrowly so. It does not try to do everything and have everyone pledge allegiance to an inordinately complex set of commitments.

Clarity, narrowness, and well-defined goals –> these three attributes have powered it far and wide and I hope it remains so.

Now, since the term open source is not trademarked, we are left with the problem of how to challenge the current hijacking of the term. For the solution, I will leave you with Karl Fogel, who I think proposes a good solution:

Note that the OSI’s objection is not to the Zimbra license per se. The objection is just to Zimbra’s calling that license “open source”. They can use any license they want, but they shouldn’t call it open source unless it actually is. Freedom is freedom, and no amount of spin will change that.

So what should we do about this?

The term “open source” isn’t trademarked. Years ago, the OSI tried to register it, but it was apparently too generic. …But there is public opinion. What Danese and Michael are proposing doing is organizing a lot of open source developers (and I mean “open source” according to the traditional definition, the one the OSI and I and most other open source developers I know adhere to) to stand up and, basically, say “All of us agree on what the definition of ‘open source’ is, and we reject as non-open source any license that does not comply with the letter and spirit of the Open Source Definition.”

June 26, 2007


Category: Debian,Hackers,Tech — Biella @ 5:51 am

I am back home watching footage from this years debconf, which of course is already working to feed the nostalgia. I have more to say about the conference but just wanted to thank everyone for a great debconf and here are some of my photos.

June 22, 2007

Happiness is…

1. Being at debconf.

2. Having your blog entry slamming Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ be on the first page of a google search using both the terms Blue Cross Blue Shield New Jersey as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield Horizon.

June 18, 2007

The Pale Trinity

Category: Debian,Hackers,Tech — Biella @ 5:22 am

Get these boys some sun

June 16, 2007

Mother’s Maiden Name is Bad Security

Category: Citbank,Security,Tech — Biella @ 6:23 am

So one of the (many) sucky things about having a parent with alzheimers is that someone usually has to take complete responsibility over their financial affairs. That person happens to me and the transition, I have to say, has not been all that smooth nor easy.

Manging less than 20,000 per year while a graduate student was somewhat manageable. Taking care of my mom’s finances, bills, expenses, bank accounts, insurance etc. on top of mine, and largely doing this long distance, has been a whole other (difficult) ball game.

To try to make things easier, I chose to use Citibank as I also have a joint account with my mother with them in PR. Well, life has not been made easier by this but, in fact, has been made harder.

In a nutshell, the problem is I can’t LINK nor even transfer money, between my US based Citibank and my PR based Citibank, which is somewhat ironic (and imho, really messed up) because one can transfer money from a non-Citibank bank into a Citibank account (which means, soon I will no longer have a Citibank account).

Why? Aside from the fact that PR always seems to get short changed, I had a conversation on the a very nice customer service person who let me know that there is just a lot of fraud between Puerto Rico and the United States. And one way they keep it in check is by disallowing links (and even one time transfers) between Citibanks in PR and US.

Now, I can’t speak completely to the cause of the high prevalence of fraud but I am sure that their “security” practices don’t help, for in fact, like many banks, their security is especially insecure, particularly vulnerable in Puerto Rico and all of Latin America. And the security hole has to do with a cultural practice.

In a nut shell, the main security question you are asked on the phone when you call in is your mother’s maiden name. Now in the United States (and I think Canada), your maiden name is may not be all that common of knowledge. But in Puerto Rico, it is *super-duper* common knowledge. Not only do people just know this, but it is printed everywhere, like your license.

So Citibank:, perhaps one reason driving the high level of fraud is bad bad bad bad security.

I have tried to let customer service know of this problem but outsourced Indian labor just does not get my explanation (I don’t think there are scripted computer answers for my concerns) and those who get it, don’t seem to do anything about it.

What will it take to change this?

For those of you still bound to Debconf

Category: Debian,Tech,Travel — Biella @ 5:01 am

Sorry if someone has already mentioned this, but I don’t think it hurts to repeat it.

If you are heading to Debconf and are traveling through Heathrow, and I reckon any UK airport, keep all your stuff to 1 bag total. Or make sure one piece can fit in the second so you can more easily pass through security.

June 13, 2007

Oprah collecting health insurance stories

Category: Blue Cross Horizon,Insurance,Tech — Biella @ 3:02 pm

I promise to write about something else very soon, but I have to post this given what I have just written. Ms Oprah is seeking Healthcare Insurance Company Experiences

Tell us about an experience you had with your healthcare insurance company. Please write in only if you are willing to appear on national television.

I am sure my story is babycakes compared to the scary stuff that is actually happening out in the so-called “Land of the Free.” Like people being denied some cancer treatment, them dying, and then some of the head honchos feasting on their major organs, but hey, I submitted anyway.

June 12, 2007

Housebreaking Your Health Insurance

Are you having trouble with your health insurance? Are they stalling on paying a bill? Denying a claim? Not telling you what the heck is going on?? Well you can and should take action to eliminate some of the mystery and move forward, and possibly win fight against the health insurance company.

Thanks to my unpleasant ordeals with BCBS of NJ, I have compiled some handy resources and tips to get you started. Good luck and I welcome any other tips that you think should be here. Please email them to me at biella(at)gmail(dot)com

Can’t get a straight answer when dealing with health insurance representatives on the phone? Are different representatives providing different and contradictory information? Does talking to the representatives leave you with a pounding headache? Then the following may be helpful:

1. Ideally you should tape record all conversations. If this is not possible, get the name or employee number of the person you are talking to and write down what they told you along with the time and date. If they have agreed to something, make sure they send it to you in writing. This sort of documentation may come in handy later when you are trying to contest or prove something.

Is your insurance company flip flopping on a claim? For example telling you that the claim is still being “reviewed” but sending you statements that indicate it has not been paid and never will be? What action can you take to inch things forward? The following may help:

1. Most states have a Department of Banking and Insurance and they are there to help you. Many (perhaps all) provide a service for filing a complaint against your health insurance company and other insurance and banking companies too.

When I used the service in NJ , I got assigned an investigator and their service was prompt and helpful. It was my experience that even though they were not able to resolve my issue, the insurance company started to make firm decision on many claims and this alone has been helpful. Before this, it was impossible to get a clear answer from them as to the state of all sorts of claims.

They said “NO,” & you think they should say “YES, YES, YES, YES!!!!” In other words, appealing a denial:

1. This site has some great information on how to avoid a denial and what you can do to fight one.

2. Included on their site is the Health Insurance Laws and Benefits Tool which will provide specific information about your rights in different states. For example, you will want to know if there is an external or independent grievance system to appeal your plan’s decisions. In the case of NJ, which is the state I am fighting, the tool provided the following helpful information:

Does New Jersey require an external or independent grievance system to appeal your health plan’s unfavorable decisions?

Yes, for all health plans.

On what grounds can you file your external grievance?
Investigational treatment appeal, medical necessity.

What is the status of the external grievance panel’s decision?

External grievance systems allow you to take a dispute with your health plan to a doctor or review board unaffiliated with your health plan. Thus, both you and your health plan receive an impartial ruling on its decision to deny coverage of services or treatment. Additionally, you can file a complaint against your health insurer with your state’s department of insurance.

Additional Helpful Information and Resources

1. The message boards on lawyers.com are a great place to hit for information. I have found folks there helpful.
2. You many want to blog about your experience as you may get an unexpected response directly from your insurance company. I think there are pro’s and cons to blogging about your experience but it does provide a public face to your ordeal and allows you to chronicle exactly what has transpired.
3. If your cases is particularly shocking, do not hesitate to hit the local media.
4. If your claim has been denied by an external review panel, you may not have much luck suing but if there is no external review panel, you can and should also try Small Claims Court or other legal action. Further, even if your claim was denied by an external review board, you may have other options for suing, for example, due to their bad faith handling of a claim. And on that note, here is a great legal resource covering the topic.