Open Government

I have been cogitating lately on the matter of literacy. Part of this arises from working with APS to mentor high shul physics students and answering their questions, an amazing number of which run to “maths! Yuck!” and I have to get off on the three basic literacies:

  • reading and writing (actual literacy);
  • maths (numeracy or calculicity); and
  • coding (computericity?).

Most adults in the Yankee republic, and I include high shul students in this population sample, are to some degree literate, say 0.6-0.8 or thereabouts. Most can read, at least enough to puzzle out commercial signs and correspondence ,like email, tweets, IMs, and the like. About 0.5 actually read and perhaps half of that fraction actually can write. And as dismal as those numbers seem in modern, enlightened, college attended Amerikan society, the fractions for the math and code literate are even smaller.

If we define maths literacy, calculicity, as being able to do calculus, the 0.9 of the population is acalculate even based on granting them qualification by merely taking (and passing) an introductory calculus course. Most who have that certification forget industriously on the wish that maths are unnecessary after high shul. Coding literacy, computericity, may be defined as being able to write a program, in any language, that will input n numbers, add them up, and divide by n, and output that average. Likewise, the fraction of the population that is computericity is about 0.1. Interestingly, the fraction of overlap of those who are calculate and computerate is about 0.5, and almost all of these people are also able to read and (sorta) write.

I am not going to go down the path that those who are not multiply literate are disadvantaged or handicapped in some fashion, but I am going to link to the second aspect of why I have been thinking on this. Yesterday I read an (as usual) excellent blot by Matt Asay on how DoD (the Yankee military apparat) is ‘fostering’ open source usage. [Link] Despite the protestations, I have my serious, perhaps cynical doubts. After all, I did work for the Yankee army, and occasionally DoD, for a third of a century.

One of the ways that organizations control their members is by restricting their literacy. The most common is reading and writing restrictions. Members of organizations are expected, taught, to write in ‘proper’ forms, read only permitted material, and not waste time on material that is deemed by the organization to be detrimental to the organization. The DoD is a rats warren of this type of restriction.

But the restrictions that are less visible are those on calculicity and computericity. A few examples seem most appropriate. Back when the Y2K scare was rampant, the software gestapo visited me and told me that I could not use any of my software that wasn’t on the official approved Y2K compliant list until I had demonstrated to a review board that the software was Y2K compliant and the board had officially approved it. Long story made short, all of my demonstrations were ignored, nothing was approved, and I went for a year without any nerd software as I weathered the storm and won through to after the ‘singularity’ and could buy new software.

Second example. One of the pieces of nerd software I needed was a symbolic algebra engine. The one I liked best as did the folks I worked with was MAPLE. This program suffered two bureaucratic stigmata: it was not on the ‘approved’ – read MegaHard produced – software and it was sold by a company outside the Yankee republic. To pay the annual maintenance fee I had to have approval from the software gestapo to but a pariah client and approval from the purchasing polezei to buy outside the Yankee republic. When I first got the software it took a year to get these two approvals so as soon as I paid for this year’s license I started getting approval for next year’s. By the time I retired the time had increased to two years.

The same software gestapo also certifies who can write code. If you are not certified by attending a couple of years of official military shuls, you are not allowed to write so much as a macro in EXCEL, much less real code. This combination of code restriction and nerd software restriction results in a turn over every year of 0.05 of the nerds who work in DoD. No wonder the Yankee government is fast becoming brain dead.

So when someone tells me the DoD is fostering open source I have to find galgenhumor in the statement. One of the aspects of open software is that you have free access to software you need and can write or modify freely to do what needs be done. That is the antithesis of contemporary government policy. My cynical suspicion is that the government, DoD at least, is embracing ‘open source’ so that they can mandate their own repositories are the only ones accessible to their members and thereby restrict what clients may be used. Oh, and only ‘certified’ folks get to be root and superuser.

Dictatorship by Synaptic, a perversion as evil as I can imagine.

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