September 30, 2006

I'm just back from the annual Open Education Conference sponsored by the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning and led by the brilliant David Wiley on the lovely and scenic campus of Utah State University in Logan, Utah. The good news is Wiley's conference once again brought together, I dunno, maybe 100 or so leading academics who are working together to create and use high-quality, free, customizable learning materials in place of costly proprietary educational products, including course management systems and textbooks. The recent progress in these areas discussed in many of the panel presentations is remarkable. The bad news, however, is that for the second year running I was once again the only attendee who has any formal connection to a community college anywhere in the United States, with the exception of one of our dedicated Deans from the Foothill-De Anza Community College District who attended last year. So here is the picture: we've got some of the best brains from schools of higher education in the country, MIT, Rice, UCB, Carnegie Mellon and others, collaborating to create totally free learning materials using methods that make these resources not only free but also of higher quality owing to their open and collaborative production methodology. These groups have already created free, high-quality textbook substitutes in many fields, including science, math and philosophy. And the group that could best help tailor these materials and get them into the classrooms where financially needy students would benefit from them the most are still, years now after this opportunity became both obvious and apparent, missing in action.

September 28, 2006

Seven full years after a columnist working for SFGate.com (okay, me) first suggested it, U.C. Berkeley has finally begun broadcasting some class lectures online. My question: what on earth took them so long?

Public institutions of higher education have a responsibility to do all they can to facilitate access to education. That so many of these public institutions have done so little to date to meet this responsibility demonstrates a profound failure of organizational leadership in higher education.

UC's leadership is busy patting itself on the back today. They should be apologizing for not moving sooner. And they should also explain why they are not doing more, particularly to reduce the costs of textbooks for basic skills classes.

Our public universities should serve the public good to the maximum degree possible. Clearly, these institutions need better leaders -- unless we are willing to wait another near-decade for improvements in the way they serve the public that they could readily make today.

Oct. 12, 2006 ADDENDUM AND CORRECTION: A new friend who is involved in this venture tells me that UCB actually began webcasting some lectures as early as 2001. See: webcast.berkeley.edu My apologies to the small and dedicated team at UCB who have been working hard to bring these important resources online.

September 21, 2006

This week's initial meeting of the Santa Clara County Health Benefits Coalition went quite nicely. About 35 people attended the meeting, which was held in our Foothill-De Anza Community College District board room. Present were most members of the coalition as well as a few non-members in the process of joining. The Steering Committee appointed two sub-committees, one to increase the density of the local coalition and the other to produce a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for the grant writing position funded through the Coalition. The subcommittees got to work right away with initial progress made on both tasks, including what appeared to be the near-immediate membership of another large city. (I'll let someone else make that announcement once all the i's have been dotted and t's crossed.)

Jim Beall, Chair of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors presided and I facilitated as we heard an informative presentation from Sally Covington, the founder and executive director of the statewide California Health Care Coalition. Sally covered lots of ground. But one of the main things that stuck with me was her description of the experience gained by a coalition-like strategy in Las Vegas, where the trend line on local health care insurance costs for covered employees was actually reversed while quality improved. The key to that achievement was a labor and management coalition that successfully pressured and rewarded health care providers into being more accountable and transparent on issues of cost, price and quality of care. Covington's colleague, Tom Moore, drew what he thought was the obvious linkage between the potential for financial savings and widespread reports of waste, billing fraud and abuse, perhaps 30 percent or more, in the medical care delivery system. The problem, Moore said, is that no one is working in a systematic way to address those issues and force continuous improvement. Not the insurance companies, not the providers, not the government. Most of those groups are content to either look the other way or pass the charges on. Little wonder these problems fester and worsen, Moore said. He also recommended against health care cost containment strategies that rely heavily on pushing for higher co-pays or deductibles. "There is no research you can show me that says higher co-pays cuts health care costs. They just shift those costs, which continue to go up." What's more, higher co-pays can discourage early intervention which, in some cases, can worsen outcomes and increase costs, Covington noted.

The group remained united in its desire to focus on the goals outlined in the official resolutions that established the Coalition. No date was set for the next meeting of the Steering Committee, which is anticipated whenever the two sub-committees are ready to make progress reports and recommendations. Anyone who wants to be on the health coalition email list should contact Doug Winslow in Supervisor Jim Beall's office or, if you like, email me and I will pass his contact info along to you.

September 15, 2006

Several people have emailed with a variation on the same question: when reporters disguise their identity to get a story, aren't they "pretexting?"

The answer is no. At least, not as the term has been used to describe what the investigators working for H-P did.

It is not currently illegal to disguise one's identity to get information that is available to the public but which might not be available to the investigator. Journalists do that all the time. It IS illegal, however, to pose as another REAL PERSON to get information that belongs to them or a company they do business with. That is the critical distinction. In fact, new laws to "ban pretexting" could pose a danger to our free press by criminalizing investigative techniques that are very legitimate, including the types of undercover investigations that often bring wrong-doing to light. Legislators should tread very carefully when enacting new laws that are not needed and which could do damage down the line as they are widened through judicial interpretation.

Instead, I agree with a Mercury News columnist who suggested the press stop using the word "pretexting," which is designed to mislead, and replace it with the word "lying." After all, we don't let other law breakers use words of their choice to camouflage their actions. If we did, we'd have to enact a new law every time a crook came up with a new word for stealing stuff. They could rob a bank and call it "cash transferring" or "property relocation," or my favorite, "stuff-lifting."

Quick, let's rush to the legislature to enact a new law against "stuff-lifting" before someone lifts our stuff! It's legal, you know, because there is no law specifically against "stuff-lifting."

"Yeah," as the old Jon Lovitz character on Saturday Night Live might say, "That's the ticket."

September 13, 2006

The clarification offered this morning that H-P's Board Chair Patricia Dunn will not be resigning her seat on the Board of Directors at H-P but instead will merely step down as Chair - and that no other resignations or dismissals of anyone involved in the scandal have been sought or accepted - highlights the need for H-P's board to immediately appoint an outside independent panel to review, with some speed, the actions of its board members and senior administrative officers and make recommendations about the additional steps that H-P must take to put the scandal behind it. As Dunn has indicated in previous interviews, it appears likely she may not have been the only board member or executive at H-P who was aware of the illegal theft of private information that belonged to others. The question now is: can H-P's board and senior executives credibly investigate themselves? Given the mess they made of their last investigation turning to an outside panel that operates within the law and then making those findings public would be a smart and prudent step. Today's Mercury News has a list of the questions that investigation should consider, which is similar to the one I offered a few days ago.

September 12, 2006

As I read the news this morning about the pending resignation of H-P Board Chair Patricia Dunn I found myself feeling a bit defensive about Silicon Valley's reputation. And then I remembered the real story here. And it is not the story we've been reading about over the last week or so. No, the real story, the one that matters, is the tale of how Tom Perkins put his personal reputation, which he surely knew would come under attack, on the line to unmask behavior that he thought was wrong. The easy thing for Mr. Perkins to do would have been to look the other way and sweep the matter under the rug, as it appears everyone else in the know at H-P was apparently willing to do.

Instead, when Perkins was confronted with evidence of wrong-doing he resigned immediately, disassociated himself from the conduct and then did everything he could within the rules to bring the law-breaking to light. I've never met Tom Perkins. But I did have a chance to meet H-P's legendary founders, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, the latter of whom once wrote me a treasured letter of support. I'm certain they would be embarrassed by the recent scandal at H-P. But my best guess is that they would have done what Mr. Perkins did. And that is the real story: that Silicon Valley still has people like Tom Perkins.

September 09, 2006

Well, it took just over 24 hours for Hewlett Packard's leadership to back off its original line of defense -- that the actions of its investigators were not "generally unlawful" under current law -- in the so-called "pretexting" scandal. HP's retreat from this indefensible and absurd position is at this stage only partial. But backing down on the silly assertion that it is legally okay to lie to steal stuff must leave some of HP's more gullible defenders feeling as though they've been left twisting in the wind. As the scandal broke, you'll recall, H-P initially responded by pointing to a legal opinion the company had obtained which asserted that "pretexting" to obtain the private phone records of its board members and nine journalists was not a clear violation of the law. Remarkably, more than a few media outlets bought into that whopper, which led to a spate of stories yesterday, which I commented on, about the supposed need for new laws to prevent "pretexting." That line of defense collapsed almost as quickly as it was drawn, however, when it became readily apparent that what was really being talked about, lying to obtain private information that belongs to someone else is, in reality, just plain old garden variety fraud. So today, after both the state attorney general and other legal experts made it clear that fraud remains a crime even if the perpetrator calls it something else, HP's Board Chair Pattie Dunn dug herself into an even deeper hole by blasting the board member who brought the illegal actions to light. That's progress, I suppose.

Still, the questions that most need to be asked have not been answered by Dunn or her spokesperson. Perhaps they will be answered under oath. At what point did the company's leaders become aware that private phone records had been obtained? How did they think those records were obtained? Who obtained those records and who supervised the project on behalf of HP?

Those are the questions that HP will need to answer and act on to regain its credibility and begin the process of putting this sorry episode behind it. Those are also the questions members of the press, and particularly media outlets that rely on HP ad dollars, must ask if they don't want to look like apologists or dupes.

ADDENDUM: From today's Wall Street Journal:

Ms. Dunn said she regularly informed the board of the investigation, but provided few details, at the investigators' request. It isn't clear, absent the H-P directors' permission, how Ms. Dunn thought the investigators were obtaining their phone records...In the interview, Ms. Dunn said her knowledge of the tactics used in the investigation was limited, because she was a potential subject of the probe. "As a subject of the investigation, I couldn't know everything," she said. Ms. Dunn said she doesn't know "the identities of all the firms involved that H-P uses to do this work." Ms. Dunn said she didn't learn that "pretexting" involved the potentially fraudulent representation of directors' identity until August, when a board committee's review of the leak investigation was concluding. She said she only found out this past Wednesday night that investigators hired by H-P had also used pretexting to gain access to reporters' phone records.

Wow. Some pretty big admissions there. Leaving open the obvious question: so why didn't she call the cops? And what about that "board committee" that was running the investigation? Just where did the members of that board committee think those private phone records were coming from? Looks like there are more shoes to drop. Perhaps a whole shoe store's worth. Astonishing...

September 08, 2006

In a stunning example of group think scores of my brethren in the news media have linked hands and jumped off the same cliff today. I refer, of course, to the widespread coverage of the so-called "pretexting" scandal at Hewlett Packard. Many of these stories (here is one example) have focused on the supposed need for new laws to protect the privacy of telephone records and other similar documents. The only problem: pretexting is already illegal. In fact, the word "pretexting" is itself a pretext for a well-known crime that has been around for as long as one person has coveted something that belongs to someone else. The word 'pretexting" is simply a euphemism - invented by its practitioners - for obtaining something that does not belong to them by lying and committing fraud. "Pretexting" to get phone records that belong to someone else is no different than, say, going to a car repair shop and obtaining the keys to someone else's ride by pretending to be the owner of the vehicle. Now, do we need a special law to stop people from stealing cars by pretending to be the owner of the car? Of course not. We already have laws against theft by fraud.

Likewise, we already have laws that prohibit the sale of stolen property. We also have laws that prevent the purchase of stolen property if the buyer knows the property was stolen.

If I were an editor today, one of the rare days I miss that job, I'd be assigning reporters to look into the question of why law enforcement personnel appear to be so reluctant to protect citizens, including HP's board members, from the theft of their property. There may be a question of exactly who owns phone records, the customer or the phone company. But they are certainly not owned by the "pretexters" who have used fraud to obtain them.

The sooner our press stops focusing on the bogus idea that we need new laws and starts focusing on the question of why our existing laws are not being enforced, the quicker we'll see these deplorable practices stop.