RPI’s Board of Trustees Should Be Fired

(The following appeared as an Op/Ed in the December 7, 2011 edition of the Rensselaer Polytechnic, available online at http://poly.rpi.edu/2011/12/07/jackson_not_issue__bot_should_be_fired/.)

Jackson not issue; BoT should be fired

On Monday, November 28, the Student Senate passed a resolution strongly criticizing the Jackson administration. The reaction by the Jackson administration and by the board of trustees was depressing in its dismissal of the Senate’s legitimate concerns, but ultimately was not surprising. President Shirley Ann Jackson has tasked Vice President for Student Life Timothy Sams to “correct any misunderstanding that led to this resolution”—both declining to address the Senate’s concerns herself and dismissing the Senate’s concerns as a “misunderstanding” instead of a legitimate grievance. The board of trustees, for its part, does “not believe [the recommendations] are well-founded,” going on to say that “the Board endorses President Jackson, and her vision, leadership, pathways, and actions she has brought in the past, brings in the present, and will bring in the future … Her leadership has had a transformative impact on the Institute through the success of The Rensselaer Plan.”

It is clear from these statements that the Jackson administration has the full support of the board of trustees, and no meaningful change could come from replacing her. If the Jackson administration is carrying out the wishes of the board of trustees, it is clear that even eliminating Jackson as president of RPI would most likely result in the board hiring a new president that will continue the same policies that we have come to expect from the Jackson administration.

Most importantly, it is clear from this most recent exchange that the board of trustees is hopelessly out of touch with the needs and desires of the broader campus community—including current students, faculty, staff, and alumni. There is a high level of dissatisfaction on all levels with the policies and actions of the Jackson administration, and the board’s willingness to completely dismiss those concerns should be a clear signal that it is not on our side. In order to achieve significant, lasting change at RPI, the out-of-touch board of trustees must be fired and replaced with members that are sympathetic and understanding of the actual conditions at RPI. Under current conditions, any semblance of meaningful democracy is dead at RPI, and has been replaced with what Grand Marshal Lee Sharma ’12 has aptly called a “culture of fear.”

The Senate’s resolution was admirable, but it didn’t go far enough. In order for RPI to change for the better, we need to deal with the problems at the top—and that means replacing the board of trustees.

Kevin R. Fodness

In Support of Information Technologists with Disabilities

The Internet, online video services, video games, and other information technologies are being developed without much regard for users with disabilities. As a result, hard-won victories by the disabled community are being erased by the shift to new technologies. Accessibility law suffers from the same problem that plagues most laws governing rapidly changing technology – the laws are not written to be future-proof, so the law lags the technology. When little to no regulation is combined with a corporate culture interested in innovation to the exclusion of accessibility, people with disabilities are left behind by modern technologies.

Why are modern technologies so inaccessible? One possible reason is that the people in charge of designing and developing the technologies aren’t disabled themselves, and thus aren’t affected by the inaccessibility of the products that they create. For example, it would be impossible for a red-green colorblind video game developer to test a game that relies on the ability to distinguish between red and green in order to play the game. New technologies have been tested by developers and (sometimes) by user testing groups, but these two groups rarely include people with disabilities. If developers were personally affected by the inaccessibility of the products that they create, they wouldn’t create inaccessible products. At a minimum, if developers were exposed to people who were personally affected by the inaccessibility of the products that they create – either by being on the same development team, or part of a user group – the likelihood that they would continue creating inaccessible products would decrease.

How can we, as a society, make modern technologies more accessible? High technology fields have long been dominated by middle class, heterosexual, white, non-disabled men. This fact has resulted in a variety of technologies that work best for middle class, heterosexual, white, non-disabled men. For instance, voice recognition software has been notoriously inaccessible to women, minorities, and people with regional dialects, because of how the technology was developed and tested. A number of academic and nonprofit groups have been active in trying to get more women, minorities, and people with disabilities involved in computing careers in order to achieve greater balance on product development and testing teams in an effort to produce more accessible technology. For example, the National Science Foundation funds a grant project called Broadening Participation in Computing that focuses on this problem.

Getting more people with disabilities involved in computing and technology careers can help produce more accessible technology. For example, a deaf Google engineer named Ken Harrenstien led the development of a project to automatically caption YouTube videos using speech recognition technology. The fact that Google had a deaf engineer on its YouTube team meant that there was someone with the skills and experience working “on the inside” to make the technology more accessible to the deaf community. In the age of user-generated content a la services like YouTube and Facebook, innovative solutions to accessibility, including “technological fixes,” are becoming a necessity.

YouTube, like many other modern websites, relies on users to upload content, so there is no central mechanism for captioning these videos – it is up to the individual user to provide a caption track, which most users do not supply. By contrast, television studios that put episodes of television shows online have a much greater ability to control whether their shows are captioned or not. Therefore, the television studios are the target of recent legislation – the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 – meant to extend the captioning requirements from broadcast television to “Internet Protocol-delivered video programming.” Such regulation would make little sense if applied to services like YouTube, where content is created by users, so more innovative methods are required. YouTube’s approach involves two different methods of attacking the problem – what we in STS call “social” intervention and “technical” intervention. The “social” intervention is YouTube’s caption track tool, which has been simplified significantly compared to most video captioning utilities. All the user needs to do is put the text of the caption and the times (in seconds) the caption should be displayed, and YouTube takes care of the rest. The “technical” intervention is the automatic captioning system, which takes care of providing captions for videos that users do not caption themselves, and is intended to be a “last resort” measure.

How can we get more people with disabilities interested and involved in technology careers? It is important to work with high school guidance counselors to encourage people with disabilities to pursue careers that interest them, regardless of perceived or actual barriers to employment in those careers. There needs to be institutional support for people with disabilities interested in technology careers to be able to participate, including whatever assistive technology is required, such as text-to-speech software, sign language interpreters, specialized hardware for people with motor impairments, and the like. Professional societies could leverage people with disabilities already working in technology careers as spokespersons for raising the interest of young people with disabilities in those careers. Professional technology conferences could devote time to discussing issues of accessibility in design, leveraging technology professionals with disabilities as keynote speakers at such events. Raising awareness of the issues facing diverse communities of people with disabilities is critical in making technology more accessible for everyone.

Cross-posted at http://rpists.org/2011/12/01/in-support-of-information-technologists-with-disabilities/

Configuring the Apple IR Remote on Ubuntu for LibreOffice Impress

I went through this process for the third time in two years today, and I figured I would document it here, primarily for selfish purposes (so I have a record of it for the future). Every time I install the new version of Ubuntu from scratch, I have to re-do this configuration, which means every six months.

  1. Open the Synaptic Package Manager and remove the packages lirc and lirc-x completely, if they exist.
  2. Open a terminal and run:
    sudo apt-get install lirc lirc-x
  3. Select Apple Mac mini USB IR Receiver from the list
  4. Select None for IR Transmitter
  5. Open/create ~/.lircrc and add the following:
    prog = irxevent
    button = FORWARD
    config = Key space CurrentWindow
    prog = irxevent
    button = BACKWARD
    config = Key BackSpace CurrentWindow
  6. Start irxevent daemon: irxevent -d
  7. Add irxevent daemon command to startup (optional)

Update – Web Developer / Designer Survey

Thanks to everyone who participated in the survey! I got 330 responses in three days, which was significantly higher than what I expected. I’m working on putting together an analysis of the data, which I will post back here when I am finished. Anyone who wants to see the raw data can do so here:


I’m using the ATOM feed to remix the data, which is available publicly here, for anyone else who wants to remix the data:


Help Needed – Web Designer/Developer Survey

For my PhD program in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, I am conducting a short survey of web designers and developers to assess educational background, work practices, and community norms. The results of this quantitative survey will help me shape interview questions for my research sites. If you are a web designer or developer, please take a few minutes to fill out the survey, and please pass it on to anyone you know who is a web designer or developer. Thanks!

The survey can be found on my website here: http://www.kevinfodness.com/web-developer-survey/