State & Local, Tech Goes Wrong

Massachusetts “Romneycare” site killed after rejecting Obamacare transplant | Ars Technica


The Massachusetts Health Connector is getting its plug pulled.

Nevada, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon are members of a club that no one wants to join—all of these states have largely failed at getting their electronic health insurance exchange sites to work properly (or, in some cases, at all). Given the legislatively mandated deadline, the delays in delivery of requirements by the federal government, and the scale of the task that faced states developing their own healthcare exchange sites under the Affordable Care Act, people familiar with government information technology projects might tell you that it’s surprising that any of the websites worked at all.

But if any state had a greater shot at success, it was Massachusetts—the state that served as the model upon which the Affordable Care Act was based. Now, Massachusetts’ health exchange has decided to shutter its own site at least temporarily, switching to the federal exchange to buy time for a better fix.

States running their own exchanges need to be ready by November 15 for the next round of open enrollment for health plans. That has put a number of states with floundering exchange sites in a pinch. Oregon was the first state with its own exchange to completely abandon its own website after spending more than $300 million in federal grants on the project.

Oregon officials have publicly blamed the database giant Oracle, the state’s primary contractor for the site, for its failure. In March, the Government Accountability Office announced that it would conduct an investigation of the Cover Oregon exchange project; last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is now conducting its own investigation.

In an official statement in April, an Oracle spokesperson said that “Oracle looks forward to providing any assistance the state needs in moving parts of Oregon’s health care exchange to the Federal system if it ultimately decides to do so.” Last week, the board of the exchange voted to move to the federal exchange.

via Massachusetts “Romneycare” site killed after rejecting Obamacare transplant | Ars Technica.

Higher Ed, security vulnerabilities, Tech Goes Wrong

In his words: How a whitehat hacked a university and became an FBI target | Ars Technica

David Helkowski stood waiting outside a restaurant in Towson, Maryland, fresh from a visit to the unemployment office. Recently let go from his computer consulting job after engaging in some “freelance hacking” of a client’s network, Helkowski was still insistent on one point: his hack, designed to draw attention to security flaws, had been a noble act.

The FBI had a slightly different take on what happened, raiding Helkowski’s home and seizing his gear. Helkowski described the event on reddit in a thread he titled, “IamA Hacker who was Raided by the FBI and Secret Service AMAA!” Recently Ars sat down with him, hoping to get a better understanding of how this whitehat entered a world of gray. Helkowski was willing to tell practically everything—even in the middle of an ongoing investigation.

Until recently, Helkowski worked for The Canton Group, a Baltimore-based computer consulting firm serving, among other clients, the University of Maryland. Helkowski’s job title at The Canton Group was “team lead of open source solutions,” but he began to shift his concerns toward security after identifying problems on a University of Maryland server.

Read more at Ars Technica: In his words: How a whitehat hacked a university and became an FBI target | Ars Technica.

Social Networking, tech, Tech Goes Wrong

Quora, Crowdsourcing, and Packet Rat’s Law of Talent Dilution.

The Internet is a place filled with irrational exuberance.  Here’s the strange collector associated with hot new Internet companies, which I call the “Hype/Diss Circle of Life”:

1. The (site/app/service) is “discovered” by a (tastemaker/early adopter/alpha blogger).

2. The (site/app/service) is hailed as the “next big thing” by that (tastemaker/early adopter/alpha blogger). Expectations are inflated, often with the aid of the company that has launched the (site/app/service).

3. Everybody jumps in the pool.

4. The (site/app/service) loses its shiny newness, strains under additional use, changes to accomodate additional use, and/or fails to live up to the inflated expectations, dissapointing the (tastemaker/early adopter/alpha blogger), who then declares the (site/app/service)is (doomed/not good/not as good as the latest thing that came out).

5. Repeat.

This familiar pattern is currently playing out with Quora, a Q&A crowdsourcing site.  I recently introduced it to consumer readers on TechGoesStrong as the first salvo in a series on the whole genre of Q&A sites, which are legion.

Unlike sites like Mahalo and, anybody can answer a question on Quora (much like Yahoo! Answers (which is notorious for its spam) and Facebook Questions). But unlike Yahoo! Answers and Facebook Questions, Quora’s answerers have been, at least initially, pretty high-caliber people who actually know what they’re talking about. Mostly. And Quora accounts are tied to Facebook and Twitter accounts, so there’s an extra social fabric to things. It’s sort of like a cooler, smarter Facebook Questions…started by two guys who left Facebook.

Anyway, Quora got heavy buzz early from Robert Scoble.  Then, recently, Scoble reversed his assessment of Quora:

Turns out I was totally wrong. It’s a horrid service for blogging, where you want to put some personality into answers. It’s just fine for a QA site, but we already have lots of those and, in fact, the competitors in this space are starting to react. Mahalo just released a new version that has been getting lots of praise and at DLD I met the CEO of and he said to expect a major update from his service (which has 1000x more users). Stack Exchange is growing faster than Quora and has many many times more questions and answers, plus I’ve found the answers are broader in reach, and deeper in quality (especially for programmers).

Also, he noted, people were getting “pissed” that moderators were mucking around with their stuff, and that people were lowering the importance of their answers to questions by voting them down or marking them as “not helpful”.  

In this case, however, the usual hype/diss cycle took a different turn. As David Chen details in his post, The Ridiculous Takedown of Robert Scoble, the rabid pack of technorati turned not on Quora, but on Scoble, who was forced to back down from his less glowing assessment.  Another alpha blogger, Michael Arrington, castigated Scoble for “Scobleizing” Quora (in the original meaning of the term “Scobleized,” as anyone who ever attended a conference Scoble worked on in the late ’90s and early 00’s would use it):

“It’s a horrid service for blogging,” says Scoble. Yup. I agree. Quora isn’t a very good place for blogging. Because other people can edit or remove your stuff. It’s the sort of place where you have to behave yourself if you want to be heard. That’s exactly not blogging. The thing is, most of us have always known that. Quora is ostensibly a Q&A site. But that’s like saying a car is a device for burning gasoline.Or, in Robert’s case, he’s mad that his car won’t cook him dinner.

Touché, Mr. Arrington.  Scoble had a specific vision of what he thought Quora was, and then it didn’t work that way, and he lost his enthusiasm.  His misconception of how he could use Quora (primarily to extend his own personal brand) led to his dissatisfaction. Arrington is right.

However, one person’s “crowdsourcing” approach to make “a better Wikipedia”, as Arrington puts it, is another person’s “mob rule”.  A group with an agenda can, acting in concert, manipulate which questions get promoted to the top and which get buried…much like what used to happen on Digg. Remember Digg?

And as with any community,  Packet Rat’s Law of Talent Dilution comes into effect as it draws mass market attention: with each new member added to a community led by bright early adopters, the probability of the introduction of jackasses increases exponentially and the average IQ of the group is reduced logarithmically.  The more stupid jackasses join a community, the more quickly the bright early adopter creatives pack up and flee to the next shiny new place.

So…Scoble is right, too.

Microsoft, Tech Goes Wrong

Why I Won’t be Buying a Kinect for Christmas


The Kinect is this year’s hot ticket for Christmas. Microsoft’s new add-on device for the XBox 360 offers the promise of getting you up off the couch and engaged, using your whole body to play a variety of games.  And there are other features that might get your interest—such as VideoKinect, the video chat system that uses Kinect’s cameras and microphone to turn your television into a living room video conference with XBox-equipped friends or family.

read more