Moulton Lava

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Friday, December 02, 2016

How I Escaped Going To Prison

Last Spring, I was filling in for a colleague who had been tutoring some high school students in mathematics. My colleague and his wife were spending a month in California when their daughter was giving birth to a new baby. And so I was filling in for him two afternoons a week in Cary Memorial Library in Lexington MA, working with a pair of high school students who were struggling with Algebra and Calculus.

As is my custom, I typically selected one of my math-motif sweatshirts for the occasion.  Like this one:

I Ate Some Pie


As I was coming out of Cary Library late one afternoon, I was accosted by a stranger who asked me to explain the curious mathematical symbols on my sweatshirt. That pedestrian turned out to be a rather gregarious chap named Rob Kanzer who then befriended me and also invited me to come as his guest to a meeting of Lexington Toastmasters.

And so begins my saga of how I avoided going to prison.

Toastmasters is a club where the members learn and practice the art of public speaking. The club has a highly structured meeting format, where the participants take turns in a variety of roles, all of which involve some aspect of speaking in front of a group.

I do a lot of writing (mostly on the Internet), but I rarely do public speaking. It's not exactly a skill that I need or use as a retired science educator. But it occurred to me that I could use some practice learning to become a better listener, and so I agreed to join Lexington Toastmasters for that purpose.

And this is where I took the road less traveled in the annals of Toastmasters. I only joined the local chapter, declining to join Toastmasters International, as their course in public speaking frankly did not interest me.

All was well for the first six months until there was a change in leadership. The person who had previously been the site's WebMaster became the new Sergeant at Arms, and so I was asked to take on the vacated role of WebMaster.  So far so good.

Since I had only paid up my local dues (and not the portion of the semi-annual dues that normally goes to Toastmasters International), the new Vice President of Membership soon raised a red flag. One seemingly minor detail was that, as WebMaster, I was logging into the web site without being an authorized member in the eyes of Toastmasters International (which provided the servers for the web site).

Joining Toastmasters International (TMI) included a lot more than just paying the portion of dues that goes to TMI. Originally, Toastmasters began a century ago at a midwestern YMCA, to help inarticulate male adolescents learn to become better speakers. I had remarked that the course in public speaking was uncommonly regimented, but this off-putting feature turned out to be a holdover from the educational model the founder, Ralph C. Smedley, had developed a century ago for his demographic of inarticulate adolescents at the local YMCA in Bloomington Illinois.

Indeed, the whole structure of Toastmasters International was similarly regimented, with features that reminded me of Middle School and Boy Scouts. For the life of me, I didn't apprehend why these anachronistic features belonged in Lexington Toastmasters, which is largely comprised of urbane well-educated adult professionals and retirees. To me, these features felt inappropriate, unconstructive, and downright infantilizing.

But that's not the real problem. The real problem is CFAA, the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a Federal Felony to log into a web site without express authorization from the web site owner. Aaron Swartz, a gifted scholar at Harvard, was indicted under CFAA and threatened with 35 years in prison for accessing an archive of academic articles at MIT. He committed suicide rather than face trial at the hands of the US Attorney.

Now I frankly don't expect to be indicted by the US Attorney if I cavalierly log on to the Toastmasters web site in violation of the CFAA. But I'd still be in technical violation of CFAA, and that really is a Federal Felony. While I would not compare my story to the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, yet it was his technical violation with CFAA that disrupted the collegiality and congeniality of MIT and ultimately cost him his life.

And so, thanks to the long and violent arm of the Rule of Law, I found that I was obliged to part company with Lexington Toastmasters.

And that's how I escaped the terrifying spectre of going to prison.

1 Comments:

Blogger Kw said...

This is his very last blog post..

I guess he didn't escape prison after all!

9:04 PM  

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