Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Rewiring America: Links & comments 7/26/14

July 26, 2014

How America’s Internet can become the fastest on earth by John Aziz for The Week.

Americans created the Internet, and the United States has some of the fastest commercially-available Internet connections on earth.   But the USA as a whole is only No. 31 in average speed of Internet connections, behind such nations as Uruguay and Romania and barely equal to Russia, which is far from being a technology leader.

Digital-MediaJohn Aziz says the reason is the balkanized U.S. Internet system, in which, unlike in other countries, companies with broadband service don’t have to open up their service to other broadband companies.

Rather than try to force corporate owners to do something that is not in their interest, Aziz advocates spending $140 billion to build a nationwide fiber optic new with bandwidth equal to Google Fiber, which provides 1Gbps—50 times faster than the average U.S. Internet connection now.   That would be only 1/5th the cost of the TARP Wall Street bailout and less than 1/25th the cost of U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think this is a good idea.  What makes a community, or a nation, a good place for entrepreneurs is to provide a benefit that is unique to their place or better than anyplace else.

Hundred of Cities Are Wired With Fiber—But Telecom Lobbying Keeps It Unused by Jacob Koerber for Motherboard.

life before the internetWell, maybe the USA is no longer capable of carrying out ambitious large-scale projects.  The least that could be done is to allow American municipal governments to wire their cities with fiber optic.  Current state laws forbid this in most places in order to protect private companies from competition.

The Server Needs to Die to Save the Internet by Natasha Lomas for TechCrunch.

A Scottish company named MaidSafe has a plan to protect privacy by creating a network without servers or data centers.  To be honest, I don’t completely understand what they’re doing, but it sounds as if it could be important.

Here Is How Google Works by Andrew Smales for Medium.

The Smales piece is satire—I guess.

The world’s great powers in orbit

July 18, 2014

Double click to enlarge

Notice Russia’s leading role and China’s growing role.

Hat tip to The Big Picture.

The world scene: Links & comments 6/27/14

June 27, 2014

On Robot Soldiers and the Recession by Scott Beauchamp for The Baffler.

The Department of Defense’s long-range policy is to replace troops with robots.   This means the U.S. government will be able wage war with fewer casualties, but it also means that enlistment in the armed forces will no cease to be available as a path out of poverty.   In a well-ordered society, there ought to be ways to provide useful work in ways that don’t involve wearing uniforms and carrying guns.

A glimpse into the Google-Military-Surveillance Complex by Yasha Levine for PandoDaily.

Google’s management has protested government surveillance of private citizens, but the company has been involved for years in that very business.  It has long been a major contractor in improving the surveillance capabilities of the NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA and other military and intelligence agencies in Washington.  Now it is trying to sell surveillance services and technology to local police departments.

Is Russia Replacing US in Iraq? by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.

Has the term ‘US ally’ become worthless? by Gwynne Dyer for Middle East Eye.

The problem with playing geo-political chess is that the chessmen play their own game, which is not the same as yours.  This has been the experience of  American diplomats in trying to use governments and political factions in the Middle East as proxies to achieve their aims.   Iraq is a prime example of this.

Ukraine signs trade agreement with EU, draws Russian threat by Reuters.

Ukraine Signs Trade, Economic Pact With European Union by the Associated Press.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have signed association agreements with the European Union, which means they will not be part of Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union.   It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  Putin has economic and covert military means to disrupt this deal.  And the European Union will have more three more extremely poor nations to integrate into the Europe-wide common market.

How Russia-Austria pipeline deal buffers Moscow against sanctions by Fred Weir for Christian Science Monitor.

Putin plays his cards skillfully.  Various European countries are signing on to a Russian plan to build a new gas pipeline that will serve southern Europe and bypass Ukraine, which indicates they have no interest in boycotting Russian gas.

Nice work if you can get it

June 24, 2014
Keith Alexander

Keith Alexander

After a career overseeing an agency pushing for security backdoors in technological infrastructure, former NSA chief Keith Alexander is now on Wall Street “pitching his cybersecurity services for as much as $1 million a month,” according to Bloomberg News.

Ostensibly, Alexander is asking to be paid to help secure firms against the backdoors and vulnerabilities his NSA may have helped create.

Nice work if you can get it.

via PandoDaily.

I suppose it is the same idea as hiring convicted computer hackers to be consultants on protection against other hackers.   Why not hire the uber-hacker?

The financial markets on automatic pilot

June 24, 2014

flash-boys-jkt_1In a well-ordered economic system, financial markets provide a means for business enterprises to obtain financing and for investors to judge the worth of a business.

Flash Boys, the latest book by Michael Lewis, tells how far the financial markets have gotten away from that purpose.

His subject was high frequency trading, a method of skimming money from other peoples’ financial transactions.  Enormous expense and ingenuity has gone into perfecting high frequency trading.  But from the standpoint of social good, the only question is to what degree it is extremely dangerous, moderately harmful or  merely useless.

High frequency trading is done by computers, because human beings are too slow.  Computer trading accounts for about two-thirds of transactions on U.S. stock exchanges.  There is even a venture capital company that has a computer algorithm on its board of directors.

The science fiction writer Charles Stross wrote about futures in which artificial intelligences incorporate themselves in order to gain legal standing as persons, and in which computers and robots have created a fully functioning society while human beings die out or are sidelined.

I don’t expect this to happen, of course, but it is a good metaphor for what is going on.   Putting such a large part of the financial system on automatic pilot is reckless, especially in an economic recovery that is fragile to begin with.


Click on Scalpers Inc. for a review of Flash Boys by John Lancaster in the London Review of Books.  Hat tip to Steve Badrich for the link.  I haven’t read the book myself.

Will Social Security be Internet-only service?

June 18, 2014

I like the Internet.  The power to go on-line has enriched my life in so many ways that I feel at a loss when Internet service temporarily shuts down.   What I dislike is the attempt to shut down alternatives to the Internet, which is becoming more and more common in American life.

Wait times on customer-service phone lines have been made so long that you are virtually forced to go on-line.   Book distributors are pushing to replace physical books with Kindle and Nook.  There are even people who seriously propose to get rid of currency and coins, and require all financial transactions be conducted through credit cards, debit cards or otherwise on-line.

socialsecurity.govThe latest example is the Social Security Administration.  Its Vision 2025 plan is to close most of its 1,200 field offices, allow its work force to shrink by 30,000 through attribution and serve clients through “on-line service delivery” rather than face-to-face contacts with human beings.

This follows a widespread business and government model of achieving cost savings and administrative convenience by degrading the quality of service.

People who depend on Social Security for their income probably can’t afford Internet connections, and many people of the Social Security generation aren’t at home with computers.   When I signed up for Social Security nearly 16 years ago, I was pleased at the helpfulness of the woman I talked to.   I would not have wanted to try to communicate with a software algorithm.

The Obama administration apparently is willing to adopt, or at least tolerate, a policy that is bad for two core Democratic constituencies, senior citizens and union workers, and benefits nobody except the high tech companies that will get the contracts to provide this service.

I predict that if this policy is adopted, it will be used by opponents to Social Security as evidence that government can’t work, and that Social Security should be privatized.


The Biggest Change to Social Security You’ve Never Heard About by J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, for Huffington Post.  Hat tip to Jack Clontz.

The right to be forgotten.

June 16, 2014

The great dream of John Perry Barlow and other Internet pioneers back in the 1990s was that it would become a force for human freedom—that government and corporations would become transparent, and that individuals, through the power of cryptography, would be empowered to act freely and anonymously.

Instead individuals are becoming more and more transparent not only to police and spy agencies, but to employers, lenders, credit rating agencies and advertisers.   The fact that the information is not necessarily accurate or complete makes the situation worse.

It is corporations and government agencies that have the power to alter records and send embarrassing facts down the memory hole, as Winston Smith did in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  

This is not a question of technology, or at least not exclusively a question of technology.  It is a question of whether we the people have the power and the will to set legal limits to power and enforce those limits.

We should start by insisting on transparency of government.  We can’t protect our privacy until we have the means of knowing what is done to invade or privacy.   And we can’t rely on government to protect us from corporate exploitation if its operations are hidden from us.


Yes, Jimmy Wales, There Is a Right to Be Forgotten by Ted Rall for PandoDaily.

The Internet With a Human Face by Maciej Ceglowski at the Beyond Tellerand 2014 Conference in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Tesla’s electric car patents are opened to all

June 13, 2014

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, announced that Tesla is making its electric car patents available to all free of charge—a decision that, as Tyler Cowen remarked on his Marginal Revolution blog, could be as important as Henry Ford’s 1914 decision to pay auto workers the hitherto-unheard-of wage of $5 a day.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk

Musk decided that it is more important to grow the market for electric cars than to use Tesla’s patents to dominate that market.   I hope that decision pays off for Tesla as Henry Ford’s decision did for Ford, because it removes an obstacle to technological progress.

The original purpose of patents was to give inventors an incentive to share their secrets, in return for temporary monopolies on their inventions.  But in recent years, the scope of patent protection has been extended by law to the extent that it stifles competition and economic growth.   Maybe Musk’s business model will change that.  I hope so.   Good for him for trying!


All Our Patents Are Belong to You,” the announcement by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.

Tesla Making Patents ‘Open Source’ to Boost Electric Cars by Alan Ohsman for Bloomberg.

John Oliver explains net neutrality

June 10, 2014

John Oliver gave a  clear—and entertaining—explanation of what Net Neutrality is and why it matters.

He called on viewers to let the Federal Communications Commission know what they thought, and the FCC received more than 70,000 comments immediately after the broadcast—enough to temporarily overwhelm its comments section.

Click on Most Creative ‘Net Neutrality’ Comments on the FCC Website to read some of them.

Rise of the machines

June 9, 2014

Alan Turing, the great World War Two codebreaker and computer pioneer, devised what he called the Turing Test to determine whether a computer is truly intelligent or not.

The test consists of exchanging blind messages with a hidden entity, and trying to decide correctly whether you are communicating with a human or a machine.   The test has already been passed at least once, by a program devised by a 13-year-old boy in Ukrainea team of Russians posing as a 13-year-old boy in Ukraine.

The science fiction writer Charles Stross, in his novel Rule 34, predicted the rise of autonomous artificial intelligence through the co-evolution of spam and spam filters.  After all, what is spam but a Turing Test—that is, an attempt to convince you that a computer-generated message is sent a genuine human communication?   I greatly enjoyed the novel, but I’m not worried that this is a real possibility.

robot-image_largeWhat we should be worried about is the delegation of human decision-making to computers as if the computers really were autonomous intelligences and not machines responding to highly complex rules (algorithms).

I’ve read that European airlines are much more inclined than American airlines to led planes fly on automatic pilot.  The computer is by definition not prone to human error, so it probably would provide a smoother ride.  But what happens in an emergency that the computer is not programmed to deal with? The human pilot is less able to deal with it.

Much stock trading is done automatically, by computers responding instantaneously to market data as it comes in.  This is harmless if done some small trading company with an algorithm its partners think is better than anybody else’s.  But when there are a lot of traders using the same algorithm, then the automatic process can crash the market, and it has.

American drone warfare is conducted partly by computer algorithm.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble analyze your book-buying habits so as to guess what books you’d probably like.  The same kind of software is used to analyze behavior of people in the tribal areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen and guess which is likely to be an insurgent fighter.

The technology is not the problem.  The problem is human beings using technology as a way to avoid responsibility for their judgments.


Turing test breakthrough as super-computer becomes first to convince us it’s human by Andrew Griffin of The Independent.

A Venture Capital Firm Just Named An Algorithm To Its Board of Directors by Rob Wile for Business Insider.

From teledildonics to interactive porn: the future of sex in a digital age by Sam Leith for The Guardian.

P.S. [6/11/14]  Now that I’ve seen samples of the AI program, I don’t think I would have been deceived by it.  Click on Fake Victory for Artificial Intelligence by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg View.


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