Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

The passing scene: Links & notes 12/1/13

December 1, 2013

The latest health issue for the elderly: ‘observation purgatory’ in hospitals by June McCoy for The Guardian.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Medicare’s payment structure gives hospitals an incentive to designate elderly patients as “observations” rather than “admissions.”  This means less care for the patient and higher bills for their families.

23andMe is Terrifying But Not for the Reason the FDA Thinks by Charles Seife for Scientific American.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered a genetics testing company to stop selling its products until it can prove its tests are accurate.  But the writer says the real danger is creating a genetics database on millions of Americans that could be tapped by Big Brother.

Activist Malpractice by Michael Donnelly for Counterpunch.  Hat tip to Mike Connelly.

The writer slams Democrats, liberals and fake environmentalists who facilitate the Alberta tar sands mining, mining by mountaintop removal in Appalachia and clear-cutting of forests in Oregon.

Canada to file Arctic seafloor claim this week by the Canadian Press.

As the Arctic icecap melts, Canada, Russia and Denmark (which owns Greenland) are mapping their northern continental shelves and staking claims to the floor of the sea.  Canada’s claim will be the size of the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba combined.

Nicaragua canal boosts China power by Arnie Seiki for Asia Times.

China and Nicaragua have signed an agreement that would give China the right to build a canal across Nicaragua rivaling the Panama Canal.  While it’s long way from signing an agreement to actually building a canal, it is a sign of China’s emergence as a global power, and not merely an east Asian power.

Wal-Mart arrests could fuel “a new political movement of the disenfranchised,” Grayson tells Salon.

Weird science: links & comments 9/16/13

September 16, 2013

The natural world is a source of beauty, awesomeness and knowledge, but we human beings have to seek justice, mercy and the means of survival within ourselves.

They’re Taking Over by Tim Flannery for New York Review of Books.

This review of Stung! Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans by Lisa-ann Gershwin tells how the rich ecology of vast areas of the world’s oceans are dominated by jellyfish.  That is because much marine life is sensitive to pollution and climate change, while the jellyfish can survive almost any conditions.  Flannery sees nothing to prevent jellyfish displacing all other surface marine life.

Evolutionary fitness is different from being high on the food chain.  Jellyfishes and cockroaches may be better able to survive radical changes in the environment than whales, dolphins or humans.  I hope Flannery and Gershwin are wrong, although I don’t know any facts that prove them wrong.

Stop pretending we aren’t living in the Space Age by Annalee Newitz for io9.

The Space Age is already here.  We depend on space satellites for communications, global positioning and much else and, at any given time, there are scientists, engineers and technicians working in interplanetary space.

The First Gear Discovered in Nature by William Herkewitz for Popular Mechanics.

Wheels were not thought to occur in nature, but scientists of discovered a tiny insect with biological gears that increase its jumping power.

Architect in London Accidentally Builds Solar Death Ray by Sam Webb for London Daily Mail.  Hat tip to Bored Panda.

The curved reflective surface of a London skyscraper focused the sun’s rays so as to partially melt a businessman’s car.  Nobody actually was killed.

The Radical Challenge of Building a Dorm for the Deaf by Liz Stinson for Wired magazine.

Gaullaudet University in Washington, D.C., is the largest U.S. educational institution for the deaf.  This article tells how its new residence hall was designed to create the equivalent of good acoustics—to minimize the occasions in which deaf students would not be able to face each other.  There is much more to this than I would have thought.

As Humans Change Landscape, Brains of Animals Change, Too by Carl Zimmer for the New York Times.

Scientific studies indicate that the sophisticated city mouse may have a larger brain than the old-fashioned country mouse.

Preventive maintenance, the price of civilization

August 20, 2013

The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said that human society was based on a contract between the present generation, past generations and generations yet to come.

He was speaking and writing about social institutions, but the same is just as true of the physical infrastructure of our society.

When I was a boy, electricity, telephone service and running water were not things that everybody had, and there were living people who could remember when these things are unusual.   I enjoy a higher material standard of living than my parents did, based on technologies I did nothing to create, from my Internet connection to my thermostat-controlled furnace.   I can’t repay my debt to previous generations, but I can pay it forward to the next generation.  That’s what I think Burke meant.

Click to enlarge

These thoughts were prompted by an article I read in The Washington Post on-line by Brad Plumer about how electric power outages are becoming more common.   He noted that the U.S. electrical transmission system is aging and not being replaced, and wondered if there would be fewer outages if there were a more modern system.

Of course the expense of upgrading the transmission lines will have to be paid by someone—the utility stockholders, the utility customers or both.  The cost of neglect may be greater in the long-run, but the decision-maker won’t be around to face the consequences.

I think this is part of a larger problem—neglect of the preventive maintenance that is needed to keep our technological systems going.

grid-constructionThere is a lot of political support for gee-whiz technologies such as high-speed rail, but not so much for mundane work such as inspecting and upgrading the existing track system so that trains can proceed safely at normal speeds.

I don’t see this as an economic or governmental question as a question of attitude.  No matter what the system, there will be a temptation to put aside long-range concerns and focus on the next quarterly profit statement or the next election.  We live in the present and forget the generation yet to come.

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Terrorism, the Internet and free speech

August 14, 2013

I’ve posted a good bit lately about abuses of power by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.  My friend Daniel Brandt recently e-mailed me some links to articles by a UK news service called The Kernel which are a good reminder that there are Islamic terrorists who really should be spied on.

islamic-awakeningThe articles describe how terrorists are recruited through Islamic jihadist discussion forums.  Typically there will be an open forum which argues the radical Muslim jihadists are justified.  People who post on the forum and have someone to vouch for them are then admitted to closed forums which discussed actual terrorism.

I don’t believe the NSA and the other Homeland Security agencies should spy on all Americans.  I don’t believe they should spy on peaceful protesters.  I don’t believe they should encourage and then entrap people into terrorists plots.  But they do have a right and duty to monitor pro-terrorist web sites so they can nip plots in the bud.

Here are links to The Kernel series.

The scariest sites on the Internet by Jeremy Wilson.

The hosts keeping radical Islamic forums online by James Cook.

CloudFlare: ‘terrorists little helper’ by James Cook.

Chaos on campus: Islamists and social media by Jeremy Wilson.

When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers by Milos Yiannopoulos, editor-in-chief.

The Kernel is especially concerned about an Internet company called CloudFlare.  Daniel Brandt also is critical of that company.  What CloudFlare purports to do is to provide services by which web sites can product their anonymity, survive denial of service attacks and optimize their efficiency.

cdn-hosting-cloudflareThe Kernel writers criticize CloudFlare for protecting radical Islamic web sites against denial of service attacks by US and UK intelligence services.  Daniel Brandt’s criticism is broader.  He says CloudFlare also provides a shield for malicious hackers, cyber-bullies, hard-core pornographers, copyright pirates and other kinds of lawbreakers.

Here are links to statements of CloudFlare’s position.

CloudFlare and Free Speech by Matthew Prince, chief executive officer.

Ceasefires Don’t End Cyberwars by Matthew Prince.

Here are links to statements of Daniel Brandt’s position.

Web watchdog’s new site: CloudFlare Watch.org

CloudFlare Watch

What it all comes down to is which you fear more, abuse of freedom or abuse of power.  This is not an easy question.  What Milos Yiannopoulos fears most is abuse of freedom.  What I fear the most is abuse of power.

Yiannopoulos thinks Twitter, YouTube and CloudFlare should be regarded as publishers, like Huffington Post, and exercise pro-active responsibility to take down dangerous content, based on their own judgment.  He doesn’t think this is censorship, but what else would you call it.

I think Twitter, YouTube and the like should be regarded as public utilities, like Rochester Telephone, which provide services to all members of the public unless there is a specific legal reason not to do so.

What do you think?

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An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

August 6, 2013

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An economist named Robert J. Gordon, and Erik Byrnjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, had an interesting debate at a TED forum on whether the days of rapid economic growth are over.

Gordon said improvements in world living standards are the result of two historical events that may not be repeated—the first industrial revolution, based on coal, iron and steam, beginning in the late 1700s in Britain, and the second industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity and the internal combustion engine, beginning in the late 1800s in the USA.

Both these revolutions have run their course, he said, and there’s no reason to think that the current technological revolution in information technology will have the same impact.  The i-phone is nice, but it will not change society in the same way that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone did.

Byrnjolfsson said computer and information technology are in their infancy, and will have as great an impact as the earlier technological revolutions.  Human beings haven’t as yet learned how to work most effectively with the new technology, he said.

Much depends on which one is right.  With rapid economic growth, it is possible for all classes of society, rich, middle and poor, to improve their condition without hurting the others, except maybe in relative terms.  With flat or declining economic growth, the struggle for economic and political power becomes much more of a zero sum game, a sorting of society into winners and losers.

I think the videos are interesting and worth watching, but I also think both speakers fail to emphasize an important thing—that improvement in the material standard of living requires not only progress in science and technology, but public policies that make the fruits of science and technology available to the wider public.

Improvements in public health, for example, are based not only on discoveries about vaccination, antiseptics and antibiotics, but also from public water and sewerage systems, food inspections and mass vaccinations of school children.   Universal telephone service is based not only on a technology, but also on a commitment by AT&T as a condition of maintaining its monopoly position.

Advances in technology don’t automatically abolish poverty.  George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about unemployed British coal miners in the 1930s, pointed out that every miner’s family owned a radio, a technological wonder unavailable to kings and emperors 50 years before.  And yet these same miners had difficulty putting food on the table.  Not having radios would not have enabled them to pay for it.

Brynjolfsson could be right.  Factory automation could produce a world of leisure and well-being for everyone.  But, depending on who is running things, it could produce a world like that imagined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his 1952 novel Player Piano.

I can easily imagine a future USA with amazing information technology, communications technology and virtual reality entertainment technology, not to mention science-fictional war-making and surveillance technology.  And along with this, growing shortages of affordable housing, medical care and higher education, and a deterioration of public services and the physical environment.

I’m neither foolish enough nor brave enough to attempt to predict the future.  I don’t think decline is inevitable.  But all it requires is for us to continue on our present path.  We’re halfway there now.

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The Saturn V rocket explained in common words

August 3, 2013
up_goer_five

Double click to enlarge.

The Saturn V rocket explained in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

Source: xkcd: Up Goer Five.

If you like this, you might like Short Words to Explain Relativity.

Hat tip for both to kottke.org.

After 33 years, a human-powered helicopter

July 13, 2013

Click on this article in Popular Mechanics for details.

Hat tip to kottke.org.

We’re already in the middle of a cyber-war

June 13, 2013

Evolution of Warfare

The United States is in the middle of an undeclared war with Iran, a cyberwar that is a much greater threat to the nation and its institutions than Al Qaeda ever was or could have been.   Nations depend on computer systems and Internet communications for everything from electrical distribution to banking.   Computer viruses and malware that disrupt these systems could be devastating.

nsaThe nature and seriousness of the cyberwar is revealed in two new articles, one by James Bamford in Wired magazine and the other by Michael Joseph Gross in Vanity Fair.   Bamford, who has reported on the National Security Agency for more than 30 years, profiled General Keith Alexander, who is director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, which gives him command the Tenth Fleet, the 24th Air Force and the Second Army.  Alexander’s aim is full spectrum dominance of cyberspace, equivalent to U.S. military domination of the air and space.

The cyberwar with Iran was begun in the mid-2000s with the launching of the Stuxnet malware system to shut down of the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.   As with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Stuxnet took warfare to a new technological level, and it was the United States that led the way.

 Since then there have been other computer attacks on Iran and Iranian interests, and what appear to be counterattacks.   A computer virus wiped out the memories of the Aramco computer system in Iran, and there was a “distributed denial of service” attack on U.S. banks in May.  Both of these are a foretaste of what may happen.  Somebody hacked into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers records on 13,991 high-hazard dams—dams whose failure could result in loss of human life.

In parallel to this, the NSA has conducted a massive and highly successful electronic espionage campaign against China, according to Matthew M. Aid in Foreign Policy magazine.   This is spying, not sabotage.   But it may explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping probably isn’t impressed with President Obama’s complaints about Chinese espionage.   And it also may explain why Edward Snowden may think he can get political asylum in Hong Kong.

The significant thing about all this, for me, is that the United States has been plunged into virtual war in secret, without any public knowledge or debate until after the fact.   We have a visible government and an invisible government, and the invisible government is the more powerful of the two.

Click on the following for more.

NSA Snooping Was Only the Beginning.  Meet the Superspy Leading Us into Cyberwar by James Bamford in Wired.

The Changing and Terrifying Nature of the New Cyber-Warfare by Michael Joseph Gross in Vanity Fair.

Inside the NSA’s Ultra-Secret China Hacking Group by Mathew M. Aid in Foreign Policy.

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A hidden world, still growing beyond control

June 8, 2013

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William R. Arkin wrote a fine series three years ago about the out-of-control growth of secret national security and intelligence agencies.   The recent PRISM disclosures make it more relevant than ever.  Here’s their lede, following by some of my miscellaneous thoughts:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

top.secretAfter nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

via washingtonpost.com.

The fact that an enormous amount of money is being spent, and nobody knows quite how to account for it, has a corollary:  Some people are making a lot of money, and have a vested interest in keeping their income stream.

The PRISM program is not a new concept, although its scope is unprecedented.  As early at 1997, before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI was using a software program called Carnivore to monitor and process electronic and e-mail communication.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

The Total Information Awareness program supposedly was abolished in 2003.  Click to view.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created what it called the Total Information Awareness program, which gathered and correlated information on everyone in the United States, including phone calls, social networks, credit card records, phone calls and medical records.   When it became known, there was a great public outcry, and Congress de-funded the program in 2003.  But evidently the essential part of the program continued to exist.

I remember J. Edgar Hoover and the enormous power he wielded because of the Federal Bureau of Investigations files.  If you were a politician or public official and you displeased J. Edgar Hoover, chances are that the FBI had a file on you, and that any sexual, political or financial indiscretion would be leaked to favored members of the press.   He gathered and leaked information on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he regarded as a Communist.  No President dared interfere with him.

Now maybe there isn’t anybody in the National Security Agency who is exactly like J. Edgar Hoover.   Maybe the NSA is completely focused on its mission to learn about potential threats to the United States, and never abuses its power.  Behind the NSA cloak of secrecy, there’s no way to tell.  Knowledge is power.  When a secret government agency potentially can know everything there is to know about citizens, but citizens have no right to know anything about the secret agency, that is a power imbalance that is not compatible with American freedom and democracy as I was brought up to believe in them.

I remember that the government did have all the information it needed to stop the 9/11 attacks, including reports of suspicious characters taking pilot lessons, but not bothering to learn how to land the planes.  The problem was not a lack of information, but lack of ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.   I don’t think that indiscriminately collecting more chaff necessarily makes the country safer.

Another aspect of the PRISM program is what it does to the ability of companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple to compete overseas.  No foreign company will want to buy a product that contains a trapdoor for the National Security Agency.   As somebody remarked, it would be as if every Japanese car contained a tracking device so that Japanese intelligence could know your location at all times.   You probably would not be reassured if the Japanese government said that they only tracked foreigners and not Japanese citizens.

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Big Brother really can be watching you

June 7, 2013

Prism

The National Security Agency, the top-secret U.S. electronic eavesdropping agency, has access to your e-mails, Internet searches and data files if you use Google, Apple, Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook or any of the other major e-mail, search, video or communications services.

The program, called Prism, was revealed by The Guardian newspaper in London.  The Guardian also broke news of a secret court order to Verizon to turn over call records to the NSA.  Presumably this is the tip of the iceberg.   The call records will give the NSA clues on who to check, the Prism program will give the capability of surveillance.   I wonder if the Associated Press or James Rosen of Fox News use Verizon or some other service.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks, reviewing a book entitled The New Digital Age in last Sunday’s New York Times, wrote that Google’s technology epitomizes the death of privacy and the advance of authoritarianism.  He may have written more truly than he realized (or maybe not).

This same weak the court-martial of Bradley Manning began at Fort Meade, Md., home of the NSA.   The principle on which Manning was court-martialed is that the U.S. government has a right to keep its activities secret from the people.   The principle on which the NSA operates is that the people have no right to privacy from the government.   Neither principle is compatible with American freedom as I was brought up to believe in it.

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