Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The twilight of net neutrality?

April 24, 2014

The Internet was created by research paid for by American taxpayers, and, since it was first opened up to the public, it has operated under the principle of Net Neutrality — the principle that it is equally open to all, regardless of their views, social status or ability to pay.

Now Tom Wheeler, a former telecommunication lobbyist appointed by President Obama to head the Federal Communications Commission, has proposed a change in policy — to allow some companies to pay extra to get better access.

Just two months ago the White House itself gave a good explanation of why that is a bad idea.

Rights of free speech, and the free flow of information, are central to our society and economy — and the principle of net neutrality gives every American an equal and meaningful opportunity to participate in both. Indeed, an open Internet is an engine for freedom around the world.

12217_large_neutral-bitsPreserving an open Internet is vital not to just to the free flow of information, but also to promoting innovation and economic productivity.  Because of its openness, the Internet has allowed entrepreneurs — with just a small amount of seed money or a modest grant — to take their innovative ideas from the garage or the dorm room to every corner of the Earth, building companies, creating jobs, improving vital services, and fostering even more innovation along the way.

Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries. The resulting decline in the development of advanced online apps and services would dampen demand for broadband and ultimately discourage investment in broadband infrastructure. An open Internet removes barriers to investment worldwide

This is from The White House Blog: Reaffirming the White House’s Commitment to Net Neutrality (Feb. 18, 2014).   Evidently the FCC didn’t get the word, or maybe it was the White House spokespeople who didn’t get the word.


Government spying and corporate spying

February 28, 2014

spy-vs-spy-without-bombs-775529I’ve been told that I should not complain about secret NSA, CIA and FBI surveillance of the public because corporate surveillance is so much more thorough and detailed.   Google knows more about me than the NSA ever could.

I’ve also been told that I should not complain about corporate spying because any information I yield up through a commercial transaction is the result of a voluntary decision on my part.

I think that the question of whether Big Government or Big Business is the worse problem is, increasingly, a distinction without a difference.

I think government surveillance agencies have access, or soon will get access, to all the information that Google, MasterCard, Barnes & Noble and other corporate entities have about me.  And I think that if I ever were able to create serious problems for a big corporation, they would be able to get access to any files that police and intelligence agencies have.  From the standpoint of those in charge, Big Data will be one seamless whole, and it won’t matter whether a particular datum’s origin is public or private.

ANATOMY OF THE DEEP STATE by Mike Lofgren for Moyers & Company

Inequality, austerity are enemies of meritocracy

February 27, 2014

A smart economist named Tyler Cowen has written a book entitled Average Is Over, in which he foresees a world of advanced technology in which maybe 15 percent of the population will have the ability to keep up and grow rich, while everybody else falls behind.

He said new technology will make the population more legible to the job creators, so that those who have merit will rise more quickly, but those who make bad choices early in their lives will be marked forever.  He has no problem with this because, like many economists, he thinks anything is all right if it is the result of market forces.

I don’t have standing to criticize Cowen’s book because I haven’t read it, but I think that, as a general principle, the greater the degree of inequality and the fewer the openings at the top, the less likely that these openings will be allocated on the basis of merit.  Rather the gatekeepers will first make sure that their families and loved ones are taken care of, and then will look to do favors for those who can do favors in return.

Equality of opportunity entails risk for those at the top, but that risk is minimized when prosperity is widely shared, and people who miss out on one thing have a fair shot at something else.

‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data

February 10, 2014


I’ve long admired James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which describes the history of the modern world as a history of governments collecting more and more information about the people and communities they ruled, and of how they mistake information for understanding, often with disastrous results.

Ancient and medieval kings and emperors collected tribute from the people they ruled, but they often knew little about them.  In order to more efficiently collect taxes, draft people into armies, mobilize economic resources and also carry out reforms, it was necessary for rulers to identify their subjects and collect basic information.

It is for that reason that there is a record of my name and address, my age and birthplace, the size and value of my house, the boundaries of my property, what kind of automobile I own, the amount and sources of my income and much else.  This has advantages in that this knowledge enables governments and corporations to provide me services that could not have been available in an earlier age, and provide them more efficiently.

As Scott pointed out, the problem is that the picture that governments have about their subjects (or, for that matter, corporations have about their employees and customers) represents a simplification of reality, and, when they act on that simplified information, trouble results.

The culminations of this process are the Surveillance State and corporate Big Data.  Government intelligence agencies will have information not only on what I own, where I go, what I earn and how I earn it, but details of my personal life from which inferences can be drawn about my tastes, thoughts and feelings.  Some of these inferences will be drawn by computer algorithms, like the one used select targets for flying killer drones in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The power of intelligence agencies to gather information about individuals is greater than ever, and yet this information has not prevented the defeat of the U.S. military nor the growing appeal of Al Qaeda.  The date gathered by U.S. corporations about customers and employees is more extensive than ever, and yet this does not (so far as I can see) result in excellent customer service or excellent employee relations.  Misunderstandings about.  People are put on “no fly” lists for no apparent reason.  Banks foreclose on people with paid-up mortgages.

Knowledge is power and power corrupts.  But the worst corruption is the exercise of absolute power based on the illusion of knowledge.  What is needed is to reverse the polarity of surveillance—to make the inner workings of government and corporations at least as legible to the citizens as the other way around.


Steve Jobs was a real-life Ayn Rand hero

January 23, 2014


Steve Jobs comes as close as anyone I know to being an Ayn Rand hero in real life.  As depicted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs, a semi-authorized biography, Jobs was utterly selfish and had no consideration of anyone or anything except his personal vision and obsessions.  At the same time he was a genius who created a great company and transformed the personal computer, digital animation, the telephone, photography and much else.

Many Occupy Wall Street protestors, who hated most of the “1 percent”, nevertheless mourned the death of Steve Jobs because, unlike crooked Wall Street financiers, he actually accomplished something.   Walter Isaacson wrote he was the most important American industrialist since Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

I find it easy to mock those who, as Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, once put it, were born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple.  A great many of our so-called meritocracy contribute little or nothing or mainly harmful things to society.  But it is more difficult to decide what I think a total egotist who accomplished great things.

This is nothing in Isaacson’s book to indicate that Steve Jobs ever read the works of Ayn Rand or gave a thought about her philosophy.  His intellectual interests, such as they were, were in Zen Buddhism, New Age teaching and rock and roll.

Buddhism contributed to his keen aesthetic sense, based on simplicity and elegance.  But he evidently did not take to heart the Buddhist teaching that the ego is an illusion and you should not make yourself unhappy if you don’t get your way.  Quite the contrary.

Steve Jobs’ great talent was in industrial design.   He brought art and technology together.  As has often been pointed out, all the basic features of the Macintosh computer – the mouse, clickable icons and so on – were developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory, and hijacked by Jobs.  But it was Jobs, not Xerox management, who understood what to do with these concepts.  The Macintosh was historic.  Xerox’s own Star computer is forgotten.

As an artist, he was a perfectionist.  He made big changes at the last minute rather than allow a flawed (in his eyes) product go on the market.  I can easily imagine him, like Ayn Rand’s fictional architect Howard Roark, destroying something he created rather than let someone else spoil it.

He was not easy to work with.  He had no patience with the merely adequate.  He was quick to classify people as geniuses or bozos, based on hasty impressions.  But at the same time he respected people who stood up to him—provided they proved to be right.  He was a charismatic personality, famous for his “reality distortion field,” who was able to impose his ideas on other people almost in spite of themselves.  His insistence on getting his own way drove his people to achieve more than they ever thought they could.

stevejobs.reincarnationI use Apple products and I enjoy Pixar animation (which he did not create but fostered).  At the same time I am glad that I never met Steve Jobs, and I do not recommend him as a role model.  He treated those closest to him badly, including his loving and self-sacrificial foster parents, the mother of his first child and his loyal friend Steve Wozniak.  He cared little for anyone he did not regard as a fellow genius.  He did not practice nor believe in economic democracy.  When a visitor asked about working conditions in Apple factories, his reaction was anger and contempt.

I’m glad Steve Jobs lived.  I respect his achievement, and the passion that fueled his achievement.  I would not subtract anything from his wealth or honors.  At the same time I would not want to live in a society dominated by people like Steve Jobs or, worse still, people with Steve Jobs’ attitude toward life but not his talent.   The world benefits from obsessive hard-driving geniuses, but that does not mean that ordinary people, who do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, count for nothing.


For more, click on Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale by Ben Austen for Wired.

The world of surveillance, private and public

January 16, 2014

Senator Jay Rockefeller is rightly indignant that somebody has compiled lists of rape victims, which are sold to marketing companies for who-knows-what purpose.

But the fact is that we all provide information to private businesses that, when shared, enables them to know all about us. Short of never using a store discount card, never buying anything over the Internet and never using a credit card, there is no realistic way to get around it.

What I worry about is not so much what people in these companies know, or think they know, as what they do with the information. If the information is used by marketing companies to guess what products I might buy, this may be annoying, but it does me no great harm.

If it is turned over to lenders or employers and affects my chances of getting credit or a job, this would be a serious problem.  If it is turned over to government agencies to determine whether I am a potential terrorist or even a troublemaker, this would be an even more serious problem.

Knowledge is power, and there is a lack of balance of power. These people know, or think they know, a lot about me. I ought to be able to know who they are and what they know, or think they know, about me. If my life is an open book to them, I ought to be able to read that book.

So long as the information that companies and agencies have about me is secret, there is no penalty for wrongful derogatory information about me, and no incentive to double-check to make sure it is correct. All the incentives are to err on the side of suspicion.

The right to privacy only extends to individuals. Organizations and institutions should be transparent. (more…)

Nuclear peril was (and is) worse than we thought

January 8, 2014

We were in greater danger from nuclear weapons than we thought during the Cold War era, and that danger still exists.

That is what I learned from reading COMMAND AND CONTROL: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schosser, a history of nuclear weapons technology from World War Two to the present.

command-and-controlThe danger was not so much that the USA or USSR would intentionally start a nuclear war.  Deterrence did work.  The danger was an accidentak discharge or launch of a nuclear missile.  As Eric Schlosser documented, this nearly happened literally hundreds of times.   Evidently nobody knows the actual number because the U.S. government doesn’t keep a list.

Even Robert Peurifoy of Sandia Laboratories, the leading advocate of safer nuclear technology within the government, didn’t know of all of them.

The book has two narrative threads.  One is the evolution of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy from FDR to Reagan, the technical and engineering difficulties, and a relentless piling up of reports of bomber crashes, accident bomb drops, computer system failures around nuclear weapons and weapons being lost or left unguarded.  We’ve been on the brink of nuclear war and nuclear disaster many more times than we know.

The other thread is an hour-by-hour report on a near-disaster a Titan missile complex near Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980.   I had not thought of missile crews as brave in the sense that fighter and bomber pilots are brave, but the missile crews deal with dangerous and not completely predictable forces.

The accident began when an enlisted man, performing routine maintenance near the top of the missile, accidentally dropped a socket, which punctured the oxidizer tank of the lower stage.  Both the oxidizer and the fuel are toxic as well as highly flammable and explosive.  If the air pressure in the oxidizer tank were to fall below a certain level, the tank would collapse and the rocket fuel would explode.  The rocket carried a nuclear bomb with the explosive power of all the bombs dropped during World War Two, including the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The following few hours were a story of bureaucratic paralysis and individual heroism as a fire broke out in the complex and the rockets eventually exploded despite everything the crew could do.  It was only by good fortune the nuclear warhead was not detonated.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, both as a whole and in its individual parts, is an example of what the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a fragile system.  The failure of any of its parts would have led to the cascading failure of the whole system.

Nuclear strategy for 40 years was based on the “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” which was an all-out attack which would have taken the lives of an estimated 200 million people in Russia, China and eastern Europe.  Some U.S. military leaders actually contemplated launching such an attack which would have taken the lives of more people than were killed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined; presumably the Soviets had a similar plan.
The U.S. had no plan for what to do after the attack.  Planning ended with the nuclear holocaust

Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and others sought alternatives.  Their efforts were unsuccessful for, in my opinion, good reason.  If the leaders of a nation are going to use nuclear weapons at all against an enemy which also has nuclear arms, it is too late to hold back.

Schlosser gives great credit to General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957 and higher Air Force positions through 1965, for his strict insistence on proper procedures and checklists and tough unannounced inspections.  It was said of LeMay that he did not distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent, and that to err is human, but to forgive is not SAC policy.  This tough attitude saved many lives, Schlosser said.

The situation is different now.  In 2003, Schlosser reported, half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety inspections, despite three-day advance warnings.

Schlosser pointed out that the United States has never had an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon—a remarkable achievement.  But each day that nuclear weapons exist is a gamble that a detonation won’t take place.  Meanwhile nuclear weapons proliferate.  India, as Schlosser noted, has double the industrial accident rate of the United States, and Pakistan has three times the rate.  How long until one of those weapons goes off?  And then what?


How digital networks promote inequality

January 7, 2014

Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer, has become an outspoken critic of claims made for the benefits of the digital economy.  Here is an excerpt from a review of Lanier’s latest book, Who Owns the Future?, by Joe Nocera of the New York Times.

Lanier’s thesis […] is that the digital economy has done as much as any single thing to hollow out the middle class. […] His great example here is Kodak and Instagram.  At its height, writes Lanier “Kodak employed more than 140,000 people.” Yes, Kodak made plenty of mistakes, but look at what is replacing it: “When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people.”

Which leads nicely to Lanier’s final big point: that the value of these new companies comes from us. “Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those 13 employees are extraordinary,” he writes. “Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it.” He adds, “Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they have them, only a small number of people get paid. This has the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth.”  Thus, in Lanier’s view, is income inequality also partly a consequence of the digital economy.


Lanier’s other point is that when Big Data accumulates, it becomes too complex for human beings to manage.  The illusion of control leads to system crashes.

Click on Will Digital Networks Ruin Us? for Joe Nocera’s full review.  Hat tip to Daniel Brandt.

Drones are not really the problem

December 13, 2013

Drone Nation

Drones don’t kill people.   Governments kill people.   Drones are not necessarily a problem.  They have legitimate uses, including legitimate uses in war.   The problem with killer drones is that they are a technology that makes it easy to commit acts of war and pretend that they are something else.

And of course surveillance drones are different from killer drones.  They, too, have their legitimate uses.   The issue is not surveillance drones versus other kinds of surveillance technology.  The issue is how much surveillance we the people are willing to tolerate.

These are not technology questions.   These are Constitutional questions.

Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Ink and paper: The survival of craftsmanship

December 12, 2013

Hat tip to


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