Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Jobs, productivity and inequality

June 30, 2015

destroying.jobs_.chart1x910_0.

destroying.jobs_.chart2x910

David Rotman, writing in MIT Technology Review, made the case that advances in technology and growth in productivity have not paid off for working Americans.

He considered whether there is something in the nature of technology that rewards highly-trained employees and eliminates the jobs of unskilled employees.

I think the problem is the priorities of the people in charge, not the nature of technology.

It is not technological progress that leads to public libraries having shorter hours, or public utilities have deferred maintenance, or customer service centers keeping people on “hold” for endless minutes.  Rather it is the priorities of the people in charge.

To the extent technology is the cause, I think the reason is that the impetus has been to develop technologies that eliminate jobs rather than technologies that provide better services and improve the quality of life for the majority of Americans.

§§§

How Technology Is Destroying Jobs by David Rotman for MIT Technology Review.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it

June 29, 2015

jobs.5x650I can remember 50 and 60 years ago when people worried about what Americans would do with all the affluence and leisure time that would result from automation.   Today that seems like a cruel joke.

Technology primarily benefits those who own it.  Applied science primarily benefits those who fund it, or at least reflects what the funders are interested in.  There can be spillover effects that benefit everyone, but these don’t necessarily happen of their own accord.

I came across a good article on this topic in Technology Review.  The lesson I draw from it is (1) technology is not a substitute for social and economic reform and (2) there is a need for scientific and technological research outside the domains of for-profit corporations and the military.

LINK

Who Will Own the Robots? in Technology Review.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism}

‘Why spy? It’s cheaper than playing fair’

March 13, 2015

The French economist Thomas Piketty believes that if the gap between rich people and the majority becomes as wide as it was before the French Revolution, there could be another such revolution.

But Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, says the financial elites are aware of the danger of revolution and their response is to press governments to spend money on the police, the military and government surveillance, rather than on measures that would allow a more broadly shared prosperity.

technology police statePiketty is trying to convince global elites (or at least the policymakers beholden to them) that it’s cheaper to submit to a redistributive 1% annual global wealth tax than it is to buy the guards to sustain our present wealth disparity.

There’s an implied max/min problem here: the intersection of a curve representing the amount of wealth you need to spend on guards to maintain stability in the presence of a widening rich/poor gap and the amount you can save on guards by creating social mobility through education, health, and social welfare is the point at which you should stop paying for cops and start paying for hospitals and schools.

This implies that productivity gains in guard labor will make wider wealth gaps sustainable.

Improvements in military and surveillance technology tilt the balance against economic reform.

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair.

I think Doctorow is right.  I think the reason so many known suspicious characters are able to commit acts of terrorism is that the U.S. government and other governments are more concerned about putting down social unrest.

LINKS

Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian.

Why salaries don’t rise by Harold Meyerson for the Washington Post.

 

Why doesn’t technology make us all better off?

March 11, 2015

epi2

We Americans long enjoyed the world’s highest material standard of living, and we were told that was because of the superior productivity of American industry.  That sounds like common sense.  If you want more, you need to produce more.  Obviously.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

But about 30 or so years ago, this changed.  Our productivity continued to increase, but our wages and salaries didn’t increase along with it.

Why?

Some say that the problem is technology.   Automation means that fewer wage-earners are needed, and our work had less value.   So naturally there are fewer jobs, and employers generally don’t have to pay as much to find people to take these jobs.

Fewer wage earners are needed.  Needed by whom?  Our work has less value.  Value to whom?

They are less needed, and of less value, to the corporate boards and wealthy stockholders who own the technology.  Or, to put it another way:  Capitalists, not workers, own the means of production.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

It’s true that the average factory worker or retail clerk did not personally create the technological innovations that made it possible for them to do more with the same amount of work.  But neither did the average corporate executive or corporate stockholder.

If technology is owned and controlled by a small financial elite, then the applications of technology will be such to benefit that elite.

It is possible that, in acting in their own interest, the elite will do things that are good for society as a whole.  It also is possible that they will do things that are bad for society as a whole.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

When that happens, we the people need to understand that their power and ownership is not based on divine right or impersonal economic laws.   It is the result of corporate structures and legal rights established by law, and laws can be changed.

Some radical thinkers, such as Stanley Aronowitz, David Graeber, Richard D. Wolff and Gar Alperovitz, are reviving the idea of worker ownership and public ownership of the means of production, which is not the same thing as government ownership.

More moderate reformers think it is just necessary to change the balance of power within society.

The important thing, as I see it, is to stop letting priorities be determined by the “job creators,” the ones who own the machinery, the research laboratories and the so-called intellectual property.   The question is not whether they need us.  The question is whether we need them.

LINKS

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit by David Graeber for The Baffler.

Why Wages Won’t Rise by Robert Reich.

The Great Decoupling of the U.S. Economy by Andrew McAfee on his blog.

Global lessons on inclusive growth by Jason Furman for Policy Network.

The Most Important Economic Chart by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi for House of Debt.

The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth by Lawrence Mishel for the Economic Policy Institute.

 

 

David Graeber on postmodernism

September 24, 2014

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?

The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies.  The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.  [snip]

The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.

Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this.

The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014
1022785

Double click to enlarge

Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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?

(more…)

An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

August 6, 2013

.

.

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

Snapshots of technology’s global village

May 14, 2013

I lifted these photos from the Beneath the Tin Foil Hat web log.

.
the-day-that-einstein-feared-has-arrived

Tiny robot duplicates the flight of bees

May 7, 2013

When I was a boy, people used to say that according to known scientific principles, it was impossible for a bumblebee to fly.  I don’t know whether that was true or not.  But now Harvard scientists have created tiny flying robots that duplicate the flight of bees.  They call them RoboBees, although they look more like flying dragonflies or mosquitos to me.

The most obvious use for a flying insect-like robot is as a micro-drone, searching collapsed buildings for survivors, sampling chemicals or radioactivity in industrial disaster areas and spying out hidden enemy soldiers or terrorists.

A friend of mine e-mailed me several weeks ago about a report the Department of Homeland Security already had micro-drones in operation, conducting surveillance with tiny video cameras and taking DNA samples.   I wouldn’t put it past the Department of Homeland Security to do such things, but the technology has to go way beyond what the Harvard scientists did before such things are possible.

The RoboBee is attached to a tether, which provides an electric power source and enables the scientists to guide the device.  A true micro-drone would need its own power source, its own sensors and a radio-controlled guidance system if not a computer processing system.  If all these things were possible, you wouldn’t really need the ability to fly.  You could have spider-like miniature spy robots like those in the SF movie Minority Report.

One of the scientists said that RoboBees might someday serve as plant pollinators if the natural bee population is destroyed by Colony Collapse Syndrome.   What this implies is that it may not be feasible to save the world’s actual bees from destruction, but it would be possible to replace them with artificial bees.  The RoboBees wouldn’t make honey, though.

(more…)

An automobile without a steering wheel or pedals

March 2, 2013

FwAreweG03

FwAreweG05

FwAreweG

FwAreweG06

The new Mercedes Benz SCL 600 has no steering wheel or pedals.  It is controlled by a joystick.

FwAreweG07

My friend Bill Elwell e-mailed me these pictures.  As he said, a young child who plays video games would be a better driver of this car than he or I would.   It’s time for us senior citizens to start checking the bus schedules!

Google, Facebook and the filter bubble

June 11, 2012

Eli Pariser, former director of the online organization MoveOn, discovered a surprising and alarming thing about Google.  When he does a Google search, the menu he sees on a give topic is different from the menu one of his friends would see.  That is, Google has algorithms, based on his past Google searches and his demographic characteristics, that give him a unique menu based on what he is likely to be interested in.  Facebook, too, deletes links from his Facebook page that its algorithms determine that he is not interested in.  He found Facebook deleted links from his conservative friends because he clicked on them less often than links from his liberal friends.

The problem with this, he said, is that unless you proactively seek out diverse sources of information, you will wind up in a bubble in which everything you get through Google or Facebook will confirm what you already think you know.  He wrote a book about this (which I haven’t read) entitled The Filter Bubble:What the Internet Is Hiding From You.

What this means is that unless you proactively seek out diverse sources of information, you’re not going to get diverse sources of information.  That is a fixable problem.  The more serious problem is the other uses that Google, Facebook and other Internet companies make of the data they come on us.  By integrating seemingly minor bits of information from diverse sources, they can come up with a well-informed guess about what products you’ll buy, your politics and religion and even your personal habits.

The problem with this is that (1) this information can be made available to credit reporting agencies, employers, the Department of Homeland Security and other organizations who will use it in ways adverse to your interests and (2) the information may not be accurate.  Parisi in the TED video above says that if you drink milk rather than wine with your meals, and you frequent fast-food restaurants, demographers would say you’re probably a political conservative.  Well, I drink more milk than wine, and I greatly enjoy an Arby’s roast beef sandwich, and I consider myself a political liberal.

Years ago I used to joke that the same software that Amazon uses to determine that “people like you liked the following books” could be used by the Department of Homeland Security to determine that “people like you committed acts of terrorism.”  I no longer think of this as a joke.  President Obama and the Central Intelligence Agency use computer algorithms in drawing up kill lists of people in tribal areas of Yemen and Pakistan.

Click on A little bird tells me… from Making Light for a benign example of individuals using data mining.

Click on Bubble Trouble for an argument by Jacob Weisberg of Slate that Parisi exaggerates the problem.  Weisberg had friends of different political beliefs do Google searches on highly charged political subjects, and found little difference in the results.

Click on Google Personalization for directions as to how to turn off the Google personalization feature.

Click on The Filter Bubble for Eli Pariser’s web log.

Hat tip to Steve B. and Daniel B.

Julian Assange and the cypherpunks

June 5, 2012

In Episode 8 of The World Tomorrow, Julian Assange interviewed activists in the cypherpunk movement, who advocate the use of cryptography as a means to protect individual privacy on the Internet.  Assange and his guests discussed the militarization and corporatization of cyberspace. They talked about how the Internet is both a great potential facilitator of freedom of information and discussion, and a great potential tool of surveillance by Big Brother.   This week’s episode is the first of a two-part series.

Click on Digital Journal for a summary of Episode 8, a version of Episode 8 without a commercial and links to previous episodes.

After the program was recorded, one of Assange’s guests, Jeremie Zimmerman, a French citizen, was stopped at an airport and interrogated by FBI agents about Assange and his broadcasts.  View that story below.

The closest thing to Star Trek’s replicator

May 22, 2012

Click on The third industrial revolution for the introduction to a series of articles in The Economist about on how 3-D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques will level the playing field between high-wage and low-wage countries, and large and small manufacturers.

U.S. nuclear plants are wearing out

March 31, 2012

If these YouTube videos have been taken down, click on Danger Zone: Aging Nuclear Reactors for Al Jazeera’s documentary on U.S. nuclear safety.

I have long believed that nuclear power is a dangerous technology that can be provided safely.   This Al Jazeera documentary raises the question as to whether nuclear power will be provided safely.  The documentary shows that many U.S. nuclear power plants are poorly maintained and are being kept operating past their planned closing dates.  Moreover many are next to earthquake faults.   If nuclear power plants cannot be operated profitably without violating the industry’s own safety standards, they should be shut down as soon as replacement power can be made available.

Because such a long time is required to bring a new nuclear power plant into operation, the replacement power will have to be coal or, preferably, natural gas.  Maybe some day there can be a new generation of nuclear power plants using current technology and located on seismically safe sites.   If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. nuclear industry were responsible about continuing nuclear power in this country, such a generation of nuclear plants should have been ready to go on line now.  If this is not politically and ecoomically feasible, then nuclear power, at least for now, is not politically and economically feasible.

This still is a great time to be alive

March 28, 2012

Project Orion was a proposal to propel spaceships by means of pulsed nuclear explosions.  It had the support of Freeman Dyson, Werner von Braun, Stanislaw Ulam and other physicists and rocket scientists, but was abandoned by the Air Force in 1959 and rendered illegal by the Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Click on Project Orion: Its Birth, Death and Possible Rebirth for details.

Asteroid mining would be a means of making space exploration economically self-sustaining.  Click on Space Future: The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids for the argument that this is practical.

Click on PlanetQuest: The Search for Another Earth for NASA’s report on the discovery of planets in other solar systems.

Click on Nomad planets: stepping stones to interstellar space? for one possible way interstellar travel could be feasible.

When I was a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I took it for granted that by 2012, there would be human colonies on the Moon and Mars.  I thought Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History was a plausible scenario for what would happen.   I’m no longer sure colonization of the Solar System is feasible, let alone sending starships to other solar systems.  All I can say is that I would like to think it is possible for humankind can venture out into the rest of the universe, and I think the possibility is worth exploring.

Newt Gingrich is regarded as a crackpot for advocating a mission to Mars, but not for advocating an attack on Iran.  The latter would be at best a monstrous crime, the former at worst a glorious folly.

Click on xkcd for more cartoons.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 716 other followers