Quotulatiousness

July 2, 2015

A bad day for the space program

Filed under: Space,Technology,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In National Review, Taylor Dinerman discusses the bad news from SpaceX and what it means for the space program:

June 28 was Elon Musk’s 44th birthday, and he had hoped to celebrate with a successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It would be carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract he signed with NASA back in 2006.

Musk had also hoped that once the Dragon capsule was well on its way to the space station, the Falcon’s first stage would return to Earth’s surface for a powered landing on a barge off the coast of Florida. A successful flight would have been a major step toward building a reusable launch vehicle, which could radically reduce the cost of getting payloads into orbit.

Instead, the Falcon 9 exploded a few minutes after leaving the launch pad.

It has been a rough time recently for ISS logistics. In October an Antares rocket launched from Virginia by Orbital Sciences blew up, and in April a Russian Progress supply capsule was lost when its Soyuz launcher malfunctioned. NASA says that there are enough supplies onboard the ISS to last until October. If this summer’s planned launch of a Japanese HTV supply capsule goes wrong, things could get dicey.

June 30, 2015

Elon Musk – high tech messiah or grasping crony capitalist?

Sean Noble says that the subsidies Elon Musk’s high-tech Tesla and Solar City firms are much higher than he implies:

Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City head Elon Musk lashed out at the Los Angeles Times following an article that totaled up all the government support that his three-headed corporate-welfare monster receives. The number the Times reported was nearly $5 billion in combined support for his companies, including subsidies for those who purchase Musk’s products, such as the high-priced solar panels of Solar City and the supercars of Tesla.

Musk responded by arguing, “If I cared about subsidies, I would have entered the oil and gas industry.” He further asserted that his competitors in the oil-and-gas industry haul in 1,000 times more in subsidies in a single year than his companies have received in total. Such statements reveal that Musk seems to care as little for facts as he purports to care about the taxpayer dollars propping up his various businesses.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released the most recent data available regarding energy subsidies provided by the federal government. The data, covering the year 2013, broke down total taxpayer subsidies across the different sectors of the energy industry. While fossil fuels did enjoy some government support through various direct expenditures, tax credits, and R&D programs, the data stands in sharp contrast to Musk’s claims.

Data from the EIA report, combined with numbers from an anti-oil advocacy group regarding state-level government support, reveals that total state and federal support for the oil-and-gas industry is no more than $5.5 billion each year. As stated, Musk’s companies combine for $5 billion in subsidies, a number that he has yet to dispute. Clearly, the difference is much smaller than Musk’s outlandish 1,000-to-one claim.

Extending the ADA to the web

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Politics,Technology,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Amy Alkon discusses why the notion of expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover the internet would be a terrible idea:

So few people understand how laws passed can be used — and easily misused. Stretched into something they were never supposed to be (or not what they were said to be about, anyway).

For example, Title IX was supposed to be about allowing girls equal participation in school sports. The Obama admin has turned it into a system of campus kangaroos courts removing due process from men accused of sexual assault.

Next in line for strrretching is the Americans with Disabilities Act.

[…]

Bader gives some examples from Walter Olson, from his testimony to Congress, of awful changes that would ensue, like that amateur publishing would become “more of a legal hazard.” They’d go after websites like mine, that make a few shekels from Amazon links and a few more from Google ads. I need this money to supplement the money that’s fallen out of newspaper writing; also, I love the people who comment here and the discussion that goes on. It’s what keeps my eyes pried open at 11 p.m. when I need to post a blog item half an hour after I should have gone to bed for my 5 a.m. book- and column-writing wakeup time.

Also, added in the morning, after waking up worrying about this all night — making something “accessible” for a tiny minority could ruin it for everyone.

And what sort of understanding do we really owe people? I don’t do well with complex physics and I have limited attention for things I don’t understand that don’t grab my interest enough to figure them out. Should physics websites dumb themselves down for Amy Alkon’s brain? How many scientific websites will be brought down by disabled people going around to them like the quadriplegic lawyer in the wheelchair filing profit-making suits and closing classic hamburger stands and other businesses in California over ADA claims?

June 29, 2015

Europe institutionalizes the “memory hole”

Filed under: Europe,Law,Liberty,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Brendan O’Neill on the European “right to be forgotten”:

“He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall. ‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.'”

This is the moment in Nineteen Eighty-Four when O’Brien, an agent of the Thought Police who tortures Winston Smith in Room 101, dumps into a memory hole an inconvenient news story. It’s an 11-year-old newspaper cutting which confirms that three Party members who were executed for treason could not have been guilty. “It does exist!” wails Winston. “It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.” O’Brien, mere seconds after plunging the item into the memory hole, replies: “I do not remember it.”

Of all the horrible things in Nineteen Eighty-Four that have come true in recent years — from rampant thought-policing to the spread of CCTV cameras — surely the memory hole, the institutionalisation of forgetting, will never make an appearance in our supposedly open, transparent young century? After all, ours is a “knowledge society,” where info is power and Googling is on pretty much every human’s list of favourite pastimes.

Think again. The memory hole is already here. In Europe, anyway. We might not have actual holes into which pesky facts are dropped so that they can be burnt in “enormous furnaces.” But the EU-enforced “right to be forgotten” does empower individual citizens in Europe, with the connivance of Google, to behave like little O’Briens, wiping from internet search engines any fact they would rather no longer existed.

More on the “self-driving truck” issue

Filed under: Business,Economics,Railways,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the comments to this post, Tom Kelley provided a worthwhile digression on the topic that I felt deserved a wider audience, so with his permission, here’s Tom’s response:

Given that the trucking industry has been my sandbox for quite some time, I can safely extend Megan’s prognosis to also include the low long-term risk of job losses due to self-driving vehicles.

Frankly, I have to be wary of any “expert” who can’t even get the name of his source (the American Trucking Associations — yes, plural — not the American Trucker Association) transcribed correctly.

Apart from the myriad technical issues standing in the way of driverless trucks, the insurmountable barrier is anti-competitive trucking regulations passed on behalf of the government’s favorite white elephant, the rail industry. Invariably, these regulations are tarted up under some guise of safety (Let’s see, was it a truck or a train that blew the town of Lac-Mégantic off the map??? Hmm).

The bottom line is that any change that would have the slightest possibility of making trucking more productive is quickly met with massive dis-information campaigns, and even more massive lobbying from the rail industry. Even the most minor dimensional changes designed to reflect the current realities of truck freight transportation stand little if any chance of making it past regulators with a permanent disdain for free enterprise.

We can’t have electronically actuated brakes on trucks because the regulators have no grasp of brakes or electronics, and somebody wants to replace the driver with electronics? Seriously? Of course these same folks seen to have no problem flying cross-country at 500 MPH in a commercial jetliner that is literally flown by wire.

And even if the government types were perfect actors in this little tale, then you have the American tort law system, run/regulated by, for, and about the trial lawyers. Even with professional truck drivers who can deftly avoid putting incompetent car drivers on their way to a Darwin award, hundreds of four-wheeler drivers still manage to commit suicide-by-truck every year, followed quickly by their otherwise destitute estates suing innocent trucking companies for millions.

Can’t you just hear the jury summation now: “The eeevvilll trucking company wanted to save a few pennies by outsourcing the driver’s job to a microchip! The must be punished! My client, a fourth cousin of the homeless man who jumped off a bridge in front of a truck MUST be awarded $10 million for the pain and suffering from losing a relative he never met. No justice, no peace!”

No insurance company in their right mind would insure a driverless truck for real-world operation.

There’s no question that the technology is available to make the concept work, I was on-board numerous autonomous vehicles of all sizes back in 1997.

It will take several major societal shifts before any serious degree of autonomy makes it into real world trucking operations.

June 26, 2015

The self-driving truck won’t displace many human truck drivers for years to come

Filed under: Business,Economics,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I’m far from being a Luddite, but I find Megan McArdle‘s analysis of the low short-to-medium term risk of job losses due to self-driving vehicles to be pretty convincing:

… my objections are actually to the understanding of the trucking industry works and of self-driving vehicles. Fully automated trucks, with no drivers at all, are probably going to arrive later than Santens thinks, take longer to roll out than he projects, and displace fewer workers than he thinks they will. I’m not saying it will never happen. I’m just skeptical that this is going to be a major policy problem in the next two decades.

Why?

Start with what truckers do, and how many of them there are. Santens quotes the American Trucker Association to get 3.5 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts that figure a bit lower, around 2.8 million. More importantly, only 1.6 million of those are long-haul truckers. The rest are “driver/sales” employees or “Light truck or delivery services drivers.” Those are short-haul services that will not quickly be replaced by automated cars, both because chaotic urban roads are harder for autonomous vehicles to handle and because part of the job is loading and unloading the truck (something that long haul drivers may also do).

Also: Why would we assume that the advent of driverless trucks would be bad for trucking support jobs? Those folks are doing stuff like maintenance or loading that still has to be done. Moreover, other jobs will be created, in designing and maintaining the new systems. Someone has to map all those roads.

But I think it will be a while before we get to a fully autonomous vehicle with no people in it. The “driverless truck” that Santens links is not actually driverless; it’s partially autonomous. If it foresees something it can’t deal with, such as heavy snow, it signals to the driver to take over; if the driver doesn’t respond, it slows to a stop. That’s an improvement in the lives of truck drivers, not a job killer.

June 23, 2015

Obama needs to convey a sense of urgency over the OPM hack

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle on what she characterizes as possibly “the worst cyber-breach the U.S. has ever experienced”:

And yet, neither the government nor the public seems to be taking it all that seriously. It’s been getting considerably less play than the Snowden affair did, or the administration’s other massively public IT failure: the meltdown of the Obamacare exchanges. For that matter, Google News returns more hits on a papal encyclical about climate change that will have no obvious impact on anything than it does for a major security breach in the U.S. government. The administration certainly doesn’t seem that concerned. Yesterday, the White House told Reuters that President Obama “continues to have confidence in Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta.”

I’m tempted to suggest that the confidence our president expresses in people who preside over these cyber-disasters, and the remarkable string of said cyber-disasters that have occurred under his presidency, might actually be connected. So tempted that I actually am suggesting it. President Obama’s administration has been marked by titanic serial IT disasters, and no one seems to feel any particular urgency about preventing the next one. By now, that’s hardly surprising. Kathleen Sebelius was eased out months after the Department of Health and Human Services botched the one absolutely crucial element of the Obamacare rollout. The NSA director’s offer to resign over the Snowden leak was politely declined. And now, apparently, Obama has full faith and confidence in the folks at OPM. Why shouldn’t he? Voters have never held Obama responsible for his administration’s appalling IT record, so why should he demand accountability from those below him?

Yes, yes, I know. You can’t say this is all Obama’s fault. Government IT is almost doomed to be terrible; the public sector can’t pay salaries that are competitive with the private sector, they’re hampered by government contracting rules, and their bureaucratic procedures make it hard to build good systems. And that’s all true. Yet note this: When the exchanges crashed on their maiden flight, the government managed to build a crudely functioning website in, basically, a month, a task they’d been systematically failing at for the previous three years. What was the difference? Urgency. When Obama understood that his presidency was on the line, he made sure it got done.

Update: It’s now asserted that the OPM hack exposed more than four times as many people’s personal data than the agency had previously admitted.

The personal data of an estimated 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees were affected by a cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management – more than four times the 4.2 million the agency has publicly acknowledged. The number is expected to grow, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.

FBI Director James Comey gave the 18 million estimate in a closed-door briefing to Senators in recent weeks, using the OPM’s own internal data, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Those affected could include people who applied for government jobs, but never actually ended up working for the government.

The same hackers who accessed OPM’s data are believed to have last year breached an OPM contractor, KeyPoint Government Solutions, U.S. officials said. When the OPM breach was discovered in April, investigators found that KeyPoint security credentials were used to breach the OPM system.

Some investigators believe that after that intrusion last year, OPM officials should have blocked all access from KeyPoint, and that doing so could have prevented more serious damage. But a person briefed on the investigation says OPM officials don’t believe such a move would have made a difference. That’s because the OPM breach is believed to have pre-dated the KeyPoint breach. Hackers are also believed to have built their own backdoor access to the OPM system, armed with high-level system administrator access to the system. One official called it the “keys to the kingdom.” KeyPoint did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

U.S. investigators believe the Chinese government is behind the cyber intrusion, which are considered the worst ever against the U.S. government.

“Being skunked” takes on a new meaning

Filed under: Law,Politics,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Defence One, Patrick Tucker looks at an “improved” stink bomb now available to American police departments:

As protestors and police officers clash on the streets of Baltimore and other divided cities, some police departments are stockpiling a highly controversial weapon to control civil unrest.

It’s called Skunk, a type of “malodorant,” or in plainer language, a foul-smelling liquid. Technically nontoxic but incredibly disgusting, it has been described as a cross between “dead animal and human excrement.” Untreated, the smell lingers for weeks.

The Israeli Defense Forces developed Skunk in 2008 as a crowd-control weapon for use against Palestinians. Now Mistral, a company out of Bethesda, Md., says they are providing it to police departments in the United States.

Skunk is composed of a combination of baking soda and amino acids, Mistral general manager Stephen Rust said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Armament Systems Forum on April 20. “You can drink it, but you wouldn’t want to,” said Rust, a retired U.S. Army project manager.

The Israelis first used it in 2008 to disperse Palestinians protesting in the West Bank. A BBC video shows its first use in action, sprayed by a hose, a system that has come to be known as the “crap cannon.”

June 22, 2015

Are software APIs covered by copyright?

Filed under: Business,Law,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick looks at a recent Supreme Court case that asks that very question:

The Obama administration made a really dangerous and ignorant argument to the Supreme Court yesterday, which could have an insanely damaging impact on innovation — and it appears to be because Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (yes, the MPAA’s old top lawyer) is absolutely clueless about some rather basic concepts concerning programming. That the government would file such an ignorant brief with the Supreme Court is profoundly embarrassing. It makes such basic technological and legal errors that it may be the epitome of government malfeasance in a legal issue.

We’ve written a few times about the important copyright question at the heart of the Oracle v. Google case (which started as a side show to the rest of the case): are software APIs covered by copyright. What’s kind of amazing is that the way you think about this issue seems to turn on a simple question: do you actually understand how programming and software work or not? If you don’t understand, then you think it’s obvious that APIs are covered by copyright. If you do understand, you recognize that APIs are more or less a recipe — instructions on how to connect — and thus you recognize how incredibly stupid it would be to claim that’s covered by copyright. Just as stupid as claiming that the layout of a program’s pulldown menus can be covered by copyright.

The judge in the district court, William Alsup, actually learned to code Java to help him better understand the issues. And then wrote such a detailed ruling on the issue that it seemed obvious that he was writing it for the judges who’d be handling the appeal, rather than for the parties in the case.

June 19, 2015

The EFF’s Privacy Badger

Filed under: Liberty,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Earlier this month, Noah Swartz exhorted the Mozilla folks to put some energy and effort behind the Firefox Tracking Protection technology. While we wait for that to come to fruition, he also recommends the Electronic Frontiers Foundation’s Privacy Badger for Firefox users:

In her blog post, [Monica] Chew flags the need for Mozilla’s management to ensure that this essential protection reaches users, and to recognize that “current advertising practices that enable ‘free’ content are in direct conflict with security, privacy, stability, and performance concerns.” Since advertising industry groups flatly refused to respect the Do Not Track header as a privacy opt-out from data collection, the only line of defense we have against non-consensual online tracking is our browsers.

Safari and Internet Explorer have taken important steps to protect their users against web tracking: Safari blocks third party cookies out of the box, and IE offers a prominent tracker-blocking option. But mainstream users of open source browsers are out of luck. Until that changes, our Privacy Badger add-on for Firefox and Chrome remains perhaps the only one-click solution for users who want to protect their privacy as they browse the web. Since Privacy Badger requires no configuration, we encourage any user who is concerned about online tracking to add it to their browser.

EFF Privacy Badger

June 2, 2015

QotD: The internet’s public shaming machine

Filed under: Media,Quotations,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness. People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible.

In a large group, shame is punishment, but it still has a restorative aspect. One of the most surprising passages of Ronson’s book reveals that the drunken driver who had to stand by the side of the road with a sign detailing his crimes got more compassion and support than bitter catcalls from the people who drove by him.

On the Internet, when all the social context is stripped away and you don’t even have to look at the face of the person you’re being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn’t punishment. It’s a weapon. And weapons aren’t supposed to be used against people in your community; they’re for strangers, people in some other group that you don’t like very much.

Megan McArdle, “How the Internet Became a Shame-Storm”, Bloomberg View, 2015-04-17.

June 1, 2015

The secret of Damascus steel

Filed under: History,Middle East,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Esther Inglis-Arkell on the “secret ingredient” of Damascus steel:

Damascus swords are the stuff of legend – literally. When Richard the [Lionheart] faced Saladin, Richard is said to have proved his sword’s might by chopping a tree trunk in half with a single blow. Saladin took a silk scarf, threw it into the air, and let it waft down over his sword, where it was promptly cut in two.

Saladin was not the last one to get a Damascene sword, but he was nearer to the last than to the first. Eventually, the knowledge died out, and people have been trying to recreate the swords ever since. This was obviously a step backwards in terms of science, but people didn’t realize how much of a step back until the early 2000s. When scientists took a look at the swords, they found carbon nanotubes and nanowires embedded in them.

As far as we can tell, the nanotubes were created by getting the impurity levels right in the steel-making process. Damascus steel is badly-named, as it originally comes from India. It has a 1.5 percent carbon impurity level, and is commonly known as Wootz steel – which, arguably, is an even worse name. The steel forms a banded structure. There’s a central band of Fe3C, an iron and carbon combination that is tellingly named cementite, surrounded by softer steel. As the sword is made, the maker cris-crosses these bands carefully, making a matrix of hard and soft that leaves the sword both strong and flexible. At the end of the process, the maker pours acid on the sword. This eats away some of the softer steel, but leaves the nanotubes and nanowires, and creates an ultra-strong, sharp outer layer. It also brings out a swirling pattern of dark and light bands that marks it as a Damascus sword.

May 21, 2015

Jonathan Kay, ebike martyr

Filed under: Cancon,Environment,Humour,Media,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Despite having become the editor-in-chief of The Walrus, poor Jonathan Kay suffers the slings and arrows of all those who condemn and ridicule his ridiculous choice of transportation ebike (especially from his own staff):

City planners think of transportation in terms of its logistical and infrastructural components. That’s also how the issue gets discussed in the context of, say, energy conservation and traffic management. But when it comes to the transportation products we actually buy, our utilitarian calculus is overwhelmed by our aesthetic biases. When the Segway scooter had its great reveal in 2001, few observers cared about its groundbreaking self-balancing technology. All they saw was a nerd standing upright, wearing a funny helmet.

It is a lesson I have learned again over the last year, at great cost in dignity and personal reputation, as I have motored around Toronto on an ebike — a zero-emission electric scooter that travels at speeds of up to 32 km/h. As I noted in an essay last year, ebikes combine the low cost and convenience of a bicycle, while allowing a user to get to work without an ounce of sweat or a stitch of lycra.

In a more perfect world, the streets of our cities would be humming with ebikes. But that is not the world we inhabit. After a year of evangelizing these fantastically useful, earth-friendly contraptions among my peer group, I’ve failed to gain a single new convert.

Just the opposite, in fact: I have become a figure of overt and willfully cruel mockery.

Jonathan Kay - ebike ad

May 14, 2015

Moore’s Law challenged yet again

Filed under: Business,History,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Bloomberg View, Virginia Postrel looks at the latest “Moore’s Law is over” notions:

Semiconductors are what economists call a “general purpose technology,” like electrical motors. Their effects spread through the economy, reorganizing industries and boosting productivity. The better and cheaper chips become, the greater the gains rippling through every enterprise that uses computers, from the special-effects houses producing Hollywood magic to the corner dry cleaners keeping track of your clothes.

Moore’s Law, which marked its 50th anniversary on Sunday, posits that computing power increases exponentially, with the number of components on a chip doubling every 18 months to two years. It’s not a law of nature, of course, but a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, driving innovative efforts and customer expectations. Each generation of chips is far more powerful than the previous, but not more expensive. So the price of actual computing power keeps plummeting.

At least that’s how it seemed to be working until about 2008. According to the producer price index compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of the semiconductors used in personal computers fell 48 percent a year from 2000 to 2004, 29 percent a year from 2004 to 2008, and a measly 8 percent from 2008 to 2013.

The sudden slowdown presents a puzzle. It suggests that the semiconductor business isn’t as innovative as it used to be. Yet engineering measures of the chips’ technical capabilities have showed no letup in the rate of improvement. Neither have tests of how the semiconductors perform on various computing tasks.

May 13, 2015

Driving a Dymaxion replica … Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 car of the future

Filed under: History,Technology,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 24 Apr 2015

Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 foray into automobiles gave us the Dymaxion Car, and enthusiast Jeff Lane has one of the only working replicas in the world. WSJ‘s Rumble Seat columnist Dan Neil takes the road zeppelin for a spin…or should we say wobble?

H/T to Open Culture for the link … and do at least check out the over-the-top trailer for The Last Dymaxion on Facebook.

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