This was posted to Google+ the other day, and it’s pretty accurate:
December 11, 2013
He may not have made the cover as “person of the year”, but he’s still very newsworthy:
For Snowden, those impacts are but a means to a different end. He didn’t give up his freedom to tip off German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the American snoops on her cell phone or to detail the ways the NSA electronically records jihadi porn-watching habits. He wanted to issue a warning to the world, and he believed that revealing the classified information at his fingertips was the way to do it. His gambit has so far proved more successful than he reasonably could have hoped — he is alive, not in prison, and six months on, his documents still make headlines daily — but his work is not done, and his fate is far from certain. So in early October, he invited to Moscow some supporters who wanted to give him an award.
After the toasts, some photographs and a brief ceremony, Snowden sat back down at the table, spread with a Russian buffet, to describe once again the dystopian landscape he believes is unfolding inside the classified computer networks on which he worked as a contractor. Here was a place that collected enormous amounts of information on regular citizens as a precaution, a place where U.S. law and policy did not recognize the right to privacy of foreigners operating outside the country, a place where he believed the basic freedoms of modern democratic states — “to speak and to think and to live and be creative, to have relationships and to associate freely” — were under threat.
“There is a far cry between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement — where it is targeted, it’s based on reasonable suspicion, individualized suspicion and warranted action — and the sort of dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under a sort of an eye and sees everything, even when it is not needed,” Snowden told his colleagues. “This is about a trend in the relationship between the governing and governed in America.”
That is the thing that led him to break the law, the notion that mass surveillance undermines the foundations of private citizenship. In a way, it is the defining critique of the information age, in which data is increasingly the currency of power. The idea did not originate with Snowden, but no one has done more to advance it. “The effect has been transformative,” argues Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been helping Snowden from the confines of the Ecuadorean embassy in London. “We have shifted from a small group of experts understanding what was going on to broad public awareness of the reality of NSA mass surveillance.” If Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the sunny pied piper of the new sharing economy, Snowden has become its doomsayer.
Yet for Babbage, the biggest innovation of Doom was something subtler. Video games, then and now, are mainly passive entertainment products, a bit like a more interactive television. You buy one and play it until you either beat it or get bored. But Doom was popular enough that eager users delved into its inner workings, hacking together programs that would let people build their own levels. Drawing something in what was, essentially, a rudimentary CAD program, and then running around inside your own creation, was an astonishing, liberating experience. Like almost everybody else, Babbage’s first custom level was an attempt to reconstruct his own house.
Other programs allowed you to play around with the game itself, changing how weapons worked, or how monsters behaved. For a 12-year-old who liked computers but was rather fuzzy about how they actually worked, being able to pull back the curtain like this was revelatory. Tinkering around with Doom was a wonderful introduction to the mysteries of computers and how their programs were put together. Rather than trying to stop this unauthorised meddling, id embraced it. Its next game, Quake, was designed to actively encourage it.
The modification, or “modding” movement that Doom and Quake inspired heavily influenced the growing games industry. Babbage knows people who got jobs in the industry off the back of their ability to remix others’ creations. (Tim Willits, id’s current creative director, was hired after impressing the firm with his home-brewed Doom maps.) Commercial products — even entire genres of games — exist that trace their roots back to a fascinated teenager playing around in his (or, more rarely, her) bedroom.
But it had more personal effects, too. Being able to alter the game transformed the player from a mere passive consumer of media into a producer in his own right, something that is much harder in most other kinds of media. Amateur filmmakers need expensive kit and a willing cast to indulge their passion. Mastering a musical instrument takes years of practice; starting a band requires like-minded friends. Writing a novel looks easy, until you try it. But creating your own Doom mod was easy enough that anyone could learn it in a day or two. With a bit of practice, it was possible to churn out professional-quality stuff. “User-generated content” was a big buzzword a few years back, but once again, Doom got there first.
December 9, 2013
December 4, 2013
In Forbes, Tim Worstall explains a misunderstanding of Ricardo’s Iron Law of One Price on the part of the Guardian:
This is a fun little bit of data calculation and visualisation. It’s a database and then mapping of the global price list for Apple’s iPhone 5s. And there are two interesting ways of using it. The first is simply to look at how prices differ around the world:
You can do this in USD or GBP as you wish. And this can be used to explore the violations of Ricardo’s Iron Law of One Price. Which is where David Ricardo insisted that the prices of traded goods would inevitably move to being equal all over the world. Well, equal minus the transport costs of getting them around the world. And transport costs for an iPhone are trivial: it would be amazing if Apple were paying more than a couple of dollars to airfreight one to anywhere at all. So, we would expect prices to be the same everywhere: but they obviously are not.
However, when The Guardian reports on this something appears to go wrong. Not their fault I suppose, it’s about economics and lefties never really do get that subject. But here:
Similar to the way the Economist tracks the cost of the ubiquitous McDonalds burger across countries, nations and states, Mobile Unlocked tracked the price of the iPhone 5S across 47 countries in native currencies with native sales tax, and then converted those prices into US dollars (USD) or British pounds (GBP).
No … the Big Mac Index operates entirely and exactly the other way around. We need to make the distinction between traded goods and non-traded goods. The Iron Law only works on traded goods. What we’re trying to find out with PPP calculations is what are the price differentials of non-traded goods? Which is why the Big Mac is used. It is (supposedly at least) exactly the same all over the world. It is also made almost entirely from local produce bought at the local price in local markets. US Big Macs use American beef, Argentine ones Argentine and so on. So we get to see the impact of local prices on the same product worldwide. That’s what we’re actually attempting with that Big Mac Index. The Economist then goes on to compare the prices of this non-traded good with exchange rates and attempt to work out whether the exchange rates are correct or not.
This is entirely different from using the price of a traded good to measure local price variations. For what we’re going to be measuring here is what interventions there are into stopping the Iron Law working, not what local price levels are.
November 26, 2013
I’ve expressed this as variations on “the deeper the specialization, the more those specialists feel they’re experts on much wider subjects”. Megan McArdle‘s formulation is rather neater than that:
Amid the chaos, I got a call from the secretary of a very senior executive at the firm. His new voice-recognition software wasn’t working, and he needed me to come up right away.
I had servers that weren’t working right and a bunch of workstations that couldn’t access the network. “He should call the help desk,” I told her.
Her tone was arctic.
“He doesn’t deal with help desk personnel,” she said. “Please come up here right away.”
So I went to the office of Mr. Senior Executive. He was not at his desk. I played with his new software, which seemed to be working fine — a bit slow, but in 1998, voice-recognition software took a while to become acclimated to your voice. I told the secretary it seemed to be working, and I left my pager number. It went off as I got to the elevator bank. I trekked wearily back to the office, where Mr. Senior Executive gestured at his computer. “It still doesn’t work right,” he said, and started to leave the office again.
“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”
“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”
Now, when I used to tell this story to tech people, the moral was that executives are idiots. No, make that “users are idiots.” Tech people tend to regard their end-users as a sort of intermediate form of life between chimps and information-technology staffers: They’ve stopped throwing around their feces, but they can’t really be said to know how to use tools.
And, of course, users can do some idiotic things. But this particular executive was not an idiot. He was, in fact, a very smart man who had led financial institutions on two continents. None of the IT staffers laughing at his elementary mistake would have lasted for a week in his job.
Call it “the illusion of omnicompetence.” When you know a lot about one thing, you spend a lot of time watching the less knowledgeable make elementary errors. You can easily infer from this that you are very smart, and they are very stupid. Presumably, our bank executive knew that the phasers and replicators on Star Trek are fake; why did he think that the talking computer would be any more real?
November 25, 2013
Bruce Schneier on the rising tide of non-governmental surveillance:
Google recently announced that it would start including individual users’ names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached — without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.
These changes come on the heels of Google’s move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over. Microsoft is doing something similar by developing its own tracking technology.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that big technology companies are tracking us on the Internet even more aggressively than before.
If these features don’t sound particularly beneficial to you, it’s because you’re not the customer of any of these companies. You’re the product, and you’re being improved for their actual customers: their advertisers.
Recently the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville was hit by a target drone that reported malfunctioned. There were some injuries onboard, but none were said to be serious and the ship was safe and could continue operations. However, as this post shows, there are some pretty big open questions based on what the US Navy’s public relations department has shared:
The Navy tells us the drone malfunctioned, and apparently the combat system on the ship had no problems if the ship remains capable of operations, so based on those details of the press release the officers and crew of the USS Chancellorsville tracked the target missile drone — during the radar tracking exercise — apparently as it scored a direct hit into side of the ship.
But the ship was unable to defend itself? I get it that the safety systems were probably engaged that would prevent the full capabilities of the AEGIS combat system from being employed against the rogue drone, but what about the independent close-in point defenses of the cruiser?
The official story, based on the details as released officially, is that the most advanced AEGIS warship in the world tracked a direct hit by a missile drone and was apparently unable to defend itself successfully. Did the ship even try to defend itself from a rogue drone? We don’t know, because the press release focuses on telling the public the technology of the ship is sufficient enough for the ship to conduct normal operations, but tells us no details at all regarding what the crew did or did not do to defend the ship from a direct hit.
There is a detail that is omitted in the official press release, and because it is a detail of the incident known at the time of the press release, we can only assume the omission is intentional for purposes of protecting a reputation. The ships officers and crew apparently did try to defend the ship. The CIWS apparently fired at the BQM-74 but was unsuccessful in defending the ship. That detail matters, because the omission of that detail is the difference between protecting the reputation of the ships officers and crew who tried to defend the ship, or protecting the reputation of a piece of technology that was unsuccessful — for unknown reasons — in performing the technologies primary role as the last line of defense for the ship.
You can understand why a detail like that would fail to make the cut for what the PR department wanted to release to the media.
H/T to John Donovan for the link.
November 24, 2013
The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.
Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”
Clay Shirky, “Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality”, Shirky.com, 2013-11-19
November 21, 2013
For some reason, despite the recent revelations that Americans have almost literally no privacy thanks to government surveillance, some government employees think that they have a right to privacy that they actively push to deny to others:
From the ACLU of Massachusetts:
Boston Police Department bosses want to install GPS monitoring devices in every patrol car, to enable dispatch to more efficiently process 911 calls. But police officers and their union are outraged, saying that the ubiquitous tracking is too invasive of their personal privacy. Tracking the location of officers as they go about their days would reveal incredibly detailed information about their lives, the officers say.
It must be just awful to go about your daily life looking over your shoulder, conscious that your every movement and activity is being recorded and could be used against you. Oh, wait. That’s what the entire American public is already dealing with, in this age of mass electronic surveillance. But the way the police union is hissing’n’flapping about it, it’s almost as if there was something wrong with that. Don’t they know that you have nothing to fear, if you have nothing to hide?
The ACLU’s tack is that if the police don’t like the feeling of being followed, they shouldn’t be pushing for technologies like mass tracking of license plates or cellphone locations. That’s fair enough, but there’s a larger point here also.
Strategy Page discusses one of the problems of wars long-gone, but still dangerous today:
These are the many bombs, shells, grenades, and other explosive devices that did not go off when they were supposed to. In the first half of the 20th century, over a billion fuzed devices were used in combat, and five to ten percent of them were duds. In Europe, the site of heavy fighting in two world wars, dozens of people are still killed or injured each year by duds.
In the last few decades of the 20th century it got worse, and the reason was submunitions. These were smaller bombs carried inside a container. The idea was that when the shell or bomb carrying submunitions was used, it would spread these smaller bombs over a larger area and do more damage than one large explosion. It worked, but it also created more duds. Not just more but smaller duds. Small enough for children to pick up and start playing with. Kids are more adventurous and less well informed than adults. A dud submunition looked like a new toy.
In actual use submunitions turned out to have a higher dud rate than any previous weapon. New artillery shells have a dud rate of about two percent. Israel went so far as to fire 10,000 new shells to confirm that dud rate. But many nations stockpile shells and as these grow older, their dud rate increases. Shells actually have an expiration date, reflecting the fact that the chemicals in the explosives and the fuzes grow more unstable as they age. The Third World and communist nations often had poor quality control to begin with and were more prone to keep old ammunition. During the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, Russian shells appeared to have a dud rate of some thirty percent. And even the United States would sometimes use submunitions that had exceeded their recommended shelf life.
Submunitions were originally designed to have a dud rate similar to that of artillery shells. But in practice it was much higher, closer to five percent. Part of reason for this is the lighter weight of submunitions. Shell fuzes detonate a shell when the shell hits the ground. The impact sends a pretty strong message to the fuze that now is the time to do it, and go bang. But submunitions, weighing from a few ounces to a few pounds, can make a soft landing and not generate enough force to activate the fuze. These make even deadlier duds, for the fuze is not defective, just deceived. When enough force is applied to activate the fuze, you have an explosion. The dud rate got higher depending on where the submunitions landed. When there is a lot of snow or mud on the ground, the dud rate was as high as fifteen percent.
November 20, 2013
November 18, 2013
Jerry Brito is a sousveillance fan and he thinks you should be too:
The Narrative Clip is a digital camera about the size of a postage stamp that clips to one’s breast pocket or shirt collar and takes a photo every thirty seconds of whatever one’s seeing. The photos are uploaded to the cloud and can be accessed on demand with a smartphone app, making it easy to look up any moment in one’s life. When the project to mass-produce these cameras first hit Kickstarter, I knew I had to have one, and with any luck mine will be arriving in a couple of weeks.
The prospect of having a complete photographic record of my life is compelling for many reasons. I have a terrible memory, especially for faces, so it will be interesting to see if this device can help. There are also moments in life that would be great to relive, but that one can’t – or one doesn’t know one should – be photographing. Narrative’s Instagram feed has some good examples of these. But most importantly, I want to help hasten our inevitable sousveillance future.
Being monitored in everyday life has become inescapable. So, as David Brin points out in The Transparent Society, the question is not whether there should be pervasive monitoring, but who will have access to the data. Will it only be the powerful, who will use the information to control? Or will the rest of us also be able to watch back?
Ideally, perhaps, we would all be left alone to live private lives under no one’s gaze. Short of halting all technological progress, however, that ship has sailed. Mass surveillance is the inevitable result of smaller cameras and microphones, faster processors, and incredibly cheap storage. So if I can’t change that reality, I want to be able to watch back as well.
November 15, 2013
As Charles Stross makes clear in his most recent blog post, the way we buy clothes will be changing markedly in the near future:
Fabrican is a unlikely-sounding spin-off of the Department of Chemical Engineering, at Imperial College (which in case you’re not familiar with it is one of the top engineering/science colleges in the UK; formerly part of the University of London) — at least, it’s unlikely until you begin thinking in terms of emulsions, colloids, and the physical chemistry of nanoscale objects. It’s basically fabric in a spray can. Tiny fibres suspended in liquid are ejected through a fine nozzle and, as the supernatant evaporates, they adhere to one another. If at this point you’re thinking The Jetsons and spray-on clothing, have a cigar: you’ve fallen for the obvious marketing angle, because if you’re trying to market a new product and raise brand awareness among the public, what works better than photographs of serious-faced scientists with paint guns spray-painting hot-looking models with skin-tight instant leotards? (Note: the technical term for this sort of marketing gambit is, or really ought to be, bukake couture.)
What are the implications?
If you don’t think printing woven fabric is a big deal, DARPA beg to differ; DARPA is pumping serious money into robot sewing machines. But automating garment assembly from traditional fabric components turns out to be a really hard problem (as this possibly-paywalled New Scientist article on a €23M project to build a sewbot explains). Cloth is slippery, changes shape if you drop it, wrinkles, and has to be stretched and twisted and folded as it is sewn. Note that final word: sewn. If you can print fabric in situ out of fibres in a liquid form, you don’t need to sew components to shape—especially if you can print more than one type and colour of fibre at a time: you can fabricate your “stitches” (inter-layer connections) as part of the process, with minimal hand-finishing to possibly add fasteners (zips or buttons).
Add in a left-field extra: the rapid spread of millimeter wave scanners for airport security. These devices caused a bit of a to-do, earning them the nick-name “perv scanner” in some circles, because of their ability to see through clothing to the skin beneath, in order to check passengers for hidden contraband. But if you put the same machine in a clothes shop, it allows the establishment to obtain extremely accurate measurements of its customers without requiring a strip-tease and manual measurement of all the relevant saggy, lumpy bits and pieces. By use of surface-penetrating wavelengths (possibly high-intensity laser light, or infrared) it may also be possible to automatically distinguish between fatty tissue, musculature, and underlying bone structure. All of which are relevant to the construction of clothing.
So here’s my picture of the chain store of the future. You go in, go to the scanning booth, and do the airport-equivalent thing in a variety of positions — stretch and bend as well as hands-up. You then look at the styles on display on the shop floor, pick out what you like, and see it as it will appear on your own body on an avatar on a computer screen. You buy it, and a machine in the back of the store (or an out-of-town lights out 24×7 robotic garment factory) begins to print it. Some time later — maybe minutes, maybe hours or a day or two — the outfit you ordered comes to you. And it fits perfectly, every time. Some items are probably still off-the-shelf (socks, hosiery, maybe even those cheap tee shirts), but anything major is printed, unless you can afford to go to the really high end and pay a human being to make it for you out of natural fibres. Oh, and the printed stuff doesn’t have seams in places that chafe or bind.
November 14, 2013
The Electronic Frontier Foundation thinks that extending the DRM regime to cars (as in the latest vehicle from Renault) will drive consumers crazy:
Forget extra cupholders or power windows: the new Renault Zoe comes with a “feature” that absolutely nobody wants. Instead of selling consumers a complete car that they can use, repair, and upgrade as they see fit, Renault has opted to lock purchasers into a rental contract with a battery manufacturer and enforce that contract with digital rights management (DRM) restrictions that can remotely prevent the battery from charging at all.
We’ve long joined makers and tinkerers in warning that, as software becomes a part of more and more everyday devices, DRM and the legal restrictions on circumventing it will create hurdles to standard repairs and even operation. In the U.S., a car manufacturer who had wrapped its onboard software in technical restrictions could argue that attempts to get around those are in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — specifically section 1201, the notorious “anti-circumvention” provisions. These provisions make it illegal for users to circumvent DRM or help others do so, even if the purpose is perfectly legal otherwise. Similar laws exist around the world, and are even written into some international trade agreements — including, according to a recently leaked draft, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
Since the DMCA became law in 1998, Section 1201 has resulted in countless unintended consequences. It has chilled innovation, stifled the speech of legitimate security researchers, and interfered with consumer rights. Section 1201 came under particular fire this year because it may prevent consumers from unlocking their own phones to use with different carriers. After a broadly popular petition raised the issue, the White House acknowledged that the restriction is out of line with common sense.