Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘technology’

Government intervention

It seems Theresa May has found her strategy for rescuing the British economy from the political damage the Tories are planning to inflict:

The prime minister will publish the strategy at a cabinet meeting in the north-west of England, setting out five sectors that could receive special government support: life sciences, low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, creative industries and nuclear.

She will say the government would be prepared to deregulate, help with trade deals or create new institutions to boost skills or research if any sector can show this would address specific problems.

Great idea! As one of the people working on developing “skills and research”, I’d like to suggest that it might be a good idea to arrange an agreement to share students, workers, and researchers with our neighbours, who are similarly technologically-developed and share common scientific and educational traditions. We could call it the Anglo-European Union, or something like that.

But no, that would help “old institutions” like my own. The Westminster Pharaoh is only interested in boosting skills or research if it can create “new institutions” as a monument to her greatness.


My 8-year-old was telling me about a recent school lesson. The teacher was telling them (for some reason) about the use of the term P.S. Her explanation began “In the old times people didn’t have computers, so they had to write letters on paper…”

Of course, I know that my children have lived entirely in the age of personal computing, but it was still striking to hear it presented in such stark terms. I actually experienced the transformation exactly during my university studies. When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1983 I had my Apple IIe, my roommate had a Compaq, and otherwise pretty much no one had a personal computer. Everyone else seemed to be writing their papers on a typewriter. (It was kind of unreasonable of me, actually, to expect the professors to read the low-resolution dot-matrix output that I turned in, but I wasn’t very considerate at the time.) The Macintosh appeared the next year, and by 1986-7 everyone was writing their senior essays on the Macintoshes in the college’s computer room.

Predicting the future of communication

I just had the thought: Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, that in 2016 bookstores would still be thriving, but video stores would have all but disappeared?

I am reminded of this essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, that I read about 1980, but was written in the early 1970s, about the future of video technology. He was at a conference on communications and society, where a speaker was praising the new technology of videocassettes, and suggesting that authors such as him would soon be tossed on the scrapheap of history. The essay speculates about possible future improvements to video technology, inferring tongue-in-cheek that the pinnacle of the technology would be attained when it had turned into books.

How to do it: Medical testing edition

I was commenting just recently on the cult of big ideas, where people whose life experiences have given them hierarchical power are suckers for “ideas” that are mostly blather, lots of words about the irrelevant bits of the problem, distracting attention from the real difficulties. And now Theranos is in the news. I read about this company, started by the obviously charismatic Elizabeth Holmes, in The New Yorker about a year ago. My immediate reaction was, this must be a joke. It was very much in the spirit of Monty Python’s How to do it.

Theranos, a Silicon Valley company[…], is working to upend the lucrative business of blood testing. Blood analysis is integral to medicine. When your physician wants to check some aspect of your health, such as your cholesterol or glucose levels, or look for indications of kidney or liver problems, a blood test is often required. This typically involves a long needle and several blood-filled vials, which are sent to a lab for analysis… [Theranos] has developed blood tests that can help detect dozens of medical conditions, from high cholesterol to cancer, based on a drop or two of blood drawn with a pinprick from your finger. Holmes told the audience that blood testing can be done more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively, and that lives can be saved as a consequence.

Sounds wonderful. Quick. Convenient. Inexpensive. Saving lives. How is she going to do all that? Well, she wears “a black suit and a black cotton turtleneck, reminiscent of Steve Jobs”. She dropped out of Stanford. She has a board of directors full of highly influential aged former politicians, but no scientists, so far as I can tell. She “is in advanced discussions with the Cleveland Clinic. It has also opened centers in forty-one Walgreens pharmacies, with plans to open thousands more. If you show the pharmacist your I.D., your insurance card, and a doctor’s note, you can have your blood drawn right there…. A typical lab test for cholesterol can cost fifty dollars or more; the Theranos test at Walgreens costs two dollars and ninety-nine cents.” (more…)

Leaker irony

The Guardian comments, with just a trace of snark

A senior Obama administration official who would not provide his or her name told reporters late on Sunday that Snowden’s presumed travel plan undermined the whistleblower’s stated intent to tell the American people about broad government surveillance.

“Mr Snowden’s claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador,” said the official, who did not note that the US was simultaneously attempting to secure the cooperation of China and Russia.

In this new brave new world of cooperation among the US, China, and Russia on criminalising dissidents who reveal government secrets, I look forward with schadenfreude to the next time a Chinese intellectual flees to the US embassy, or seeks refuge in the US from supposed persecution. Now that the US state department has pronounced the sanctity of arrest warrants, I expect to see the US respond favourably to those issued by the Chinese Communist Party or the Kremlin.

PRISM and leaks

Plenty of people commenting on the revelations of secret US government acquisition of vast quantities of personal data on telephone calls and other communications (my comments here and here) suggest that this is all overblown, even paranoid. William Saletan wrote about the telephone surveillance

Chill. You can quarrel with this program, but it isn’t Orwellian. It’s limited, and it’s controlled by checks and balances.

David Simon compares it to wiretapping payphones and calls The Guardian’s reporting “the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole”.

So here’s just one example of how far-reaching the negative impact of this sort of surveillance could be — even if it is never misused. There has been much discussion of the Obama administration’s stepped up attacks on leakers, and on the journalists who publish leaks. Imagine you are a government employee in possession of significant evidence of official crimes or corruption. You would like to turn it over to a journalist, but you also know that once you do, the government will be able to trawl through all of the journalist’s email and telephone calls — not just prospectively, but going back years into the past, and find all contacts and contacts of his contacts. They will have plenty of private and embarrassing information that they can use to pressure you or the journalist, or his boss.

Now that the leaker has revealed himself, Farhad Manjoo put the case against the NSA’s power-grab succinctly: The very fact that such an unexceptional 29-year-old was able to gain access to so much information by itself disproves their claim that “you can trust us to do the right thing with your data”. The question you need to ask yourself is not, do I trust the president with this surveillance capacity? The question is, do I trust the most frustrated (or bored) FBI agent or NSA contractor with a top security clearance with this capacity.

Julian Assange’s password

One of the weirdest facts in the fascinating book on underground cryptography and the anti-secrecy movement represented by Wikileaks — beyond the general fundamental link, which I’d never quite put together before, between cryptography (keeping secrets) and whistleblowing (revealing secrets) — was the comment that Guardian journalist David Leigh had published Julian Assange’s password — ACollectionOfDiplomaticHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay# — to the unredacted US State Department cables. Master of Secrets Assange gives out his own password to a journalist — rather than giving the Guardian a version encoded with a throwaway password — and then expresses shock and dismay when it ends up in print. Did he also give Leigh the PIN code for his bank card, but ask him only to use it to check the balance?


Is there anyone who feels reassured by Diane Feinstein’s comments that we shouldn’t be worrying our pretty little heads over NSA storing records of ALL telephone calls (only by Verizon Business, but presumably that just happens to be the one that’s come out) over a three month period (and one might surmise that this is just three months of a rolling renewed program), both within the US and between the US and foreign addresses. She said

It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress. This is just meta data. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.

Through her Newspeak interpreter she added, “It’s called protecting America.”

In this case, I’m hopeful that the average person’s inability to understand technical language will lead to positive conclusions. Feinstein (who, I am proud to say, I have voted against every time she’s been on the ballot since I’ve been a California voter). Anyone who understands what “meta data” are, and how data-mining works, will be chilled by this: The FBI has a complete map of who was talking to whom when and for how long, and presumably where they were when they made the call. This is now going to be run through an algorithm sniffing out patterns similar to an already suspicious person’s phone calls or travel. And then they’ll use this as a basis for putting people on no-fly lists and other non-judicial punishments. Won’t they? Certainly the Obama administration has shown no compunction about misusing the machinery of the War on Terror (TM) — in particular the No-Fly List — including  for political ends.

But here, ignorance may help. Will the average American feel reassured at being told these are “only meda data”? What the fuck are meta data? It sure sounds like they’re tapping our phones…

I thought the IRS scandal was ridiculous — I still do — but getting the right-wing riled up about civil liberties may be the last chance to save some remaining shreds of constitutional rights in the US.

Audiobook Turing test

I downloaded and listened to the audiobook This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American CultureThe author is Iain Anderson, and the language and structure seem like those of a slightly rewritten doctoral dissertation. It’s pretty interesting as a source for the politics — particularly racial politics — of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, and it held my interest for the 5 hours I needed to listen to it at double speed. But what really fascinated me was the reader’s voice. The reader is listed as Paul Steven Forrest, but I can hardly believe that this is a human voice. (Indeed, this is the only book that this name has been assigned to as reader.) The sentence intonations are much too regular, and seem to ignore any cues related to the meanings of words. Some reasonably common English words — at least, common enough in academic jargon — such as “diaspora” are systematically mispronounced, but without any hesitation such as you might expect from a human reader stumbling over an unfamiliar word. Similarly, non-English words were completely botched, but without apparent self-consciousness.

On the other hand, if Paul Steven Forrest is in truth the pseudonym for a computer-generated voice, it’s remarkably good, at least to someone who has not been following progress in speech generation over the past decade. It took me an hour of listening before it struck me that something was off about the voice, and while it started to bug me, it never became unbearable.

Computer culture and gun culture, ctd.

Since I’ve been interested in the history and political significance of cryptography (I discussed the connection between computers and the 2nd amendment here) I read the book This Machine Kills Secrets by journalist Andy Greenberg, a fascinating, if somewhat brief and barely technical history of underground cryptography in the internet age. Among other things I learned there is that, whereas I had thought of gun culture and computer culture as analogous but non-intersecting, in fact there was considerable overlap:

One adjunct group, called the Cypherpunks Shooting Club, even organized trips to rifle ranges to teach each other to shoot .22s and semiautomatic weapons, the final resort should the government ever come after their electronic and physical freedoms. (Tim May, an avid gun enthusiast himself, didn’t attend. “I Don’t give free lessons, especially not to clueless software people,” he says.)

Jim Bell, a cypherpunk insider, proposed in the mid-1990s “Assassination Politics”, basically a scheme for combining strong cryptography with a sort of stock market for murder contracts. The goal was anarchy:

If only one person in a thousand was willing to pay $1 to see some government slimeball dead, that would be, in effect, a $250,000 bounty on his head[…] Chances are good that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in office.

Just how would this change politics in America? It would take far less time to answer, “What would remain the same?” No longer would we be electing people who will turn around and tax us to death, regulate us to death, or for that matter send hired thugs to kill us when we oppose their wishes.

This all sounds like the sorts of rant you hear these days from the extreme gun nuts. So maybe the analogy is not that far-fetched.

And, come to think of it, now that concrete schemes are afoot to turn weapons manufacture into a software problem with 3d printing, even the technical differences between guns and codes are dissipating.

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