Category Archives: Technology and Society

A Latter-Day King Canute

We discussed various means of mitigating hurricanes in the comments to this post, but now comes a southern Florida businessman with a different idea.

Color me extremely skeptical. My confidence is less than buoyed by his association with Ed Mitchell, definitely one of the wackier Apollo astronauts, but hey, it’s his money, and if by some miracle it works, great. Of course, we won’t ever really know if it works, at least for this particular storm, because there’s no control on the experiment (i.e., we’ll have no idea what would have happened if he hadn’t done anything).

Steam kills

An accident at a nuclear plant kills four workers. It was a steam leak, but that won’t stop the antinuclear hysteriacs from flipping out. Of course, nothing will stop the antinuclear hysteriacs from flipping out. OTOH, it’s worth pointing out that the failure of the steam system lead to an appropriate controlled shutdown of the core, just the way it should. In a sane world the headlines would read “Nuclear reactor safety system works as designed,” and the whole thing would lead to no more than a call to reemphasize the safety guidelines for working with high pressure steam that have developed over the last couple of centuries. My prediction is that the accident will turn out to have been preventable had those guidelines been followed. Steam is dangerous, but controllable, and it can be safely harnessed. Just like nuclear power.

Cable TV Regulation

Via Technology Review, and article on the technical objections to a la carte cable service. Turns out the complaints by Comcast and Time Warner that it’s technically difficult are flat out BS. Surprise!

You’d think that the cable companies would stand to benefit by going to an a la carte model – I know I’d be much more likely to get cable if I could pick and choose, and pay for only those channels I’m interested in. Also, by letting customers pick channels for themselves the cable companies would have a much better read on what their viewers are interested in, which would help pitch advertising better.

I dislike government telling businesses how to run their operations, so I oppose forcing cable companies to go to an a la carte model. The fact that the media megacorps feel the need to shade the truth about the costs is interesting, though. Much more worthy of government intervention to my mind is the simple fact that media megaconglomerates exist. Concentrations of power are a threat to liberty regardless of whether they are governmental or private. Concentrations of power within the media are particularly dangerous, because they can shape our perceptions of the world. If there’s any area where heavy handed intervention in the marketplace is justified, it’s in breaking up media conglomerates.

Incidentally, I realize there’s a widespread view within the blogosphere that blogs represent a revolution in information accessability that make old media irrelevant. This is such a dumb notion that I have a hard time figuring out how to address it without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Blogs are a new, parallel information source (with a godawful signal/noise ratio), which offers access only to people who actively seek it out. Suffice to say the number of people reading blogs for information which challenges their preconceptions is small. If blogs become people’s primary information source about the world, the US will fragment into tiny groups of people whose worldviews are so different that meaningful communication between them is effectively impossible. We’re headed that way now, so maybe I should just stop worrying about it.

More Computer voting

Via MIT’s Technology Review, an item on computer voting and the upcoming election.

There was a particularly stupid an ill-informed op-ed (warning: audio link) on PRI’s show Marketplace yesterday. Basically the commentator felt that since ATMs are so reliable, we should trust voting machines. This completely ignores that fact that ATM errors have multiple redundant means of catching errors, since they generate a paper trail at the time of the transaction, the customer has additional opportunities to catch errors when they receive their bank statement, and the bank has enormous incentives to ensure correct accounting if they want to stay in business. If there is a potential problem with an ATM it can be taken off line for a couple of days until it is fixed.

In the case of electronic voting machines, they are put to the test once every couple of years, set up by people with minimal training, there is no independent audit trail, and there is considerable incentive to falsify votes, knowing that if you are successful you or your allies will control the investigation into what happened. Only an independent voter-verifiable audit trail can make electronic voting credible. Unfortunately my state (MD) is dragging its feet on this issue despite a well organized effort to knock some sense into the heads of the Election Commission.

I blogged this topic earlier, and I’ll do it again before the election. This is the single most important technological issue facing the US. We have the potential to completely invalidate elections. Without trust in the electoral process government has no legitimacy, and people will be forced to accept disenfranchisement or resist with force. That may sound like hyperbole, but I suggest you think carefully about the likely reaction if there is a significant split between exit polls and reported (utterly unverifiable) election results in a hotly contested election. I don’t think rioting is at all unlikely, and public officials hanged from lamposts is a real possibility. It’s all well and good to joke about that being a good thing, but there’s no guarantee that the officials hanged are the guilty ones, or that large scale public disorder will in any way actually address the problem. Just ask Reginald Denny.

I spent four hours last night working with commonly used commercial software which crashed three times. It was MicroSoft Word, so there’s something of an expectation that it’s a P.O.S., but it’s at least as heavily tested as the Dielbold software that I’ll be using to cast my vote in November. My confidence in the system working as it should is not high.

Bad, Bad, Bad idea

There’s a bill working its way through congress that will criminalize sale of technology that intentionally induces a person to infringe copyright. That places all recording media under threat. This is one of those bills which is written at the behest of major corporations looking to compete via legislation rather than the marketplace.

Information simply cannot be force fit into the conventional mold of property rights law that originated in the ownership of land. Patents are workable as a means of protecting intellectual property, though they have been abused somewhat recently. Copyrights on the other hand are being abused and manipulated to an unprecedented degree. We recently saw the extension of copyright by an additional 20 years (thanks to some heavy lobbying by Disney, among others), and there’s no doubt that when those 20 years are up efforts will be well under way to extend by another 20. The copyright system is broken, and this latest bill will just break it still further. We need to completely rethink the way we handle copyrights from the ground up. I can’t claim to know what the answer is, but it’s clear what it isn’t: banning technologies just because they can infringe copyright. That is an idiotic route that leads to making pen and paper technically illegal.

The latest Crypto-Gram

Crypto-Gram is a monthly newsletter on security issues put out by Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. the link above is to the latest issue, which includes a well argued piece on handling terrorist suspects without skirting the Constitution. Schneier argues that it’s not necessary to work around established due process rules in order to deal effectively with terrorism. There are a couple of other really good items in this issue, notably the item on economic motivations for security theater (insurance companies will give you breaks on premiums if you install X-ray machines, even if you don’t use them effectively), and the item on ICS, a company selling an encryption scheme which they claim – get this – uses no math. Brilliant.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in security issues and the tradeoffs between security and liberty, go on over and take a look.