Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Thursday, September 22, 2005

George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, long before the PC came along. Tiny cameras were not available and Big Brother typically had to be physically watching you (either in person or from a stationary camera) to catch you at a crime (the book was political of course, and not technological). Either way, Big Brother always was watching you. Now we have PCs, the Internet, tiny cameras everywhere and available to all. And of course, Big Brother wants to see everything.

Although I hate writing about how the modern world reflects more and more what we see described in Orwell’s novel (Wikipedia suggests that “Orwell is reported to have said that the book described what he saw as the actual situation in the United Kingdom in 1948″), it seems fitting to remind people of the dangers of allowing too much access to information. PC PRO published a news item today talking about some ideas the European Commission has:

The European Commission has accepted proposals to log details of all telephone, email and Internet traffic in an attempt to combat terrorism and serious crime.

The proposals, which are designed to harmonise data retention practices across the EU, will need the backing of all 25 member states. However some states believe they have been watered down in response to pressure from telecommunications firms and civil rights groups.

If these proposals are the watered down version, I shudder to think what the original proposals might have been! Just wait for the proposals to flow when we all have RFID tags “to make purchasing goods at the grocercy store easier” surgically inserted at birth.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 11, 2005

Reading this story about a man who played video games to death, I find it likely that an already existing addiction will be newly documented: Vidiocy.

My mom used to call me a “little vidiot” when I was a kid because I liked watching TV so much, but I submit this as a possible term for video game “addictions.” According to other reports, the man named Lee really was dedicated to the god of technology, as he “recently quit his job to spend more time playing games.”

Of course, maybe he didn’t really die, he just left “The Matrix.”

Now that the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery is safely back on terra firma (along with the entire shuttle fleet, which has once again been grounded over safety concerns), arguments over the future viability of the Shuttle program have resumed in earnest. By far, my favorite swipe at NASA to date has to be today’s Wall Street Journal opinion column (subscription required) by Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer. Mr Hickam argues that many NASA engineers would like to see the shuttle program shelved in favor of a newer and better vehicle, but they are blocked in their efforts by a “failed culture” within the agency that demands support for the Shuttle.

I love the astronauts, too. They’re brave and they’re smart and some of them are even my friends. Some are even engineers. But there are too many of them (around 100, an awful lot for a program that has flown but once in the past two years) and they are mostly acolytes of the space shuttle. If the shuttles were retired, most astronauts would be very much out on a bureaucratic limb, their training obsolete, their chances of getting into space again, or for the first time, much reduced. Bear that in mind the next time you hear an astronaut support the shuttle even though the U.S. is presently fourth in the ability to put humans reliably into space, behind Russia, China, and Burt Rutan.

touché.

So let’s put the shuttles on the shelf right away and give engineers the gift of designing and building new ships to carry humans into space. These are already on the drawing boards and I believe NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (an engineer) is itching to make them a reality.

I tend to agree that NASA needs to rethink the shuttle program, but the good news is that we don’t have to wait for NASA’s engineers to begin designing vehicles that will launch the next stage of manned spaceflight.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Dave Phelps looks at the case of Susan Torres, a woman who gave birth while reported to be brain dead. The case was considered by some to be a miracle. Others with a more material bent looked at her as merely a corpse, kept alive by advanced medical technology to incubate the child.

Phelps’ commentary points out that a great many physicians, schooled in the sciences, retain a belief in God. A “surprising” poll indicates that doctors attend church more regularly than most Americans and a majority believe in some sort of afterlife.

Should we really be surprised? Religious faith is capable of making room for God-given talent such as medical healing, as St. Basil the Great pointed out in the fourth century in his Long Rules:

Each of the arts is God’s gift to us, remedying the deficiencies of nature, as, for example, agriculture, since the produce which the earth bears of itself would not suffice to provide for our needs … The same is true, also, of the medical art. In as much as our body is susceptible to various hurts, some attacking from without and some from within by reason of the food we eat, and since the body suffers affliction from both excess and deficiency, the medical art has been vouchsafed us by God, who directs our whole life, as a model for the cure of the soul, to guide us in the removal of what is superfluous and in the addition of what is lacking …

So then, we should neither repudiate this art [medicine] altogether nor does it behoove us to repose all our confidence in it; but, just as in practicing the art of agriculture we pray God for fruits, and as we entrust the helm to the pilot in the art of navigation, but implore God that we may end our voyage unharmed by the perils of the sea, so also, when reason allows, we call in the doctor, but we do not leave off hoping in God.

Read the full text of “Miracles of God and Miracles of Science.”

Hopeful signs are emerging for the future of economic prosperity in Europe despite some serious opposition. The European Parliament recently moved to scrap the ratification of an informal agreement reached last year by EU member states and supported by the European Commission, that would have made important strides forward in the legal recognition of intellectual property rights.

The Computer Implemented Inventions Directive (CIID), which would protect intellectual property and standardize EU software patent law, now appears dead. This leaves in place a patchwork of national patent laws that effectively stifles a common set of laws and regulations in Europe.

These sorts of delays and backsliding by the Parliament represent serious threats to European economies and could add to a dangerous precedent in light of the EU’s ruling against software company Microsoft. The 21st Century has ushered in the Information Age; computers and software represent the field with perhaps the greatest potential for innovation and wealth-creation in developed nations.
(more…)

A most worthy piece in The New Atlantis by Matthew B. Crawford, “The Computerized Academy,” examines some of the implications of computerization and technological advance on the traditional liberal education.

Among the important trends that Crawford observes is the application of a consumer/producer relationship model between student and teacher. This trend is facilitated by technological advances, especially the free flow of information possible on the Internet. But Crawford wonders “what education will become—or already is—when it becomes so sensitive to the demands of those who are not yet educated.”

Here’s a key paragraph on this point:

Ideally, a teacher’s judgment about what is good for you is not colored by what is immediately pleasant for you. But increasingly, what is good for the teacher (professionally) is determined by what is immediately pleasant for the student. The career incentives for professors can be managed to some extent by judicious deans and department chairs, for example, by norming a professor’s teaching evaluations against his or her grade distribution and the demands of the course, so that tough grading and a choice of difficult material, even if penalized by students in their evaluations, will not be allowed to threaten a professor’s tenure prospects. Absent such a contrarian, clear-eyed defense of excellence by those in charge, all the pressures on a professor tend toward dumbing things down: giving fewer assignments (less work for him), grading generously (less whining and pleading from students), and choosing subjects that are not too remote from the students’ experience (a sure path to popularity). Since that prior experience is constituted to a large degree by mass forces, there is a certain uniformity of perspective and taste that begins to assert itself in the curriculum.

I have noticed an analogous situation asserting itself in the congregational life of churches. A certain measure of independent authority is necessary for a pastor to properly exercise his ministry. This is true in the same way that “in the more interpretive disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, the initial disorientation cuts at passionately held certainties of the present; a teacher can challenge students in this way only if he has a certain independence from them, and only if he is able to speak authoritatively.”

Crawford gets at many more important developments flowing out of and catalyzed by technological innovation and computerization. One final important point is on the mechanical nature of much scientific research done these days via computer.

Crawford writes that “when our knowledge of nature reaches the limits of our ability to do symbolic math, further advance requires the brute force of number-crunching, which is literally a mechanical process.” The computer that allows such complex calculations to be performed is at the same time a force that pushes towards programming and away from scientific thought. Crawford states, “My point is not to suggest that the use of computers in science is somehow wrong, but rather that those (mostly grad students) who have been consigned to spend most of their time programming are missing out on the full experience of doing science…. one may speculate that in the future the sciences might attract a different sort of student. This student is not so much curious about the world he sees around him (he spends most of his time at his terminal) as he is entranced with the feeling of his own competence at manipulating code. This would be a disposition more willful than receptive, and by that token perhaps more deeply technological.”

Again, with the blessing of technological innovation comes a corresponding threat of and temptation to sloth. Socrates notes this in Plato’s Phaedrus with the innovation of the written word, when he relates the mythical origins of the Egyptian language.

SOCRATES: …when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 4, 2005

CBS News reports that “while a majority still thinks the Space Shuttle is worth continuing, the program receives its lowest level of support in this poll since CBS News started asking about it in 1986. In addition, the public gives the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) its lowest job rating to date.”

This is an interesting bit of news, but the general unreliability of polls is exacerbated in this case, since “this poll was conducted before the repair of Discovery took place.” The huge amount of live TV news coverage the repair recieved would certainly boost public opinion of the shuttles in particular and NASA in general.

It may, however, help to show a general trend downward in support for the governmental program, down to 59% from a high of 80% support in 1986. As in all political matters, funding decisions should be made with a coherent prioritization in view of monetary scarcity. Nevertheless, special interests and political economy serve to make what ought to be and what is two quite different things.

Want to take a ride?

This has been a momentous week for manned space exploration. First, NASA returned to flight with Tuesday’s launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, which was almost immediately followed by a return to not flying, as safety concerns will be grounding the shuttle fleet once again. The whirlwind of activity has rekindled the debate over the future of the Space Shuttle program and the government’s manned space flight in general.

But in the end, the space news that this week may be remembered for has nothing to do with NASA and everything to do with the introduction of the first real effort to open space to tourism. British entrepeneur Sir Richard Branson and American aerospace innovator Burt Rutan have announced plans to form a new aerospace company with the express purpose of designing craft that can carry passengers into space.

Called The Spaceship Company, the new entity will manufacture launch aircraft, various spacecraft and support equipment and market those products to spaceliner operators. Clients include launch customer, Virgin Galactic—formed by Branson to handle space tourist flights.

The Spaceship Company is jointly owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. Scaled will be contracted for research and development testing and certification of a 9-person SpaceShipTwo (SS2) design, and a White Knight Two (WK2) mothership to be called Eve. Rutan will head up the technical development team for the SS2/WK2 combination.

Like most new technology, the price tag is pretty steep, but Rutan and Branson hope to bring the costs down over time:

At present, seats onboard Virgin Galactic spaceships are price tagged at $200,000 each.

But Branson hopes that this seat price will drop over time. “Our aim is to bring the price down,” he said.

“Our principal aim behind this is not to make money. The principal aim is to reinvest any money we make into space exploration,” Branson said. “We expect to double, triple, quadruple the number of astronauts in the next few years that have currently experienced space,” he said.

To date, Branson said, about a 100 pioneers have been willing to pay $200,000 to be the first people to go into space via Virgin Galactic. “These are the kinds of people who are going to enable us to bring the cost of space travel down,” he stated.

A hat tip for this information goes to Dean Esmay, who notes that if $200,000 a seat sounds like a lot of money:

consider that the average shuttle launch costs about a billion dollars and takes months or years to plan, and the price has gone up over time, while Branson and Rutan plan to aggressively persue getting the price down over time.

Rutan and Branson are true pioneers. I for one wish them well as they pursue their amazing goal of making space travel more widely accessible.

“a magnificent desolation”

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke these words in a speech at Rice University:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

36 years ago today, Kennedy’s vision became a reality when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon. That event remains arguably the greatest technological achievement in history, and represents the high-water mark for the American space program.

At the time it was believed by many that that Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” would represent the first step into a much broader realm of space exploration. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Rand Simberg notes:

The goal had never really been to open up space, so much as to win a race against the Soviets, to demonstrate our technological superiority, as a proxy battle in the Cold War between democracy and totalitarianism (sadly, it wasn’t viewed as a war between capitalism and socialism, else we might have taken a more promising approach). But with the knowledge that we were winning that race, and the budget pressures of Johnson’s Great Society and the Vietnam war, the decision had been made years before to end procurement of long lead items necessary to advance much beyond a few trips to the lunar surface.

The excitement and momentum that once surrounded manned spaceflight programs has now subsided into the stagnant Space Shuttle program, which literally can’t get off the launch pad.

But there is hope. Private companies run by people who envision market-oriented approaches to space exploration are beginning to take up the slack where governments are leaving off. Simberg notes:

Fortunately, though, unlike the 1960s, we can now see a means by which we can do so without having to hope for bureaucrats to make the right decisions as to how to spend taxpayer money. Before too many more Apollo XI anniversaries roll by, I suspect that there will be many non-NASA personnel on the moon, visiting it with their own money, for their own purposes.

I have always found NASA’s photographic archives of the Apollo program to be fascinating and inspiring (Be sure to take a look for yourself if you haven’t done so before.) And I look forward to the day when I will no longer have to wonder what it was like bear witness to a human being setting foot on some other celestial body.

For now, this will have to suffice.

Update: A personal remembrance from Scott Warmka:

Dad was carrying my brother and told me to follow him outside. The night was warm. Above shined clear the moon. Men were there, but we couldn’t see them. We waved anyway. (I think we did that for my brother’s sake.) Barely I caught the look in Dad’s eyes. Not a question, more a simple command, “See what we can do.”

On the heels of the defeat of proprosed protections for intellectual property at the hands of the European Parliament, according to the AP the European Commission is addressing an aspect of the same debate: online music and copyright.

With respect to the potential economic benefits, “The most effective model for achieving this is to enable right-holders to authorize a collecting society of their choice to manage their works across the entire EU,” said the Commission in a statement, adding such a system would “considerably enhance” earnings for artists.

It seems the European Commission is determined to be a force for unity, while the European Parliament is a bit more, shall we say, divisive.

HT: Slashdot