Science & Technology

25 May

Don’t Kill Our Only Democracy – Support Net Neutrality

in Capitalism, Corporatism, Democracy, Internet, Science & Technology

Contrary to the rallying cries of various grammatically-challenged teabaggers, we have never had a functioning democratic society.  If you’re a long-time reader, you may have seen a quote from Chomsky on this page:

Personally, I'm in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions of society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism, we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control.


Logo of the United States Federal Communicatio...

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Indeed, the internet is the first and only example we’ve had of a truly globalized forum in which all may enjoy equal participation.  The powers-that-be hate this and have tried (will try) everything they can, from firewalls to censorship, to squash it.  Net neutrality – the principle that the equality of all internet traffic is protected by the force of law – has been long-resisted as antithetical to the free-market.  This is, of course, utter hogwash.  It is about far more than whether Comcast can throttle down their competitors bandwidth - at this point the internet underlies so much of our lives that it has become a basic necessity to participating in our global economy.

There is an interesting parallel here with the advent of electricity.  While most of us take for granted the ability to plug in our refrigerator, there was a time when power lines were something that only rich people could use, and even then only for their new-fangled light bulbs.  Back then, there was nobody who could imagine other uses for it – the idea of using this form of fire to clean your clothes or freeze your food was preposterous.  Those who pushed for governmental intervention to ensure equal distribution were decried as socialists.  Much as with the internet, for as indispensable as it has become, we quite literally have no idea what the future will bring.

In this day and age, I would say that it's hard to believe that we're still discussing whether net-neutrality is a good thing, but this is what happens when money becomes intertwined with power and influence:

Oddly, dozens of Democrats (perhaps 70 again) have signed a letter supporting the talking points and agenda of Glenn Beck and one his major corporate sponsors, AT&T. This letter also contradicts the technology agenda of Barack Obama, Obama's Federal Communications Commission, and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Commerce Committees that oversee the communications industry. The "congressional" letter is being peddled by cable and phone lobbyists to the staff of Democratic Congressmen who have a history of putting their names on cable and phone industry's debunked talking points, sometimes apparently without understanding their meaning.

This letter, being pushed by Rep Gene Green (D-TX), pertains to whether or not the Internet will remain an open engine of economic and democratic freedom. In D.C., legislators and lobbyists are debating something called "net neutrality," which is a common-sense FCC proposal to keep phone and cable companies from interfering with what you can do online and how you can use the Internet. Without net neutrality, phone and cable companies can limit your online speech and freedom. I think the Daily Show explains the issue best (here (with John Hodgman) and here).

For the time being, I think that the net-neutrality debate may suffer from poor branding - the phrase itself reeks of techno-elitist packaging that makes all but the geeky among us sglaze over.  But however much you may care about the issue itself, you should know by now that the 21st century is the age of the internet.  The series of tubes is not just about watching videos of cats - it is how you talk on the phone, watch TV, do your banking, and participate in our democracy.  It is far too important to allow the so-called 'free' market to destroy it through greed.  We need to start thinking long-term about having alternate sources of bandwidth just like we have alternate sources of fuel.  But in the short-term, we also need to ensure that our fledgling global democracy is not co-opted by those who would destroy it for profit.

With the present structure of cable-TV, is it so hard to imagine the internet's future to be something like this:


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20 May

Brilliant article on time travel from Stephen Hawking

in Science & Technology
Illustration of a light cone, based on :Image:...

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As to be expected , Hawking has a talent for explaining these concepts to those of us who don’t have an IQ equal to the GDP of a large city.  Short version: Time travel is possible, the Large Hadron Collider proves it, but only to the future and it’s gonna take some big, big bucks

Deep underground, in a circular tunnel 16 miles long, is a stream of trillions of tiny particles. When the power is turned on they accelerate from zero to 60,000mph in a fraction of a second. Increase the power and the particles go faster and faster, until they're whizzing around the tunnel 11,000 times a second, which is almost the speed of light. But just like the train, they never quite reach that ultimate speed. They can only get to 99.99 per cent of the limit. When that happens, they too start to travel in time. We know this because of some extremely short-lived particles, called pi-mesons. Ordinarily, they disintegrate after just 25 billionths of a second. But when they are accelerated to near-light speed they last 30 times longer.

It really is that simple. If we want to travel into the future, we just need to go fast. Really fast. And I think the only way we're ever likely to do that is by going into space. The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000mph. But to travel in time we'll have to go more than 2,000 times faster.

The article really is worth a read if you’re into this kind of thing.  One thing I found particularly interesting is the idea that time moves differently depending on the surrounding mass.  For example, the GPS satellite array has to be constantly recalibrated in order to compensate for being further outside the influence of earth’s gravity than those of us on land.  Another implication of this, according to Hawking, is that manned missions to outer systems are more possible than we’d think:

The slowing of time has another benefit. It means we could, in theory, travel extraordinary distances within one lifetime. A trip to the edge of the galaxy would take just 80 years. But the real wonder of our journey is that it reveals just how strange the universe is. It's a universe where time runs at different rates in different places. Where tiny wormholes exist all around us. And where, ultimately, we might use our understanding of physics to become true voyagers through the fourth dimension.

Much like The Forever War, such expeditions would be of little use to those of us back on earth, though maybe our great-great-great-(great-great)-grandchildren can enjoy the extraterrestrial kitsch.  Perhaps a My-Ancestors-Went-To-Andromeda-and-All-I-Got-Was-This-Lousy-T-Shirt?

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29 Mar

Link Vomit – Science and Tech Edition

in Environment(alism), Geek, Inventions, Science & Technology, Wednesday Wish List, WTF?!

Image: Drank too much? - Vision and scenes of Hell!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from rwp-roger's photostream

The town of Inuvik, Canada, will no longer spend winter in permanent darkness, thanks to their shiny new artificial sun!  Despite being just freakishly awesome, I wonder what effect this will have on the local ecosystem?

Attention super-villains: Seeking exotic materials for your next go at world domination?  Check out for the latest and greatest microreplication devices, spray-on metals, and talking tapes.  On a side note, do you  really want dominion over this planet?  Sounds like a helluva workload to me …

Speaking of spray-on materials, a Germano-Turkish research conglomerate has developed a non-toxic form of glass coating that is both flexible and breathable and is designed to protect against a score of environmental hazards.  I imagine we’ll file this one with the electric car and any other product designed to decimate entire economic sectors in the selfish name of environmental protection.

Google is reportedly working on a speech-to-speech translation system.  Of course, I hear this and think Star Trek style real-time interspecies communication, but I imagine the typical conversation sounds a lot more like, “For why do you recite intercourse you?  I perform solament translation service error!”

Researchers in the U.S. have developed a skin-based device interface that operates on the electric signals conducted through touch.  Ostensibly, this will allow people to perform a series of gestures to control their mp3 players, make a phone call, and send email.  As someone who is still getting used to the site of people using their bluetooth headsets on the street, I look forward to the day when everyone is spasmodically touching themselves!

Clever little monkeys at the University of Technology and the University of Michigan have developed a prosthetic foot that stores the kinetic energy of the downstep for release in the upstep, thereby mimicking the action of the human ankle.  Next stop - go go gadget legs!

Finally, from the New Scientist, Valerie Jamieson – aka Dr. Buzzkill – explains why we’ll never travel at warp speeds.  However, fear not, for there is no shortage of clever little pointy-eared fans with the smarts to rebut her hypothesis.  

25 Mar

You sure taste purty! Creating artificial sight with a tongue prosthesis?

in Inventions, Science & Technology

Not quite Daredevil, but pretty damn cool:

The BrainPort converts visual images into a series of electrical pulses which are sent to the tongue. The different strength of the tingles can be read or eye-tongue_336786sinterpreted so the user can mentally visualise their surroundings and navigate around objects. The device is a tiny video camera attached to a pair of sunglasses which are linked to a plastic "lolly pop" which the user places on their tongue to read the electrical pulses. L/Cpl Lundberg explained: "It feels like licking a nine volt battery or like popping candy. "The camera sends signals down onto the lolly pop and onto your tongue. You can then determine what they mean and transfer it to shapes. "You get lines and shapes of things. It sees in black and white so you get a two-dimensional image on your tongue - it's a bit like a pins and needles sensation. "It's only a prototype, but the potential to change my life is massive. It's got a lot of potential to advance things for blind people.

Blind soldier 'sees' with tongue device - Science, News - The Independent

30 Oct

Link Vomit - Science Edition!

in Science & Technology, Wednesday Wish List

From the same people who brought you invisibility cloaks, say hello to flying cars and other floating oddities.

And if that doesn't tickle your geek bone (which, by the way, is connected to your ninja bone), check out the next generation of flying saucers

An Indian company is on their way to mass production of 3-D handheld devices by 2010.   Help me Obi-Wan, you're my only hope!

Recent archeological excavations have uncovered evidence of 27 additions to Asimov's 3 rules of robotics.  What dystopian future could survive without number 18 - A robot must be very careful when tickling a human being, because a robot does not know what it is like to be tickled, and therefore cannot safely apprehend when it is no longer funny and it starts to become cruel and number 24 - A robot must plant two trees for every cat it kills.

And finally, watch out Charlton Heston, the roomba tolls for thee!

10 Oct

Green Day!

in Climate Change, Science & Technology

Er, no … I mean the other kind.  Actually, a few interesting stories have popped up over the last few weeks.


Those wacky Europeans are proposing a massive solar array in the Sahara which, if operating at merely 0.3% capacity would generate enough power to provide for Europe's energy needs.  All of 'em.

Not to be outdone, folks on the Left Coast are building a geothermal generator (in Utah, of course … NIMBY!!) which is hoped to supply up to 20% of California's energy demand. 

And last, but certainly coolest - can the macrobiotic diet come to NYC?  It might if Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, has his say.  He's campaigning for the production of vertical food farms - massive imageskyscrapers capable of providing for wide-scale farming with a tiny geographical footprint. 

Despommier estimates that it would cost $20 million to $30 million to make a prototype of a vertical farm, but hundreds of millions to build one of the 30-story towers that he suggests could feed 50,000 people. "I'm viewed as kind of an outlier because it's kind of a crazy idea," Despommier, 68, said with a chuckle. "You'd think these are mythological creatures."

26 May

NASA's Phoenix explorer lands on Martian surface!

in Science & Technology

229951main_S_000EFF_CYL_SR10CA8_R888M1_516-387 Welcome to the Northern Plains of Mars:

With Newtonian inevitability, NASA's Phoenix lander plunged into the martian atmosphere today at 12,700 mph and then used atmospheric friction, a large parachute and finally, 12 individuallly controlled rocket engines to complete an automated landing near the red planet's northern polar cap. The successful touchdown at 7:53 p.m. marked a dramatic reversal of fortune for NASA, which suffered a devastating failure the last time the agency attempted a rocket-powered descent to Mars nine years ago.