Archive for Science


No intelligent life

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Sketch of a “spaceship” creating crop circles, sent to UK Ministry of Defence circa 1998. via Wikimedia Commons.

“Writing about a Donald Trump speech is like trying to describe the whiplash,” Jim Galloway wrote in the Atlanta Journal Constitution when Donald Trump visited town back in February. Trump was back again yesterday. George W. Bush was the U.S. president who thought Africa was a country. Now comes candidate Donald Trump who thinks Belgium is a city.

Andrew Stroehlein lives in Brussels.

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You may already be there!

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The future is fun! … The future is fair! … You may already have won! … You may already be there!

— Firesign Theater, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, 1971

Oh, yeah. From the BBC:

One factory has “reduced employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000 thanks to the introduction of robots”, a government official told the South China Morning Post.

Xu Yulian, head of publicity for the Kunshan region, added: “More companies are likely to follow suit.”

China is investing heavily in a robot workforce.

That would be Foxconn Technology Group, technology factory with the nets to prevent employees from committing suicide by jumping off the roof. Presumably, the robots won’t and the riffed workers can find their own roofs to jump off. What an opportunity for savings. The BBC continues:

“We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees, and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control.

“We will continue to harness automation and manpower in our manufacturing operations, and we expect to maintain our significant workforce in China.”

Define significant. Meanwhile, here at home:

McRobots are not coming to a McDonald’s near you just yet, according to Steve Easterbrook, the company’s chief executive officer.

His comments came two days after one of the fast-food giant’s former US chief executives suggested that a minimum wage of $15 an hour could lead to McDonald’s replacing its workers with robots. Easterbrook was speaking at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting when he said that technology is not likely to lead to “job elimination” at McDonald’s.

“It’s a topic of discussion right now,” he said, when asked by one of the shareholders if the higher minimum wage would lead to shift to more automated services. McDonald’s is in a service business and “will always have an important human element”, Easterbrook said.

Whew! Dodged that bullet.

Two days before the shareholders’ annual meeting, former US boss Ed Rensi told Fox Business that “it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging french fries”.

Efficiency is one of those boardroom fetishes, like shareholder value. When you hear it, update your resume, John Henry.

Selling fries is one thing. But “Pepper” is not so good interacting in an office environment. Still waiting for my jetpack.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : International, Labor, Science
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Earth at the last glacial maximum of the current ice age.
Photo by Ittiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The upside of global warming is that we may have pushed back the next ice age. Bloomberg Business reports:

The conditions necessary for the onset of a new ice age were narrowly missed at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin wrote Wednesday in the journal Nature. Since then, rising emissions of heat-trapping CO2 from burning oil, coal and gas have made the spread of the world’s ice sheets even less likely, they said.

The period between ice ages is about 50,000 years. But thanks to Standard Oil and the fossil fuels industry, one supposes, that threshold may have been pushed back another 50,000.
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Ignorance is power

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Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

At a Christmas party in the early 1990s, two women approached me separately to ask if I was “into metaphysics.” They meant the beliefs and practices of the New Age movement. I told them that while I have a degree in philosophy and had studied metaphysics, I was really more interested in ethics and political philosophy. They quickly lost interest and went elsewhere to look for more harmonious energies.

A friend of the same persuasion said her husband hoped to go back to college to study quantum physics. He was going to be disappointed. There would be no examination of the healing properties of quartz crystals or of how to communicate with higher “energies” from another dimension.

These people were not uneducated or stupid, just adrift and gullible. That is preface to saying that cultivated ignorance is not uniquely a product of the political right. It just seems to be a major export.

Writing for the BBC last week, Georgina Kenyon profiled Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University. Proctor’s look at the obscurantism of the tobacco industry – the deliberate cultivation of doubt – led him to coin the term agnotology, the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance:

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What’s old is new again: Digital tar and feathers

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Two young school children in a school in Shanghai perform a skit denouncing Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, after the arrest of the Gang of Four, 1977.

The religion professor began his Introduction to the New Testament section by holding up and describing the textbook the class would use. He declared it a thoroughly researched, well-regarded scholarly work, a leading textbook in the field, etc., etc. He himself was one of the authors. After extolling his work’s virtues, he held up a copy of the Bible, saying, “And this?” Then he ceremoniously dropped it into the waste basket.

I did not witness this bit of academic theater, but a close friend did over 40 years ago. It was at a Baptist university, too. If the professor shocked freshman naifs straight from First Baptist Church, Anytown, USA, that was the point. This wasn’t Sunday school. Students would be learning things from scholars that would challenge the comfortable theology they had brought with them from home. In the university, they would be asked to “put away childish things,” as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. There was no “trigger warning.” Students survived without fleeing to the security of the nearest campus “safe space.” If they wanted that, Bob Jones University was right down the road.

In September’s Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine how the embrace of “emotional reasoning” in higher education today “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.” Instead of challenging them and preparing them to fend for themselves intellectually and emotionally, the notion that “words can be forms of violence” may, the authors argue, be “teaching students to think pathologically.”

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Facebook’s aerospace team

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Now there’s a phrase to give one pause. This just came in over the transom:

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) — Facebook says it will begin test flights later this year for a solar-powered drone with a wingspan as big as a Boeing 737, in the next stage of its campaign to deliver Internet connectivity to remote parts of the world.

Engineers at the giant social network say they’ve built a drone with a 140-foot wingspan that weighs less than 1,000 pounds. Designed to fly at high altitudes for up to three months, it will use lasers to send Internet signals to stations on the ground.

Facebook’s engineers at engineers at Connectivity Lab are designing a laser-based communications system to deliver the Internet to remote regions of the world the NSA cannot currently monitor from ?Fort Meade or Bluffdale.

The plan calls for using helium balloons to lift each drone into the air, Parikh said. The drones are designed to climb to 90,000 feet, safely above commercial airliners and thunderstorms, where they will fly in circles through the day. At night, he said, they will settle to about 60,000 feet to conserve battery power.

Each drone will fly in a circle with a radius of about 3 kilometers, which the engineers hope will enable it to provide Internet service to an area with a radius of about 50 kilometers.

Facebook drones at 90,000 feet. Amazon delivery drones below 400 feet. Large military drones in between — commingled with your Aunt Millie’s flight to Omaha. Amateur idiots anywhere, anytime. And one FAA NextGen air traffic control system to rule them all. (They’re only having a little trouble meeting the September 2015 deadline for writing those rules.) And c’mon, Zuckerberg, right? No worries. Not until one takes down an airliner or crashes into a school.

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. — Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)

And instant communications. Anywhere. Anytime. It’s been a dream of techies since at least George Orwell.

But, you know, all that hardware to maintain. So much needless expense. TPC had a better idea for handling that little problem back in 1967:

(h/t Barry)

Categories : News, Privacy, Satire, Science
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“A nightmare for civil liberties”

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The FAA, drone opponents, and testified Wednesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on a proposed rule for opening the national airspace to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Clogging the air with drones both large and small, private, commercial, police, and military poses a logistical, regulatory, and privacy challenge. Or maybe a nightmare.

People poised to make money off the commercial technology want their licenses now, and they think the FAA is taking too long to think. The military and the FAA’s NextGen program have been at odds over delays in adapting its proposed, new air traffic control system to include a fleet of military drones it was not designed for. A single U2 spy plane flying in and out of Los Angeles air space last year crashed the local traffic control system. But whateva. Reapers gotta reap and Predators gotta prey.

Most of the focus yesterday was on how soon an Amazon drone will be able to deliver a six pack to your doorstep for the big game. (And it’s still cold!)

The Guardian reports:

The limitations of the licenses would hurt Amazon, the company’s vice-president of global public policy, Paul Misener, told Congress. Misener said his company was actively working to make drone delivery a reality and that the rule’s restriction on operating drones out of the user’s line of sight would hamper progress. “Our respectful disagreement with the FAA is that we believe that kind of operation can be considered right now,” he said.

Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology warned the assembled legislators that they must heed privacy concerns before making the skies free for drones.

“Here is a nightmare scenario for civil liberties: a network of law enforcement UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] with sensors capable of identifying and tracking individuals monitors populated outdoor areas on a constant, pervasive basis for generalized public safety purposes. At the same time, commercial UAS platforms record footage of virtually anyone who steps out of her home, even if the individual remains on private property. This may seem an unlikely future to some. However, few existing laws would stand in the way, and the public does not yet trust the discretion of government or the UAS industry to prevent such scenarios from approaching reality,” he said.

Clearly an alarmist, that last guy. I mean, beer. Oh, right.

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Categories : National, Privacy, Science
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Like that could happen

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Privacy advocates worry that military drones could soon be used to spy on Americans. An activist friend trying to get reporters to publicize how the military plans for its squadrons of Predators, Reapers, etc. to share the National Airspace System (NAS) with private and commercial aircraft is greeted with the kind of skepticism one might have gotten a few years ago for suggesting the NSA was bulk-collecting Americans’ phone records. Like that could happen.

Others have worried about hackers hijacking unmanned or commercial aircraft and, say, flying them into buildings. Like that could happen.

According to Der Spiegel last week, IT expert Chris Roberts has shown what, in theory, could happen with commercial airliners:

According to the FBI document, which was first made public by the Canadian news website APTN, Roberts was able to hack into the onboard entertainment systems — manufactured by companies such as Panasonic and Thales — of passenger planes such as the Boeing 737, the Boeing 757 and the Airbus A320. He did so a total of 15 to 20 times between 2011 and 2014. To do so, he hooked his laptop up to the Seat Electronic Box (SEB) — which are usually located under each passenger seat — using an Ethernet cable, which is unsettling enough.

But Roberts may also potentially have used the SEB to hack into sensitive systems that control the engines. In one case, he may even have been able to manipulate the engines during flight. He says that he was able to successfully enter the command “CLB,” which stands for “climb,” and the plane’s engines reacted accordingly, he told the FBI, according to the document.

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A whole new not-you

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This is how crazy the world is. Designer Adam Harvey’s goal is to make your face unrecognizable by surveillance software:

His CV Dazzle designs for hair and makeup obscure the eyes, bridge of the nose and shape of the head, as well as creating skin tone contrasts and asymmetries. Facial-recognition algorithms function by identifying the layout of facial features and supplying missing info based on assumed facial symmetry. The project demonstrates that a styled “anti-face” can both conceal a person’s identity from facial recognition software (be it the FBI’s or Facebook’s) and cause the software to doubt the presence of a human face, period.

Click through to see some of the wild makeup and hair for foiling surveillance cameras and facial recognition programs. Some of the info in this Raw Story post might be a year old or so old, but it’s new to me. And not surprising. I grew up watching dystopian science fiction movies. Now it feels as if I’m living in one. Would rather not have my eyeballs replaced, thanks.

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Categories : Popular Culture, Science
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Vaccination: It’s Bigger Than You

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