current events

McDonalds on Pluto

Nick Denton

…I’ve always loved the US. The history, the Federalist Papers, science fiction, Hollywood, quirky independent movies, Central Park, bagels, the familiarity of the Upper West Side, the West Wing, the New York Times on a Sunday, New York, all the more after September 11th, drinking places without carpets, strange food and strange sex, landing men on the moon, digital technology, the nations come together, the scale, the presumption of liberty, the sense of possibility, the eager embrace of the future.

I love it all, and not as a phenomenon to be observed from a distance, or contained within the USA. I want the whole planet, the whole solar system, the whole galaxy, to be full of bustling humanity, and if the price of that is a McDonalds on Pluto, I’ll close my eyes, think of a Tuscan trattoria, and order a Big Mac and fries.

There’s more–go read it–but I really like this. Except that I won’t eat at McDonald’s, and the minor point he seems to miss is that I don’t need to, and neither does he.

Consensus at Lawyerpoint

Consensus at Lawyerpoint

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) filed the “Content Protection Status Report” with the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, laying out its plan to remake the technology world to suit its own ends. The report calls for regulation of analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), generic computing components found in scientific, medical and entertainment devices. Under its proposal, every ADC will be controlled by a “cop-chip” that will shut it down if it is asked to assist in converting copyrighted material — your cellphone would refuse to transmit your voice if you wandered too close to the copyrighted music coming from your stereo.

The report shows that this ADC regulation is part of a larger agenda. The first piece of that agenda, a mandate that would give Hollywood a veto over digital television technology, is weeks away from coming to fruition. Hollywood also proposes a radical redesign of the Internet to assist in controlling the distribution of copyrighted works.

This three-part agenda — controlling digital media devices, controlling analog converters, controlling the Internet — is a frightening peek at Hollywood’s vision of the future.

Just in case there was any doubt left in your mind that these guys are evil.

Art, TX on the block

The town of Art, TX is for sale. Asking price $299,000.

Now, mind you: Art is barely even a wide spot in the road, located midway between Llano and Mason on State Highway 29. I’ve spent the night there, at the guest house attached to the Hoodoo Cafe.

Technology meltdown

The New York Times has a review of the new BMW 745. In addition to pointing out that dealers allow new buyers 3 hours to get acquainted with the car before actually driving it, the reviewer mentions this anecdote:

My beagle, whose job description is “scan roadsides for squirrels,” is in the back, moving from one side window to the other. Each time he shifts, sensors in the seat take note, and the right rear headrest whirrs up as the left one whirrs down. For the next two hours, the headrests dance in tandem, as if trying to provide comfort for restless spirits.

I like high-tech gadgets as much as the next guy, but come on! This is technology run amok.

Arming the peasants

From the New York Times: A Faulty Rethinking of the 2nd Amendment

There is one striking curiosity to the Bush administration’s advancing its position at this time. Advocates of the individual-right interpretation typically argue that an armed populace is the best defense against the tyranny of our own government. And yet the Bush administration seems quite willing to compromise essential civil liberties in the name of security.

With all the other civil liberties George II (and even moreso, Ashcroft) is keen to delete, he definitely shouldn’t be so gung-ho about leaving guns in the hands of the peasantry.

It’s not easy being green

“Imagine. Ice skating in the deep South in 90-plus degree weather, on an ice-rink completely powered by solar energy.”

I love the idea, but I’ve recently learned that the greenhouse gases associated with the manufacture of solar cells are pretty significant. So there’s no easy way out. The Rocky Mountain Institute has long promoted the concept of “negawatts”–that is, making more energy available by not using as much of it in the first place. I think this should be our highest priority.

Pato’s Tacos burned down

Pato’s Tacos has burned down. This used to be where the local firedancing community met for practice, though we stopped using it in May 2001 when they started construction on the empty lot we’d been using. It’s still too bad to see that it’s gone. No, the irony of the fact that it was consumed by a fire is not lost on me.

War & utilitarianism

Remember the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”?I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of this war in Afghanistan. I’m not a pacifist–I do think some kind of military response is appropriate–but I consider the bombing of civilians (even inadvertent) to be unacceptable. I’m basically a utilitarian in my outlook, and so I think the U.S’ goal should be to minimize deaths. But it seems possible that the minimum number of civilian deaths (American, Afghan, whatever) at this point is still going to be higher than zero. To put it crudely, we’ll need to break some eggs to make an omelette.Anyhow, the upshot of all the twists and turns I’ve taken when thinking about this boils down to one basic question of ethics. Is it acceptable to risk civilian casualties in the interest achieving a legitimate military goal (let’s assume just for the sake of argument that it is legitimate). Or to put it in a more general way: is it ethical to take an action that in itself is unethical (or ethically dubious), but is in the service of the greater good? Or should one’s actions always be ethical on their own, and if they lead to more trouble down the road, well, you’ll just cross that bridge when you come to it and hope you can muddle through?I really don’t know the answer to this question. In different contexts, I can argue either way. And I don’t think the answer can be derived through a priori reasoning.What do you think?

the Microsoft settlement

It doesn’t take a judge to realize the Microsoft settlement with the DoJ is a big Christmas present to Bill Gates (evidently, in fact, it takes a non-judge to realize this). I, Cringely does a good job explaining just how bad it is.

Ubiquitous intrusion

There’s been a lot of talk over the past year or so regarding corporate monitoring of employee e-mail, web-browsing, and the like. I think these problems are very important, but they are beyond the scope of this discussion.

Technology is value-neutral. It can be used in good ways and evil. Likewise technologies in combination. I’ve been thinking about one particularly frightening combination of technologies that we may see all-too soon. All of the following exist right now or are in the pipeline:

What I am envisioning is that we will have glasses with unobtrusive–nearly invisible–webcams and HUD overlays. These will be connected to the Internet via some kind of souped-up cellphone/palmpilot doohickey of the future. When you see a face, you’ll be able to push a button (or speak a command, whatever) initiating the following events:

  1. Your webcam takes a picture of the person’s face
  2. That picture is transmitted via your wireless Internet connection to a face database
  3. If there is a match, information about that person is transmitted back to you
  4. That information is then displayed in your eyeglass HUD

In short, just by looking at a person, you might be able to learn his or her name, address, and other info. That’s bad enough, but it gets much, much worse. Technologically, it would be trivial to include a system that allowed people to post “reviews” of that person. In fact, all of the basic information, like name and address, could be gathered through volunteer members of the system, instead of commercial databases (which might well be unwilling to participate)–the Internet Movie Database is a volunteer effort, and an excellent (but benign) example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Third Voice caught a lot of flack for the original version of its software, which basically allowed anyone to write graffitti on other websites, viewable to other people with Third-Voice software. This resulted in a lot of snide comments being plastered over high-traffic sites like Yahoo. (Third Voice has evidently taken its software in a different direction.) Imagine this being done to your face, viewable to anyone with the right equipment. And of course, there’s no reason to expect the comments that others would make about you would be honest or accurate. Any stranger who sees you on the street would be able to contribute a comment about you. You could even add in GPS data, so that the central database could compile a running log of your whereabouts.

All the technology to accomplish this exists right now, although the setup would be ungainly and terribly expensive. I believe that in less than five years, the technology will be much smaller, more elegant, and more accessible.

There are lots of other interesting and scary variations on this. Stationary webcams are bound to proliferate, located at busy intersections and the like. Such a system as I am discussing could link in with those so, just possibly, you could see a snapshot of someone’s back while you look at their face. Or you could sit at home and tell the system to follow a certain person through town, with other stationary webcams (or perhaps even other person-mounted webcams) constantly looking for that person’s face and updating you on his progress.

I refer to this situation as “ubiquitous intrusiveness,” or more concisely, as “omnihell.” This is very different from the Big Brother worries we have regarding business and government today–it is a situation where everybody is conducting surveillance on everyone else. Will it actually happen? I’m tempted to think that if I can imagine it, someone else is already working on it. I fear the only thing standing in the way of making it happen is the Golden Rule–if you are snooping on others, you’ll likely be snooped on yourself. Perhaps, as a culture, we will feel a common sense of revulsion at the whole prospect and stand back.

I got to thinking about this, not as a way for people to swap notes on other people, but as a personal memory tool–my first thought was not that you’d share your face-database with others, but that you’d have sole access to it, so you’d never have the embarrassing experience of re-meeting people and forgetting their names. Then I realized the information could be shared, meaning it almost certainly would be, and then you’d get this scenario.

later:

Evidently everyone entering the stadium to see the 2001 Superbowl was face-matched, in an effort to ferret out terrorists.

Personal responsibility and the FDA

A couple interesting medicine-related stories on the news this evening.

One concerned hearings in Congress about FDA regulation of experimental treatments for grave diseases, like cancer. The gist of it was that people wanted to rein in the FDA, so that more experimental drugs would be available.

Only a couple days before, the notorious diet treatment fen-phen (or is that phen-fen?) was withdrawn from the market, and the general feeling was that this had not been regulated strictly enough.

Am I the only person who sees a contradiction here?

How do we fund medical research? How should we?

A news story today concerned prostate cancer, and especially, the amount of federal funding that goes to prostate cancer research. Evidently, prostate cancer gets about $80 million in research funding each year, and kills about 41,000 men. Breast cancer gets $550 million in annual funding, and kills about 45,000. AIDS gets $1.6 billion in funding, and kills about 51,000.

The point was made in this report that breast cancer research is better funded because women have organized and lobbied to get that funding. And of course AIDS has been the focus of intensive organizing and lobbying.

Now, all of these clearly merit research. But it is insane to allocate research dollars based on the group that makes the most noise. This started me thinking “there’s got to be a better way.”

So here’s my idea. First, we assign an economic value to one year of an average person’s life. Statisticians have some number that they use. I’m not sure what that number is. Let’s use $40,000, because it is a nice, round number. I readily admit that this is a crass way of looking at things, but it leads to a model that has a lot of explanatory power, so please hold your nose and continue.

Next, figure the average age of the victims, then substract that from the average lifespan. Multiply that by the number of victims each year, and then multiply that by $40,000. That is the economic potential lost to the disease each year.

For example, using prostate cancer for the moment, let’s say as a guesstimate that the average age at which men die of it is 65, and the average male lifespan is 75. On average, each victim has lost ten years. This yields the following:

10 years x $40,000/person/year x 41,000 people

= $16.4 billion in lost economic potential

Now figure this for all diseases, and you have an index of awfulness, or to look at it another way, a way of determining how much research money various diseases should get. This is based on something objective, not lobbying clout. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting we spend $16.4 billion per year on prostate cancer research; all I am saying is that given a certain reserve of money available for medical research is, this gives us a way to divide it up equitably. Although it is somewhat outside the scope of this topic, it could also be used to help indicate whether that pool is too big or too small.

So far so good. We can take this approach much further, though. According to this logic, AIDS would obviously get more money than prostate cancer or breast cancer, because it kills more people, and they tend to die at a younger age. But there’s another factor: AIDS is communicable. The fact that one AIDS carrier can pass the disease on to any number of other people needs to be accounted for. Again, we can estimate the average number of people that will catch HIV from one carrier, when those cases will mature into AIDS, the average lifespan for someone with AIDS, and work all these into the calculations. Admittedly, there is a lot of room for arguing over what those numbers might be, but if the basic premise is accepted, at least we are arguing over relatively objective data.

Another way to extend this is to apply it to diseases that don’t kill people. For example, if salmonella poisoning knocks 2,000 people out of commission each year, for an average of one week each, that is

1/52nd of a year x $40,000/person/year x 2,000 people

= $1,538,461 in lost economic potential

Of course, it costs a certain amount of money to treat each of those people. The way economic growth is currently measured, that is actually considered a good thing. This is kind of crazy, and for our purposes, let’s just pretend that spending money to cure a disease is less desirable than spending less money preventing it. Suppose that it costs $300 per case to treat salmonella poisoning. That’s 2,000 people x $300 per person, or $600,000. So add that to the lost economic potential. So we can extend this general approach to account for the relative cost of treating diseases (in fact, this will work with fatal diseases as well as minor ones). We could say that if we could prevent all those salmonella outbreaks for less than 2.1 million dollars, it would be worth it.

To be sure, I have oversimplified the matter here. There would no doubt be numerous variables involved in any such calculations. But the general approach is sound. Oregon uses a similar rational scheme for rationing medicare.