Archive for the 'Beyond belief' Category

Go, GoPro, Go

[link] Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

This must be the best ad for a robust camera, ever. A GoPro fell from a plane and recorded its fall — into a pig-sty. And then survived what happened next. Fascinating.

Kansas loses it, finally

[link] Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Wow! You really could not make this up. Great post by Andrew Sullivan.

The bill that just overwhelmingly passed the Kansas House of Representatives is quite something. You can read it in its entirety here. It is premised on the notion that the most pressing injustice in Kansas right now is the persecution some religious people are allegedly experiencing at the hands of homosexuals. As Rush Limbaugh recently noted, “They’re under assault. You say, ‘Heterosexuality may be 95, 98 percent of the population.’ They’re under assault by the 2 to 5 percent that are homosexual.” As its sponsor, Charles Macheers, explained:

“Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful … It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill. There have been times throughout history where people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs because they were unpopular. This bill provides a shield of protection for that.”

The remedy for such a terrible threat is, however, state support for more discrimination. The law empowers any individual or business to refuse to interact with, do business with, or in any way come into contact with anyone who may have some connection to a gay civil union, or civil marriage or … well any “similar arrangement” (room-mates?). It gives the full backing of the law to any restaurant or bar-owner who puts up a sign that says “No Gays Served”. It empowers employees of the state government to refuse to interact with gay citizens as a group. Its scope is vast: it allows anyone to refuse to provide “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits” to anyone suspected of being complicit in celebrating or enabling the commitment of any kind of a gay couple.

As Andrew points out, if the Republican Party wanted to demonstrate that it wants no votes from anyone under 40, it couldn’t have found a better way to do it. “Some critics”, he writes, “have reacted to this law with the view that it is an outrageous new version of Jim Crow and a terrifying portent of the future for gays in some red states. It is both of those. It’s the kind of law that Vladimir Putin would enthusiastically support. But it is also, to my mind, a fatal mis-step for the movement to keep gay citizens in a marginalized, stigmatized place.”

He goes on:

It’s a misstep because it so clearly casts the anti-gay movement as the heirs to Jim Crow. If you want to taint the Republican right as nasty bigots who would do to gays today what Southerners did to segregated African-Americans in the past, you’ve now got a text-book case. The incidents of discrimination will surely follow, and, under the law, be seen to have impunity. Someone will be denied a seat at a lunch counter. The next day, dozens of customers will replace him. The state will have to enforce the owner’s right to refuse service. You can imagine the scenes. Or someone will be fired for marrying the person they love. The next day, his neighbors and friends will rally around.

If you were devising a strategy to make the Republicans look like the Bull Connors of our time, you just stumbled across a winner. If you wanted a strategy to define gay couples as victims and fundamentalist Christians as oppressors, you’ve hit the jackpot. In a period when public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of gay equality and dignity, Kansas and the GOP have decided to go in precisely the opposite direction. The week that the first openly gay potential NFL player came out, the GOP approved a bill that would prevent him from eating in restaurants in the state, if he ever mentioned his intention to marry or just shack up with his boyfriend. Really, Republicans? That’s the party you want?

Why Year of Code already needs a reboot

[link] Sunday, February 16th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Last week, my email inbox began to fill up with angry emails. Had I seen the dreadful/unbelievable/disgraceful/hilarious/ (delete as appropriate) Newsnight interview with Lottie Dexter? I hadn’t and as I’d never heard of Ms Dexter I wasn’t unduly bothered. After all, life is too short to be watching Newsnight every night.

Still, the drumbeat of indignation in my inbox was insistent enough to make me Google her.

And to think that “bird-brain” used to be a term of abuse…

[link] Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

This really is amazing. Thanks to Brian for spotting it.

Startup myths and obsessions

[link] Monday, February 3rd, 2014

The UK government’s worship of SMEs (they are the industrial equivalent of “hardworking families” in Cameron’s lexicon) is comical to behold. Likewise the devout belief of tech entrepreneurs (especially in the US) that the only thing they need from government is to get out of their way. So it’s nice to come upon a blog post by Professor Mariana Mazzucato which punctures some of these fantasies.

Innovation-led “smart” growth has occurred mainly in countries with a big group of medium to large companies, and a small group of SMEs that is spun out from some of those large companies or from universities. These firms have benefited immensely from government funded research. Indeed, in my book I show how many firms in Silicon Valley have benefitted directly from early-stage funding by government, as well as the ability to build their products on top of government funded technologies. Every technology that makes the iPhone smart was government-funded (internet, GPS, touch-screen display, SIRI). Apple spends relatively little on R&D compared with other IT firms precisely because it uses existing technology. It applies its remarkable design skills to these technologies, effectively surfing on a government-funded wave. Apple, Compaq and Intel also all enjoyed the benefits of early-stage public funds (SBIC in the case of Apple, SBIR in the case of Compaq and Intel). As for America’s biotech boom (and the startups it has spawned), it was fuelled not by a random rise of genius and tinkering but by two fundamental factors: the 1980 Bayh-Dole act that allowed publicly funded research to be patented (which led to an exponential rise of spinouts based on such patents), and the massive funding of the underlying knowledge base. Between 1936 and 2011 the publicly funded National Institutes of Health spent $792 billion (in 2011 dollars), with last year’s budget alone totalling $30.9 billion. Small innovative firms benefit immensely from interacting with such an ecosystem. Left alone they get preyed upon by an increasingly short-termist financial system.

Her book is excellent, btw.

The paranoia of the One Per Cent

[link] Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Wow! This Letter to the Editor appeared in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which helpfully points out in a footnote that the correspondent is one of the founders of Silicon Valley’s most successful Venture Capital firm. He’s the Perkins in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Regarding your editorial “Censors on Campus” (Jan. 18): Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins

San Francisco

LATER: This tweet from KPCB


Mass surveillance: an “insurance policy”

[link] Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

I was struck by this passage in an admirable blog post by Ray Corrigan.

The latest from the NSA is that they now seem to be admitting (in spite of previous claims that this mass surveillance stopped 54 major terror attacks it didn’t really stop any, but may possibly have provided secondary supportive evidence in relation to one) that the best argument they can come up with is mass data collection might be useful as an “insurance policy”. What?! An insurance policy?! The infrastructure of mass surveillance might be useful in the future, somehow, to someone?

The relevant passage in the NSA testimony reads:

While Inglis conceded in his NPR interview that at most one terrorist attack might have been foiled by NSA’s bulk collection of all American phone data – a case in San Diego that involved a money transfer from four men to al-Shabaab in Somalia – he described it as an “insurance policy” against future acts of terrorism.

“I’m not going to give that insurance policy up, because it’s a necessary component to cover a seam that I can’t otherwise cover,” Inglis said.

We need not just Orwell and Kafka to deal with the NSA story. We need Borges too.

[link] Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The New York Times had a splendid editorial the other day, arguing the case for clemency for Edward Snowden, among other things.

Among the NSA violations unearth by the controversy, the editorial pointed out that the Snowden leaks

“revealed that James Clapper Jr, the director of national intelligence, lied to Congress when testifying in March that the NSA was not collecting data on millions of Americans. (There has been no discussion of punishment for that lie.)”

According to the Guardian_, this prompted Robert Litt, the general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to write to the _Times to deny the allegation. In his letter Litt refers to one of the key Senate advocates of NSA reform, Senator Ron Wyden, and continues:

“Senator Wyden asked about collection of information on Americans during a lengthy and wide-ranging hearing on an entirely different subject. While his staff provided the question the day before, Mr Clapper had not seen it. As a result, as Mr Clapper has explained, he was surprised by the question and focused his mind on the collection of the content of Americans’ communications. In that context, his answer was and is accurate.

“When we pointed out Mr Clapper’s mistake to him, he was surprised and distressed. I spoke with a staffer for Senator Wyden several days later and told him that although Mr Clapper recognized that his testimony was inaccurate, it could not be corrected publicly because the program involved was classified.”

Litt concluded: “This incident shows the difficulty of discussing classified information in an unclassified setting and the danger of inferring a person’s state of mind from extemporaneous answers given under pressure. Indeed, it would have been irrational for Mr. Clapper to lie at this hearing, since every member of the committee was already aware of the program.”

If you wanted a case study in why this kind of surveillance threatens democracy, then this is it.

Robot or not?

[link] Sunday, December 15th, 2013

This (from a link sent by Andrew Ingram, for which many thanks) is fascinating.

Recently, Time Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer received a phone call from an apparently bright and engaging woman asking him if he wanted a deal on his health insurance. But he soon got the feeling something wasn’t quite right.

After asking the telemarketer point blank if she was a real person or a computer-operated robot, she chuckled charmingly and insisted she was real. Looking to press the issue, Scherer asked her a series of questions, which she promptly failed. Such as, “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” To which she responded by saying she didn’t understand the question. When asked what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained of a bad connection (ah, the oldest trick in the book).

Here’s the recording:

Exclusive! NSA and Homeland Security lack sense of humour

[link] Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Photograph from CBS.

This comes to us via the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have issued “cease and desist” letters to a novelty store owner who sells products that poke fun at the federal government.

Dan McCall, who lives in Minnesota and operates, sells T-shirts with the agency’s official seal that read: “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens,” Judicial Watch first reported.

Other parodies say, “Spying on you since 1952,” and “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” the report said.

Federal authorities claimed the parody images violate laws against the misuse, mutilation, alteration or impersonation of government seals, Judicial Watch reported.

I particularly admire the crack about the NSA being “the only part of the government that actually listens”.

Brian, who told me about the first link, also pointed me to a fuller account about the artist, Dan McCall who came up with the tee-shirt.

What McCall meant as pure parody, apparently wasn’t very funny to bureaucrats at the NSA.

While he calls it parody they call a violation of the spy agency’s intellectual property.

“Because when you’re pointing straight at an organization or making fun at it, turning it on itself, that is classic parody,” he said.

The agency ordered him to cease and desist and forced his T-shirts off the market.

Hmmm… I’d have thought that he’d have a good First Amendment and Fair Use case. But maybe m’learned friends think not.