October 17, 2003

Watch out for that rice field!

Back at Pop!Tech. we were down for a while because a Blaster virus snuck into the wireless network and they had to close it down and clean it out.

Right now we're listening to geological science professor Peter Ward, who is talking about how long the Earth might live. And for him, the key world is methane. (The leading producers of methane on
Earth, are cows ... and rice fields.) The largest extinction ever seen on the Earth came because of methane (forget that dinosaur killing comet). Ward says that the layers of the Earth are riddled with methane (beside what we're putting into the atmosphere ourselves). Volcanization helps release this methane, and we're seeing more of that. Ward believes that the Earth has seen its best days, and in about 500 million years, the atmosphere will be so hot, and full of methane, that we'll be more like Venus. Plants will die, about 20 million years later, the oxygen will be gone. And so will we. (Well, we'll probably be long gone to a new solar sytem by then, or as Ward says, we might "bio-engineer our way out of it.")

Life on Earth will then consist of a bacterial world ("planet yogurt, so to speak")

Closer to this time frame, Ward says that a global ice age would be a great danger than a warming period. The trick will be maintaining an equilibrium. Ward, getting political for a moment, said the next presidential election will be very important, because what's happening to our atmosphere and environment is far more important than what's happening in Iraq. He said he feels very strongly that the next president needs to support the Kyoto accords, or 150 years from now, the Earth will be a very hot place. Ward said Kyoto is not a panacea for global warming, but "it will buy us time."

Also, what happens in India and China will have an enormous impact on the global warming effect.

October 17, 2003 in Science [1] | Permalink | Comments (0)

Codes, codes, codes

Tom Regan

I just heard microbiologist Juan Enriquez talk at Pop!Tech about codes, and maps, and how we communicate using codes and maps ... and the human genome project, and how it's going to change the world. Enriquez believes that societies go into decline once their "cultural beliefs" become more important that accepting change. For instance, he talked about how the Japanese in the 17th and 18th centuries made gun powder illegal because it threatened the cultural norm of the Samurai. So when Admiral Perry showed up with three gunships, there wasn't much the Japanese could do with all those great swords against all that gun powder.

He also talked about how technology challenges, and changes, religious beliefs. This will become one of the areas of the most contention in th future, he said. Basically, we will need to look very hard at what it means to be a human being. Enriquez also made the point that the difference between technological "have" socities, and the "have not" societies will expand dramatically in the next century.

October 17, 2003 in Technology & Society | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 16, 2003

China's Pie in the Sky

By Elizabeth Armstrong

Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei just emerged from 14 orbits of Spaceship Earth (it took him 21 hours) in the Shenzhou 5, and his return was quickly heralded by his country's manned space engineering office as an improvement of "China's overall national strength and its international influence," both of which are "boosting the sense of national pride."

Even Col. Liwei's first words upon reentry echoed this sentient nationalism: "I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm proud of my motherland." Without further ado, he was whisked off, with all the symbolism of a flag in the wind, to formal meetings where important leader types declared important things.

Of course, the much ado is about something: The Chinese have joined the ranks of the former Soviet Union and the US in Galactic Ground Covered. And experts are saying space could "be Chinese" by the year 2050, according to SpaceDaily. But it still feels as though the import of human space exploration is somehow diluted in national-centric rhetoric, and I cannot help but be reminded of a conversation I had recently with Paul Levinson, author of Real Space.

"What's missing is a forthright connection to the deepest philosophical and spiritual reasons for going into space," Paul told me. "It's so hard to see what's going on in one's life and in one's environment just from being in one tiny place. You get lulled into the sense that that's all there is."

So it was nice to hear Liwei, during an interview on state television later in the day, not only describe the undescribable (read: wonders of space), but also demonstrate the limitations of every perspective, no matter how broad, how distant, how glorious. "The scenery was very beautiful," he said. "But I did not see the Great Wall."

October 16, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Talking about Sea/Changes at Pop!Tech

by Tom Regan

For the past few years, I've been attending Pop!Tech in Camden, Maine. And let me say here and now that, of the many conferences I attend each year, Pop!Tech offers the most interesting, useful, thought-provoking sessions.

I could wax poetic about the speakers I've heard (listening to John Perry Barlow, former guitarist and songwriter for the Grateful Dead, a few weeks after 9/11 talk about how the battle for the future of humanity would be one between "open source" and "closed" systems was one of many highlights). Or I could expound on the people I've met and interviewed. But a quick trip to Pop!Tech's site (which offers video of all past speeches) far surpasses any of my meager musings.

In operation since 1997, I asked Anthony Citrano (one of Pop!Tech's main organizers) about this year's offering – entitled Sea!Change –, and he told me he thinks that it's going to be really interesting, because it's not quite as "tech" oriented as past conferences.

"We want to look at how technology touches us in ways we don't expect, and how we, our communities, our societies are going to have to deal with these changes," Anthony said. The conference press blurb describes it this way:

Every one of these dramatic sea-changes challenges us intellectually, ethically, aesthetically, and spiritually. In each of these areas, a select group of human beings are pressing forward – expanding the limits of human knowledge, developing agendas for change, and creating works of great artfulness and imagination.

Anthony said this year's program chair Andrew Zolli has put together an amazing array of speakers who include researchers like: Constance Adams, one of the first architects hired by NASA to design a "liveable" environment for space; Aubrey de Gray, a life extension researcher from Cambridge University in London (who feels that by the turn of the 22nd century, we'll have the means to help people live to the ripe old age of 5000 – won't that be an interesting discussion to hear); Graham Hawkes, the inventor of deep sea submersibles, and a man who wants to go to the bottom of the Marianis Trench in the Atlantic Ocean (Why? Because it's there, of course). And those are just a few of the folks speaking over the weekend. (Andrew Zolli told me that putting together this group of speakers is the "most fun I've ever had in my whole life.")

I know that the conference organizers feel somewhat puzzled by the lack of media coverage the gathering generates. I am, too. Honestly, if you've only got so much money to spend on a tech conference, and you want something our of the ordinary (not a booth babe in sight!), this is your ticket.

But when Anthony and I were talking earlier this week, we came up with two reasons for this "invisibility." First, only 500 people are allowed to attend each year (because that's how many the community hall in Camden will hold). And second, the conference is like that great vacation spot you don't want to tell your friends about. If you tell too many people about it, it will become (to quote Yogie Berra) "so popular no one goes there any more."

If you want to keep up with the conference, I'll be blogging it this weekend.

October 16, 2003 in Technology & Society | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 15, 2003

Cell Phone Jammers

By Elizabeth Armstrong

The air of indoor cities might be less smoky than ever before, but soon the airwaves may be cleansed of certain noise pollution, too.

Troy Johnson, electronic services librarian at the Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, e-mailed his fellow American librarians today about the possible implementation of cell phone jammers, tiny devices made by Netline, a company in Tel Aviv.

The C-Guard LP: Low Power Cellular Jammer is a "low power blocking device" that essentially prevents all mobile phones from receiving signals in designated indoor areas (libraries, theaters, churches, restaurants), the kinds of places where clogging the airwaves with Top 40 ringers and chatty conversation is nothing short of sacrilege.

"It is my understanding that it is illegal to use this device in the United States," Mr. Johnson writes. "I think it might be worthwhile to look at the regulatory structure to see what it would take to change the law. I think that on private property you should be allowed to jam cell phones ... to block calls within a contained area so that you do not have jamming in unintended areas."

If a ban on smoking indoors can cause such hullabaloo (remember Manhattan?), what will people do if they can't blab on their cell phones whenever - and wherever - they want?

October 15, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 13, 2003

Leap Seconds Away

By Elizabeth Armstrong

When the International Bureau of Weights and Measures adopted Coordinated Universal Time (aka UTC) in 1972, it didn't think merging atomic time (each second is 9,192,631,770 specific oscillations of a cesium 133 atom) with rotational time (each second is 1/86,400 of a day) would be all that messy.

They were wrong.

See, Planet Earth's rotation is, for whatever reason, slowing ever so slightly, and atomic time must insert little tiny leap seconds to keep up. They're basically hiccups, and they're making things even messier.

For one, many industries rely on precise timekeeping. So when the Burea inserts corrective leap seconds by marking 23:59:59 twice a day, the atomic clocks in global positioning satellites race ahead of UTC by about 13 seconds. Coordinating the timescales is pretty near impossible.

What I don't understand is, if this is a time bomb waiting to go off, why not revert to atomic measurement? In any event, the International Telecommunication Union is open to suggestions. If you've got any, let them know.

October 13, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 09, 2003

Napster: Click to Pay

By Elizabeth Armstrong

And it begins. Napster, the pioneering file-swap service that hooked almost 80 million registered users up with music free-of-charge in its heyday in 1999, is going to start charging (aptly) 99 cents a track and $9.95 an album. It streamed its Napster 2.0 Beta Launch event live from New York on Oct. 9, though just how many former Napster users are going to get all warm and fuzzy inside when they learn of the new price tag remains unclear.

The new costs, by the way, may be comparable with other online music retailers (i.e. MusicMatch and iTunes), but labels like Universal, even with its new slashing of prices, just can't compete (albums now cost $13 instead of $18). Which renders CDs not only low-tech, but too expensive. Before long, the sole reason to have CDs will be to burn tracks from our hard drives onto discs so that we can listen out of the best speakers in the house, which still belong to our stereos.

Chris Gorog, Roxio's chairman and chief executive and the mastermind behind Napster's new pricing scheme, told The Associated Press this week that "our company's passion for what we're doing will really be felt by consumers, and I think it's also very consistent with the original vision for Napster."

Just how many "consumers" (think teens whose hard drives, not shelves, are crammed with music they haven't had to pay for) are going to make the switch from KaZaA, or Grokster, or Morpheus (all of which continue to charge nothing) to Napster and suddenly feel the "company's passion" also remains unclear. But rest assured: The RIAA and MPAA will be watching closely, not to mention your faithful newsies, as the world adjusts, as slowly as can be expected, to a system dictated by the machinations of the smartest 14-year-olds around. (OK, Shawn Fanning was a college freshman at Northeastern University when he thought up Napster, but you get my point.)

October 09, 2003 in Technology & Society | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 28, 2003

The empire strikes back

Last week, a group of seven self-described independent IT security researchers released a report that slammed Microsoft's stranglehold over the software industry. The Sept. 24 report also said that this stranglehold leads to a major problem - "monolithic IT infrastructures that are less secure than enterprises relying on multiple operating systems." Which means that since everyone is using the same software, it would be a lot easier for a terrorist hacker to take out a lot of computers using just one program.

Needless to say, the folks in Redmond could not have been very happy at this report. But now Computer World reports that the study has become a "pawn" in the battle between the anti-Microsoft forces and the pro-Microsoft forces. And it has cost one of the authors of the report his job.

The day after the report's release, co-author Dan Geer was fired from his job as chief technology officer at Cambridge, Mass.-based @stake Inc., a security company that derives a hefty percentage of its income from Microsoft. Moreover, the firing was made retroactive to Sept. 23 so that @stake could further distance itself from Geer and the report, sources close to the situation said.

Charges and counter-charges are flying in the air thicker than a flock of Canada geese headed south for the winter. Turns out the authors of the report aren't quite as independent as was first thought, and have ties to an organization funded by anti-Microsoft forces. But the loudest critics of the measure are from organizations with a pro-Microsoft agenda.

So I'm not sure who is right. I have a LOT of respect for Bill Gates, the man, especially with some of the intiatives he has undertaken to use his mega-fortune to help good causes around the world. But his company makes lousy software, riddled with security problems. (I need a calculator to count the number of security patches I've had to add to my Windows XP OS lately.) Microsoft will no doubt continue to dominate the market. But a little diversity in the software being used by people might be a good thing for a whole lot of reasons.

September 28, 2003 in Security & Privacy | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 14, 2003

Download this

This is an interesting, well-balanced Newsweek piece about the war that the RIAA has declared on file-swappers. Lots of angry quotes from the parents of the "261" - the first group to be sued by the RIAA - who now find themselves facing billions (yes, billions) of dollars in lawsuits. In fact, most claims are being settled for $3000 - $5000 dollars.

But Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota is making big noises about the way the RIAA is dealing with the lawsuits, and is promising hearings, soon. Meanwhile, here's something I didn't know. According to the Newsweek article, all you have to do is turn off the file sharing part of the Kazaa or Grokster software and you can't be traced when you download.

I'm no fan of the RIAA but no matter how you cut it, illegally downloading files is still taking something that doesn't belong to you. Still, whacking people with a lawsuit for $150,000 person seems a tad, well, overdone, and designed not to win you any friends or supporters.

September 14, 2003 in Technology & Society | Permalink | Comments (0)

Stairway to heaven

Here is a cool piece from the Guardian News Service in England about NASA's plans to make Arthur C. Clarke's vision of a space elevator come to life. The "elevator" would deliver satellites, spacecraft and even people thousands of kilometres into space along a vertical track.

September 14, 2003 in Technology & Society | Permalink | Comments (0)