Thursday, February 16, 2006

Whoa, am *I* ever behind the curve.

I just heard about Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which has been around since last fall. It's kind of innovative, kind of creepy.

From the programmer's point of view, it's a highly asynchronous web service: You make a call to the API, requesting some kind of answer. The question you're trying to answer should be something that's easy for a human, but really hard for a computer (e.g., "Is there a pizza parlor in this picture?") Some time later, you get a return call with your information.

From the human's point of view, you search the site looking for HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks). You accept one, look at the picture, click "No, there is no pizza parlor in this picture of an airport hangar (you dumb computer, you)", and get some micropayment deposited in your Amazon account. Payments I saw on the site ranged from a penny for a 500-word review of a computer game (!), or keying in numbers from a blotchy scanned image of a paper form, to $3 for taking two pictures of a particular address in New York City. So it's probably possible to make minimum wage or even above the poverty line doing this, if you pick your tasks carefully.

Is there a certain Rise Of The Machines creepiness inherent in having hundreds of humans perform tasks as directed by computers? You betcha. Might unemployed people make a couple of bucks to buy groceries? That too.

Tired of SETI@home? Try climate-change modeling

From The Register:

Oxford University has launched a SETI@home-like joint project with the BBC to harness processing power from home computers to model climate change. Lead scientist Myles Allen told Reuters: “If 10,000 people join in, you are already bigger than the world's biggest supercomputer.”The program will take an average home PC around three months to run a climate model from 1920 to 2080. The scientists say it will not significantly affect performance. Allen said the aim of the 500,000 permutations was to get an accurate picture of changes that occurred in the 20th century.

Climate change gets SETI-style simulations | The Register

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Kissinger Was Right: Even Paranoids Have Enemies

told my lunch companions today that I am deleting the phrase "even these guys wouldn't..." from my vocabulary. My scariest, most paranoid, nutball friends appear to have been right on the money. Consider the source...but consider the chilling implications, too.

recent revelations about illegal eavesdropping on American citizens by the U.S. National Security Agency have raised many questions about just what the agency is doing. Although the facts are just beginning to emerge, information that has come to light about the NSA's activities and capabilities over the years, as well as the recent reporting by the New York Times and others, allows us to discern the outlines of what they are likely doing and how they are doing it.
The NSA is not only the world's largest spy agency (far larger than the CIA, for example), but it possesses the most advanced technology for intercepting communications. We know it has long had the ability to focus powerful surveillance capabilities on particular individuals or communications. But the current scandal has indicated two new and significant elements of the agency's eavesdropping:
  1. The NSA has gained direct access to the telecommunications infrastructure through some of America's largest companies.
  2. The agency appears to be not only targeting individuals, but also using broad "data mining" systems that allow them to intercept and evaluate the communications of millions of people within the United States.

American Civil Liberties Union : Eavesdropping 101: What Can The NSA Do?

Do I file this one under "Security Boners", or "More Wasted Bush Dollars"?

An ambitious program to check every domestic airline passenger’s name against government terrorist watch lists may not be immune from hackers, a congressional investigator said Thursday.
And because of security concerns, the government is going back to the drawing board with the program called Secure Flight after spending nearly four years and $150 million on it, the Senate Commerce Committee was told.

TSA’s Secure Flight program suspended - U.S. Security -

In case you missed the Cheney jokes on TV last night...

...CNN has thoughtfully collected them for us. My favorites were from Letterman and Craig Ferguson:

  • "But here is the sad part--before the trip Donald Rumsfeld had denied the guy's request for body armor."
  • "You can understand why this lawyer fellow let his guard down, because if you're out hunting with a politician, you think, 'If I'm going to get it, it's going to be in the back.'"

And While Rome Burns...

60 Minutes had a bit last night on the waste and fraud lining profiteers' pockets in Iraq. The Washington Post points out that the Feds are granting "royalty relief" to the poor beleagured oil companies: They can drill on federal land for free. But health-care programs that actually save lives are being cut:

The spokesman for the American Heart Association said he cannot fathom why the administration has recommended eliminating a $1.5 million program that provides defibrillators to rural communities and trains local personnel on how to use the machines to restart hearts that go into cardiac arrest."Coronary heart disease is the number one killer in the United States," Nadkarni said. "This is actually something we can arm ourselves with."

Bush Budget Would Cut Popular Health Programs

Or You Could Stick Whacking Great Steel Bumpers On Them...

From the New York Times:

Design changes that automakers initially resisted and then reluctantly adopted have sharply reduced the number of deaths among drivers of cars struck by a sport utility vehicle or pickup, according to results from the first study of the standards.

The changes are intended to reduce the frequency of S.U.V.'s and pickups' sliding over cars' doorsills and bumpers and piercing deep into cars' passenger compartments.

The changes also reduced by a fifth the risk that an S.U.V. would kill a belted car driver in a frontal collision. The same changes in pickups produced smaller but still significant safety gains. Not since the air bag has a safety standard been so effective in saving lives, experts say.

"To cut somebody's risk of death in half, that's huge," said Ricardo Martinez, the top auto safety regulator during the Clinton administration. "That's almost as good as seat belts. You're lucky if a new regulation gets you a 5 or 10 percent reduction in the death rate."

In Good Hands

I was corresponding with my sister yesterday about some young folks we know, commenting about what fine folks they were and in what good hands we'll be leaving this world. (Hi, Cody, Shannon, Heather!). have to admit that this news item, while not shaking my faith in them, does give me pause. 20 years old...means she's finished at least one year of college. Apparently she missed Clues 101, however:

A 20-year-old North Dakota State University student has been arrested for "criminal attempt and possession of drug paraphernalia" after trying to score some marijuana at a West Fargo police station, In-Forum News reports.
Grace Sium rang the cop shop at 3.15am last Saturday enquiring as to where she might acquire some blow. Despite the dispatcher's repeated protestations that "selling and possessing marijuana was illegal", Sium persisted. Accordingly, the dispatcher admitted the cops had puff in the witness locker, and said if Sium swung by they would "hook her up".
Officer Ken Zeeb - who arrived for work at 3.45am - recalled: "The dispatcher got on the intercom and said, 'You know what? She's here. She just handed me $3 for marijuana'." Zeeb quickly moved to cuff the master criminal, and later explained: "She didn't seem like she was really under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She understood what was going on and articulated herself well."
Zeeb, who has worked narcotics for over seven years and "and has arrested people for trying to buy drugs at a house as it was being searched by police", admitted the bust was "about the craziest thing I've ever come across". He rightly concluded: "This is something that you couldn't even make up."

US student tries to score dope at cop shop | The Register

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Still think your Hummer H3 doesn't represent a moral issue?

To anyone familiar with 12-step-program jargon, the word here is "enabler".

If it weren't for us, they could never afford this wretched display, worthy of Nero on a Bad Impulse Control Day.

We Americas have a certain reputation for sick excess, especially in the Muslim world. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where the average daytime high in January is 80 degrees:

Will No One Rid Me of this Troublesome RSS?

I've been using the Safari browser's RSS functions to keep track of my news feeds. It's unconscionably simple:

  1. You drag your news feeds' URLs onto the "News" folder in the toolbar.
  2. To read, click on "News", then "Open in Tabs"
  3. Wham! A forest of tabs opens, one for each feed. Items are color-coded by recency and whether you've viewed them; the length of summary displayed is adjustable.
  4. Peruse each tab. If, like me, you have a mouse button wired to "Open Link in New Tab", you smack it on every header that looks worth pursuing.
  5. When you're done with all the feeds, you're left with a set of browser tabs, one for each story that looked interesting.

So far, I have found nothing else that approaches this level of sheer usability. I have looked at BlogLines for Web-based aggregation, SharpReader, Thunderbird...Safari beats 'em all, IMHO. But unfortunately, I work on plenty of Athlon boxes too, running Windows and Linux. So a Web-based aggregator would be perfect; next best would be a multiplatform browser whose bookmarks live on a Web service, like Flock. Unfortunately, so far Flock's RSS reader is nowhere near as nice, and in fact crashes frequently for me. (In fairness, it's alpha software.)

I'd sure love to hear about something better. I don't have time to write it, that's for sure.

Safari 2.0 displaying RSS newsfeeds.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

PZ Myers on Chimeras and the State of the Union address

In his blog, biologist PZ Myers writes about how Bush's call to outlaw certain kinds of genetic engineering (emphasis mine).

I'm getting a lot of "WTF?" email about this statement from Bush:
Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research, human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.
It's pure political calculus. He throws away the mad scientist and pig-man vote, and wins the religious ignoramus vote…and we know which one has the majority here.But guess what? Creating chimeras is legitimate and useful scientific research; it's really happening. Of course, it isn't with the intent of creating monstrous half-animal/half-human slaves or something evil like that, and scientists are well aware (or should be well aware) of the ethical concerns, and it's the topic of ongoing debate. Let's consider one recent example of such an experiment
[...he describes research into Down's syndrome using mice genetically modified with human chromosomes...]
These mice are a tool to help us understand a debilitating human problem.

George W. Bush would like to make them illegal.

He's trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, but what he's really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions.
His message isn't "We aren't going to let the mad scientists make monsters!", it's "We aren't going to let the doctors help those 'retards.'"

Once again, the ignorance and the bigotry of the religious right wins out over reason and humanitarianism. I think I know who the real pig-men are.


Top Privacy Posts Left Vacant by Bush Admin

By Ryan Singel
Feb, 02, 2006
President Bush has kept top civil liberty and privacy posts unfilled, even as the controversy over White House-ordered eavesdropping on Americans enters its second month.The powerful Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created by the Intelligence Reform Act, must have a civil liberties protection officer who is charged with ensuring that the "use of technologies sustain, and do not erode, privacy protections," according to the law. But the White House has yet to nominate anyone for the job.
The current DNI is former U.S. ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte. His deputy is ex-National Security Agency chief Gen. Michael Hayden, who, for the last month, has been vigorously defending the NSA eavesdropping program that circumvented federal wiretapping laws. Bush mentioned the spy plan in his State of the Union address Tuesday, calling it a "terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America."
But the White House has failed to nominate a replacement chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security, a post that's been vacant since September when Nuala O'Connor Kelly left the administration to become General Electric's privacy officer. The office is currently being run by O'Connor Kelly's former deputy, Maureen Cooney.

Wired News: Bush Keeps Privacy Posts Vacant