Science and Technology

Free "Super-Wifi" Everywhere? Don't Hold Your Breath.

Flickr/CollegeDegrees360
We spend a lot of time arguing about whether government should be big or small, which is almost always the wrong question. Among the right questions are how government should go about doing what it has to do, and on whose behalf it ought to operate. I bring this up because of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission, discussed in this article in today's Washington Post , to open up a big chunk of spectrum to spread wifi hither and yon, potentially creating a nirvana of free internet and cell phone access. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, it is. But here's how the Post described it: The federal government wants to create super WiFi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month. The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to...

Aaron Swartz’s Final Code

The death of an Internet freedom activist points to the future of popular resistance.

AP Photo/ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside
Flickr/okfn W hen I first became aware of Aaron Swartz about a year ago, I really felt like a dope. I had reported a story for the Prospect about online piracy, and so joined the foolhardy who ponder what the digital age meant for copyright law’s central tension—the vital act of sharing information versus the fair expectation of artists, intellectuals, and entertainers to be compensated when their creations get shared. I understood at least this much: The Internet had essentially reduced the cost of reproduction to zero (which heavily favored information, and seriously distressed creators) and in doing so, exploded an already fraught arrangement into atomic complexity. But I also thought I’d identified one clear-cut foe of intellectual freedom. Countless times foraging online for story ideas, I’d land on a journal article that I knew revealed a conceptual plain ripe for the cultivating powers of hard-hitting reporting, only to find all but the first page locked within JSTOR, a digital...

Faulty Hypothesis

Flickr/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
One of the great political shifts in the past decade has been the move of scientists toward the Democratic Party, a casualty of the Republican Party’s war on reality. It’s not about politics for scientists, it’s about the fact that only one party accepts scientific findings on everything from global warming to evolutionary theory to what does and doesn’t prevent pregnancy. Only 6 percent of scientists identify as Republican , whereas 55 percent identify as Democratic. In October of 2012, 68 Nobel-winning scientists co-signed a strong endorsement of Obama, saying the President “has delivered on his promise to renew our faith in science-based decision making.” Which is why it was so strange to read Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, argue in Nature that it’s wrong for scientists to throw their weight behind electing Democrats. Sarewitz’s opening sentence lays out his argument neatly: To prevent science from...

We've Traced the Call. It's Coming From ... Inside Your Pocket!

Let's take a momentary break from the fiscal insanity that has possessed Washington of late, and talk about something else you can be afraid of. Question: do you have anti-virus software on your smartphone? Probably not, because while it will take about 10 seconds for an unprotected computer connected to the internet to be infected with all manner of malware, hackers haven't devoted much energy to targeting people's phones. Yet. But Popular Science predicts that phone hacking will be one of the big tech developments of 2013: For the most part, smartphones have escaped the viruses and botnets that have plagued desktop computers for decades. That luck may not hold out in 2013. The learning curves of cybersecurity professionals and cybercriminals track pretty closely. If the good guys have hacked iOS and Android, the bad guys will quickly follow. The first mobile malware attempted familiar invasions, stealing contact information and pictures from devices. But cybersecurity professionals...

Still No Strong Links Between Video Games and Violence

Videogamer.com
Videogamer.com A screenshot from Call of Duty 2: Black Ops. Yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, outgoing senator Joe Lieberman floated the recurring—and wrong—idea that violent video games play a part in mass shootings: “The violence in the entertainment culture – particularly, with the extraordinary realism to video games, movies now, et cetera – does cause vulnerable young men to be more violent,” Lieberman insisted. “Doesn’t make everybody more violent, but it’s a causative factor in some cases.” “We ought to ask the entertainment community, what are you going to do to tone that down,” Lieberman said of policymakers in Washington. I don’t know of any mass shooting where video games were a “causative” factor. What I do know, however, is that the available evidence provides only a tenuous link between playing violent video games and committing violent acts. Existing studies on the subject are all over the place: Some show an increase in the physiological signs of aggression when play...

This Goes Out to All the Ladies

(Gabriel Arana)
This past election, President Barack Obama made blatant appeals to female voters to great success. Fifty-five percent of women and a jaw-dropping 68 percent of single women voted for the president this round . Feminist and reproductive-rights groups especially campaigned hard, not just to reward him for some significant wins for women in office but because they widely believed that he could do even more in a second term, especially with 18 congressional seats swapping from anti- or mixed-choice to pro-choice . In other words, feminist-leaning women helped usher in Obama’s victory, and now they’re wondering how he intends to show his gratitude. Even though most of 2012 was a lovefest between feminists and the Obama administration, the administration came under plenty of fire from activists who felt he was often too quick to compromise. Some feminist organizations, like the National Organization for Women , denounced the president for signing an executive order barring insurance plans...

They'll Be Back

Robots, as yet unarmed, created for the military by Boston Dynamics.
Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report raising alarms about the specter of "killer robots." The report urged that we develop an international treaty to prohibit the development of fully autonomous robotic weapons systems that can make their own decisions about when to use deadly force. So is that day coming any time soon? The Pentagon wants everyone to know it has no plans to allow robots to make decisions on when to fire weapons; Spencer Ackerman at Wired points us to this memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter released two days after the HRW report, making clear that the DoD's policy is that robots don't get to pull the trigger without a human being making the decision (or in bureacratic-speak, "Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force"). It seems obvious that we don't want a bunch of Terminators walking through our streets deciding...

Weird Science

This totally happened, probably.
Twenty years or so ago, a few politicians got caught when somebody asked them the price of a gallon of milk and they didn't know the answer. As a consequence, campaign managers and political consultants started making sure their candidates knew the price of milk and a few similar items like a loaf of bread, should they ever be called upon to assure voters that they do in fact visit the supermarket and are thus in touch with how regular folk live their lives. In a similar but somewhat more complex game of gotcha, Marco Rubio is the latest Republican politician to express discomfort about the question of the earth's age. Unfortunately, unlike the price of milk, that's not a question upon which people of every ideology agree. But if you're a politician wondering what you should answer if you get asked the question, here's a guide to the possibilities, and what each one says about you. There are four possible answers: 1. "The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old." This answer says...

Will Massachusetts Voters Legalize Assisted Suicide?

This is the ninth in the Prospect's series on the 174 measures on state ballots this year. Six years ago, Mesfin Nega was attacked outside a nightclub. He suffered a broken neck and a damaged spinal cord that transformed the previously healthy 32-year-old into a quadriplegic. As The Washington Post later reported , Nega had made a pact with his friend Shimelis Yegazu: If one were ever to suffer an injury that required him to be connected to life-sustaining equipment, the other would take it upon himself to disconnect the equipment. Nega and Yegazu made the news last week when Yegazu followed through with this pact, administering a lethal dose of phenobarbital to Nega, and then taking a fatal dose himself. Nega’s story raises a question that has been off the political radar for some time: Should a patient who wants to end his or her own life have the right to receive a physician’s assistance doing so? Debate here doesn't fall along usual partisan lines—there is no party orthodoxy for...

The Superbabies Are Coming

Flickr/Gravitywave
OK, so my headline isn't exactly accurate, unless "coming" means "coming eventually, but not any time soon." Nevertheless, scientists have succeeded in modifying the genetic code of embryos. For the moment it's about replacing a defective gene that causes an illness, but that's an important step toward our superbaby future, as this NPR story reports : So Mitalipov's team figured out a way to pluck these little packets of defective mitochondrial DNA out of eggs and replace them with healthy genes from eggs donated by other women. They fertilized the transplanted eggs in the laboratory and showed they could create healthy embryos. "What we showed is that the faulty genes, which are usually passed through the woman's egg, can be safely replaced. And that way, the egg still retains its capacity to be fertilized by sperm and develop," he says. The researchers haven't taken the next step yet: They haven't tried to make babies out of these modified embryos. But they have made baby monkeys...

We Blinded Her from Science

Why are there so few women in STEM fields? Hint: The problem is not just about "lifestyle choices."

(Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory)
As an undergraduate at Stanford, Debbie Sterling once ran out of a mechanical drafting course, crying. Sterling was one of about five women in the class, and even though she loved drawing, she was having trouble with her final assignment. “I couldn’t get it quite right,” she admitted. But she never thought a struggle with one assignment would lead to what happened next. During a critique, the two male teaching assistants asked the class, “OK, who thinks that Debbie should pass this class?” The room remained silent. “Nobody raised their hands. I was mortified,” she said. “That’s the moment where I was really considering just giving up and thinking I didn’t have what it takes.” Sterling experienced other, more subtle instances of gender bias throughout her undergraduate career. “I often felt like the guys didn’t take me seriously. It was hard to contribute or I would get ignored,” she says. “But I’ve heard Stanford is better than other places.” Surrounded by men in her science and...

Barry Commoner and the Dream of a Liberal Third Party

Obituaries of the environmental populist have dismissed his 1980 presidential run as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that.

(Flickr/CHEJ)
(AP/SJV) Dr. Barry Commoner listens to Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel address a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in May 1970. Barry Commoner died on September 30 at the age of 95. The New York Times called him “a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s cause.” Among many accomplishments, his pioneering work on the effects of radiation was a major factor in building public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1970, the first year of Earth Day. He also ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the now-defunct Citizens Party, an episode few on the left remember and the obituaries dismissed as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that. The Citizens Party was an effort to respond to the early signals that the Democratic Party was on the way to...

Make Your Own Gun!

The scariest piece in the news this week isn’t about the election or the economy or the threat of terrorism—though it touches on all three. It’s about the latest development in humanity’s ceaseless urge to invent things—subcategory, the ceaseless urge to invent things that let people do things more cheaply than before. Specifically, it’s Nick Bilton’s “Disruptions” column in the business section of Monday’s New York Times . Bilton writes about 3-D printing—nothing new about that—and how it will soon enable people to build their own plastic, but very functional, handguns in the comfort of their homes. That’s news—and the more you think about it, the scarier it becomes. According to Bilton, it will soon be possible to download a printing schematic from the internet (for free), hit “print” on your 3-D printer, “walk away, and a few hours later, you have a firearm.” Three-D printers, for the uninitiated, are printers that use plastic, ceramics or metal to make 3-D objects through a...

The First Call Is Free; the Rest Are a Fortune.

Pressure mounts for prisons to improve their outdated and costly phone systems.

(flickr/truthout)
(Flickr/ danostamper714) P aying a $4.25 connection fee and then 75 cents per minute thereafter seems costly, unless, perhaps, we're talking about a phone call from our future Mars colony back to Earth. It is, though, what an operator at the phone company Global Tel*Link says it costs for a call from Pennsylvania's Carbon County Correctional Facility to anywhere beyond the local calling area. That's in line with the rates other companies charge for prisoners around the country to make simple long-distance phone calls. To compare, prepaid cell phones on the outside top out at about 20 cents a minute, and a standard residential landline plan at just half that. If you find it difficult to rally sympathy for prisoners' hefty monthly phone bills, consider two things. First, we know that contact with the outside world while in prison is tied to better outcomes after prison . Second, those costs are generally borne by families and friends, either through collect charges or the refilling of...

How We Should (Voter) Roll

(Flickr/crownjewel82)
David Becker is unusual in national politics. He talks about inaccuracies in voting rolls, dead people still registered, and the like. He says the bad information is a big problem. But he's not on the far right talking about voter fraud or the need for major purges to the states' rolls before an election. Instead, he's the director of election initiatives for the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. And his research tells him that better data would actually help more people vote—and make elections a smoother, more efficient process that should please folks on both sides of the political divide. Far-right groups argue that voter fraud is rampant, and demand that states do more to delete names on the lists. The left brushes off the fraud claim (citing facts), focusing instead on voter registration drives. There's not much common ground. But an investment in better tools to manage voter registration—and allow for online registration—would make a huge difference to both camps: It would...

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