Science and Technology

Big Brother Is You, Watching

Google's Sergey Brin, sportin' the specs. (Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
I stole the title of this post from an essay Mark Crispin Miller wrote 25 years ago about the effects of television, in which he argued that instead of a totalitarian government forcing us to submit through fear and oppression, we'd happily voluteer to be anesthetized by our TVs. Today though, the more proximate danger involves the rise of a kind of universal surveillance where we're being watched through much of our days, by governmental authorities, corporations looking to part us from our money, and each other. It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse. Which brings us to Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses rig that is getting closer to becoming a consumer product. People are starting to become concerned about the privacy implications of Google Glass, namely that you could be talking to someone who, unbeknownst to you, is recording everything you say. Or maybe you aren't even talking to them; maybe they're just walking behind you in the street, or sitting next to you...

Will Blog for Swag

Why tech reporters should feel a little wrong about all that free stuff they're taking home

Flickr/ MDrX
Yesterday was Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developer conference. It’s where Google thinkers, technology journalists, and the genius programmers who make it all possible commune and geek out over the pixelated (and actual) buffet that awaits. It’s also the poor man’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual Apple event made famous by way of Steve Jobs’ puckish, turtleneck-clad theatrics, which left the whole world slavering for the newest iThing. But Steve is gone, as are his trademark presentation pyrotechnics. Google I/O, pushing incremental updates to Maps like it’s the second coming, is what we're left with. Google makes up for its lack of technological drama with a dramatic amount of swag. Last year at I/O the company gave away over $1,000 worth of smartphones, tablets, and other assorted Google-branded electronics. In a way it makes sense—Google developers should have the devices they are programming for, and developers create lots of apps for free, for the...

Schooling Richwine

The link between genetics and I.Q. is unclear, much less the link between genetics and race.

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low I.Q. of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response. Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions...

They Know What You're Doing

One guy's LinkedIn network visualized. (Flickr/Luc Legay)
The big social media sites all recommend people they think you should add to your network. In most cases, it's pretty obvious, at least on the surface, how the recommendation algorithm works; Twitter offers you a few people it suggests you follow, and says they're followed by people you already follow. But after joining LinkedIn a couple of years ago, I found its recommendations to be not just highly accurate, but disturbingly so. That isn't to say they don't recommend people I don't know, but often they'll recommend someone I do know, but I can't for the life of me figure out how they did it. Like hey, there's a woman I went on one date with in 1993, haven't spoken to since, and who knows no one I know. Why in god's name did they suggest her? There's the little brother of a guy I knew 15 years ago, and to whom I have no professional connection. How did he come up? It's particularly odd since I never use LinkedIn; my profile pretty much just sits there. The first couple of times it...

You Think We Have Lots of Guns Now...

The first working gun made (almost) entirely on a 3-D printer.
There's even more exciting gun news today, coming from a small nonprofit organization called Defense Distributed . They announced that they have successfully test-fired a gun made almost entirely in a 3-D printer. The only part that wasn't 3-D printed was the firing pin. And the bullet, of course. Now previously, people had made gun components in 3-D printers, but prior tests of entire weapons had been unsuccessful. This raises some rather troubling questions, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, here's their short video, which shows the firing and construction of the gun, inexplicably interspersed with shots of World War II-era bombers: They may call this thing "The Liberator," but it's a little too impractical to be able to liberate anyone at the moment. It's probably highly inaccurate, and it holds only one bullet. But this is more a proof-of-concept than anything else, and if you want to, you can go to their website and download the plans, then print one out on your own 3-D...

Cleaning Up the Airwaves

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin Tom Wheeler, President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Federal Communications Comission L ast week, President Obama announced he would nominate his good friend and venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Wheeler will replace another Obama good friend and venture capitalist, Julius Genachowski, who leaves in his wake an agency more embattled than ever. In announcing the nomination, the president noted that Wheeler is “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom or the Bo Jackson of telecom”; Wheeler was president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984, and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004. He is currently managing director of Core Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm, and he has been a prolific fundraiser for the president. By all accounts...

The STEM-Shortage Myth

Flickr/jasonandrebecca09
Flickr/jasonandrebecca09 The Economic Policy Institute published a report yesterday on the supposed shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). You've probably heard of the crisis by now. America is not producing enough STEM degrees. This will be the death of innovation and global competitiveness. We must reorient higher education to convert more liberal arts students into STEM students. And so on. The problem with this alleged crisis is that it is not real. As the EPI report lays bare, the common wisdom about our STEM problem is mistaken: We are not facing a shortage of STEM-qualified workers. In fact, we appear to have a considerable STEM surplus. Only half of students graduating with a STEM degree are able to find STEM jobs. Beyond that, if there was an actual shortage of STEM workers, basic supply and demand would predict that the wages of STEM workers would be on the rise. Instead, wages in STEM fields have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant...

Dissecting Donglegate

Flickr/Chuckumentary
Flickr/Chuckumentary When is a dick joke not just a dick joke? That’s the question at the heart of what’s being called “Donglegate,” the latest tech-industry skirmish in the ongoing battle over the sector's rampant sexism. The answer: When it's scientifically proven to impair a woman's ability to do her job. First, the basics: Tech professional Adria Richards was attending an industry conference called PyCon. Earlier that day, a fellow (male) attendee had made a joke to her about looking up women's skirts. She knew that such sexual comments were against PyCon's explicit community standards and tried to address it with him, to no avail. Later, when she heard some men sitting behind her cracking jokes about the size of their "dongles," she tried a different approach. She snapped a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with her location in the hall and a complaint about their behavior, to the attention of conference organizers. To their credit, PyCon officials took her tweet seriously...

The Internet's Patriot Act

flickr/IronCurtaiNYC
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File “I believe that it is very possible,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a rapt audience at Georgetown University earlier this month, “the next Pearl Harbor could be a cyber attack that would have one hell of an impact on the United States of America.” That’s a belief Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano shares—in January, she urged Congress not to “wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world” to act on cyber-security legislation. Subtle warnings, these are not. Over the past 12 months, hackers have broken into the networks of major news organizations, including The New York Times , The Washington Post , and The Wall Street Journal in a string of audacious security breaches. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that cyber-security incidents reported by federal agencies have risen 800 percent since 2006. Chinese hackers infiltrated the networks of nearly 800 U.S. companies and research institutions between 2000 and 2010,...

The Internet’s Patriot Act

flickr/IronCurtaiNYC
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File “I believe that it is very possible,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a rapt audience at Georgetown University earlier this month, “the next Pearl Harbor could be a cyber attack that would have one hell of an impact on the United States of America.” That’s a belief Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano shares—in January, she urged Congress not to “wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world” to act on cyber-security legislation. Subtle warnings, these are not. Over the past 12 months, hackers have broken into the networks of major news organizations, including The New York Times , The Washington Post , and The Wall Street Journal in a string of audacious security breaches. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that cyber-security incidents reported by federal agencies have risen 800 percent since 2006. Chinese hackers infiltrated the networks of nearly 800 U.S. companies and research institutions between 2000 and 2010,...

Augmented Reality Is Here, and It's Right on Your Face

You must be at least this cool to buy Google Glass.
There are some technological developments that come as a complete surprise, and some that are logical extrapolations of what we've had for a while, so obvious that we know we'll eventually get them, it's just a matter of the development of the necessary components. A wearable augmented reality device falls into the latter category. For years, we've been seeing sci-fi movies in which a character looks out at the world, or at a person, and sees a whole bunch of information pop up in front of his eyes (the best-known example is probably The Terminator , which came out in all the way back in 1984). But as of now, you can actually get one. Well, maybe not you specifically, but somebody. Google Glass, which is essentially a smartphone in the shape of a pair of glasses that are, depending on your perspective, totally cool-looking or remarkably dorky, is going on sale. You won't be able to go down to Target and buy a pair, though; for this first run, you have to actually apply to Google, and...

Pasting the Web

A recent flare-up over Twitter's URL shortener demonstrates one of the little ways we're letting the Internet get away from us. 

Flickr/The Next Web
Flickr/The Next Web S hort-linking—that act of repackaging ungainly, often ugly strings of letters, numbers, ampersands, and question marks into elegantly tiny URLs—has been around for more than a decade, but only gained mainstream traction with the 2006 launch of Twitter and its capping of tweet-length at 140 characters. While the mechanics are complicated, the short story about the recent techie flare-up over short-linking is that Twitter has moved away from third-party shorteners to its own , the use of which is now mandatory for all links shared directly on the service. For the uninitiated, here's an example: Long link for this piece: https://prospect.org/article/its-not-you-its-web Short link for this piece: http://ow.ly/hxzVa It's been a small shift, little noticed by most, but now that trading links on social media— Hey, check out this video of Hillary yelling at Republicans! —is a main feature of the Internet-connected world, short-links are part of the real fabric of the web...

I Can Haz Internet Freedom?

Michael Gottschalk/dapd
AP Photo/Matt Dunham) Anonymous supporters wearing Guy Fawkes masks hold a banner as they take part in a protest outside Britain's Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, November 5, 2012. The protest was held on November 5 to coincide with the failed 1605 gunpowder plot to blow up the House of Lords. T wo weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win—a twisted and distorted perversion of justice—a game where the only winning move was not to play. That message greeted visitors to the United States Sentencing Commission website the evening of January 25. The words were part of a ten-minute video manifesto embedded on the homepage of the commission, responsible for writing the sentencing policies and guidelines for federal courts. The death of the Internet savant and information activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life due at least in...

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...

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