Archive for October, 2008

12 billion pounds is a lot of money

October 22, 2008

Das überdatabase: Inside Wacky Jacqui’s motherbrain • The Register

he details of the accompanying Communications Data Bill will be opened to consultation in the new year, she said, with the aim of achieving consensus with “interested parties”. Smith was keen to emphasise the content of every phone, internet and mobile communication will not be harvested, but the details of who contacts whom, when and where. That distinction is likely be the cornerstone of attempts to sell IMP to MPs and a public wearied by the erosion of civil liberties and major government data losses.

Smith was clear that she won’t take “no” for an answer. “All this is a reflection of the technological and behavioural changes that the growth of the internet brings. Once again, that is not a Government policy which is somehow optional. It is a reality to which Government needs to respond,” she said.

I am beginning to assume that, as in the US, the british government has already been gathering this and other information unlawfully, and is so hellbent on this project so that it can regularize the situation on the q.t.

In addition to being an incredibly useful target for every criminal and terrorist on the planet (and almost useless for its alleged purpose), a database like this would almost certainly capture far more information than is claimed. Just as more information travels in URLs than just site locations (think Google query strings), more information also travels across telephone routing networks than just origin/destination and datestamps. The whole point of SMS, for example, is to put the whole of a message — sender, addressee, text — in a single packet. It would be a lot of extra work to strip that out…

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Want! [flexible display]

October 22, 2008

AVS 55th International Symposium & Exhibition, Paper TF-ThA1

Metal foils as thin as 25 mm have been used and planarization process has been developed. Another key challenge is to develop a flexible thin film permeation barrier. OLEDs degrade as a result of exposure to atmospheric oxygen and water. Working with Professor Wagner’s team at Princeton University, we have identified a flexible, highly impermeable barrier layer that is deposited from environmentally-friendly and inexpensive precursors in a single-chamber reactor. The lifetime of OLEDs encapsulated with the layers exceeds the industrial target of 1,000 hours and also the lifetime of conventionally sealed glass packaged OLEDs.
….
We will…present recent results on ultra-thin (< 50 μm) flexible OLED displays. Flexibility results on these displays show that they operate when conformed to a tight diameter of only 5 mm.

If you read between the lines, the 1000-hour benchmark (which would be about a year of evening TV watching, or quite possibly the working life of a cellphone) is a lower limit, since they compare the results favorably to glass encapsulation (several thousand hours).

But what I really want to know is how this thing responds to repeated rolling and unrolling. Because if you can roll it up to 5mm diameter, that’s pretty much a fat pencil that unrolls into a book-sized display.

blinkenlights networks

October 22, 2008

Shining a light on wireless networks

The research is looking at piggybacking data on low-power light emitting diodes (LEDs). It is hoped that this “Smart Lighting” would be faster and more secure than current network technology.

“Imagine if your computer, iPhone, TV, radio and thermostat could all communicate with you when you walked in a room just by flipping the wall light switch and without the usual cluster of wires,” said BU Engineering Professor Thomas Little.

“This could be done with an LED-based communications network that also provides light – all over existing power lines with low power consumption, high reliability and no electromagnetic interference. Ultimately, the system is expected to be applicable from existing illumination devices, like swapping light bulbs for LEDs.”

The ability to rapidly turn LED lights on and off – so fast the change is imperceptible to the human eye – is key to the technology. Flickering light in patterns enables data transmission without any noticeable change in room lighting.

I don’t care so much about faster and more secure as I do about ubiquitous and space-limited. Imagine how nice it would be to have a local network that was really local, and that anything coming into a room could tap into. It’s basically the smart badges from Xerox PARC in 1990, only without nearly as much overhead.

And it also has some really serious possibilities for plug-and-play with all the things that are now or ever will be controlled by optical remotes…

Places no one should want to live

October 22, 2008

Eschaton

Where the economics of land prices have run smack into stupid zoning and land use policies.

Rockville Pike between the NIH and downtown Rockville is an ugly mess of an edge city. Like Tysons, it has too much density to be truly car friendly, but all the ugliness of suburbia: strip malls set back behind acres of surface parking.

Essentially these are the worst of both worlds kind of places, dense enough to have the unpleasant aspects of density but without the sensible land use policies which would allow the good effects of density to appear.

I’m not confident than many of them can be sensibly reshaped, but the ones which probably can be are the ones which are on a decent transit line. Access to mass transit reduces car dependency at least for some, as if someone in your household can use it to commute you can have one fewer car.

For places like Tysons, I’m not sure whether it’s transit lines to elsewhere that will make a difference. What they need is transit lines so that you can get pretty much anywhere out your front door, or from one store to another without getting in a car. Tysons has pretty much whatever kind of food, retail, service businesses and so forth you might want within no more than a mile of what high-density housing there is. But you can’t get there without navigating one or two limited-access highways, parking anywhere up to a quarter of a mile from your destination, hoofing it, and then reversing the process when you’re done.

What’s needed to make places like that livable with less car is some kind of trolley grid — start with just a series of horizontal elevators that slash the time to get to or from the boundaries of each parking lot, then expand with service along the strips and across the roads (bus, trolley, monorail, self-driving pod, zipcar, who the heck cares) and at least you won’t have the constant traffic of cars going two miles to get to places half a mile apart, and then back. Then play with some tax and zoning policies to encourage the notion that people living in all that ugly housing actually work in the vicinity instead of 30 miles away and vice versa, and you’d have the beginning of something that didn’t suck.

Oh, and all the pedestrian and mass-transit overpasses would look really cool, like a city of the future should…

Tough Call

October 19, 2008

Stayin’ Alive with CPR – Keeping CPR Time with the Bee Gees

The University of Illinois medical school studied the effect the song had on keeping time during CPR. Five weeks after practicing CPR with the song playing on an iPod, doctors at the medical school were able to hum along without the music and keep time just a little bit faster than 100 per minute, which is perfectly fine when we’re talking about chest compressions.

First, I’m surprised that anyone, even a young doctor in love, would be able to hit the tempo accurately under stress. Second, would it be worth having that song burned into your brain forever, just for a less-than-50-50 chance of saving a life?

Oh, the indescribable pain

October 16, 2008

Bloomberg.com: News

Paulson, 62, will bar companies participating in the stock-purchase program and Treasury purchases of toxic bank assets from offering so-called golden parachutes. Severance of more than three times an executive’s base pay won’t be tax-deductible for the company, and the recipient will be subject to an extra 20 percent tax on the money, according to the Treasury.

First, high salaries won’t be tax-deductible to the corporation (big whoop for the ones who have lost a few billion lately), and now the recipient of a golden parachute will have to pay a whole 20% surcharge? It’s a good thing none of these companies have the standard executive-compensation boilerplate that commits them to increase any amount paid to cover additional taxes.

Oh, wait.

Nonvoting stock, no seat on the board, no dilution, and they still say we should be grateful the banks “accepted” our free money. No wonder the market is still tanking.

The morphing tattoos are also here

October 14, 2008

Presenting the Latest in ATM Scam Gear: The SMS-Sending Card Skimmer

So now, if he’s got $8,500 to drop on the top of the line scam gear, the asshole who just jacked your card number and PIN doesn’t even have to come back to the scene of the crime to retrieve it.

The folks at Zero Day uncovered a bunch of promotional material for the SMS-capable skimmer, which can send up to 1,856 coded numbers via a standard GSM SIM card for 24 hours on a single charge. The skimmer replaces an ATM’s normal card reader, and is even painted with the exact same pigments and techniques used by the real manufacturer.

Organized crime tampers with European card swipe devices • The Register

Brenner told The Daily Telegraph that criminals have doctored chip and PIN machines either during manufacturing in China or shortly after leaving the production line in order to send shopper credit card account details overseas. The devices were then expertly resealed and exported to Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium.

Hundreds of devices have been copying credit and debit card details over the past nine months and sending the data by way of mobile phone networks to tech-savvy criminals in Lahore, Pakistan, The Telegraph reports.

MasterCard International has alerted stores in affected areas and determined doctored devices can most easily be revealed by virtue of weighing an extra three to four ounces due to the additional parts they contain. MasterCard first uncovered the plot at the start of the year after detecting suspicious charges to British and other European accounts.

We all really are living in a low-rent cyberpunk novel. The only reason we (fsvo “we”) don’t generally notice it is that anyone such things happen to on a regular basis is done for in fairly short order. (If your chance of surviving a given day is 99/100, your chance of surviving a whole year is about 1/40.)

Do it to ourselves before the terrorists do

October 14, 2008

Government will spy on every call and e-mail – Times Online

Ministers are considering spending up to £12 billion on a database to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain.

Officials claim live monitoring is necessary to fight terrorism and crime. However, critics question whether such a vast system can be kept secure. A total of 57 billion text messages were sent in the UK last year – 1,800 every second.

Just for perspective, 12 billion pounds is about the property damage done by the destruction of the WTC. So if you do it pre-emptively, you can stop terrorists from doing it. Maybe.

Oh, and you can build a data store and search infrastructure that will be the highest-value target any group of black hats could ever have asked for.

Government investment?

October 13, 2008

The Reality-Based Community

Bill Clinton tried this in 1992, talking of new government investments, and was ridiculed by Republicans saying he just wanted to spend. But of course we all know that there is a big difference between using $50,000 to go on a vacation and using it to pay for a couple of years of college. Similarly, there is a big difference between investing in a nationwide broadband capacity or high-speed rail, and, say, spending a half trillion dollars in Iraq.

How could budget policy be changed to do this and do it right–and get the public to understand it?

People have been talking about this for 20 or 30 years, and it’s a hard problem. The sense I’ve gotten over the decades (and it may well be superficial) is that cash accounting for the government is like democracy: the worst possible system except for all the others.

The fundamental conundrum is that all government spending is in theory investment. You wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t think it would improve the common weal. (Sometimes measured in dollars of tax revenue, sometimes not, but that’s a bad metric to get started on.) Social Security is an investment in not having seniors starving to death (and also not having seniors be a terrible drag on individual progeny whose economic activity would be curtailed). Interest on the national debt is an investment in preserving the government’s ability to borrow in the future. AFDC is an investment in the coming generation (and in not having trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure burned down every 20-30 years.) Defense is an investment in avoiding the costs of a full-scale war, and so on. That’s before you even get to “real” investments like education or research or highways, rail lines and power and telecommunications grids.

And among the “real” investments, there are some that will pay off, and others that will be make-work, like the Access Road to the nonexistent Bridge to Nowhere. In a lot of cases you’ll only be able to tell the difference 20 years later, or after your economic models get revised to tease out what contributes to what.

Figuring out some kind of model that distinguishes stuff that will pay off in increased GDP from stuff that won’t is technically difficult even in hindsight, and probably technically and politically intractable as a forecasting/budgeting tool. (Just look at the arguments over the high, low and middle scenarios for social security.)

But wait, it gets worse. As with the Bridge to Nowhere, once certain classes of government expenditure get treated as “investment” there will be huge incentives to shoehorn everything possible into those categories (think of the way that security-synthesizers gamed the bond-rating system, or the way that tax advisors game the IRS code). So the models would have to be adjusted on an almost continual basis, which is even less politically or technically tractable than agreeing on a model in the first place.

This reminds me a little of what some people at the Federal Reserve once said about their forecasting tools: if some index turns out to be really accurate at predicting inflation or recessions, it will shortly thereafter stop being accurate because the Fed will use the index to do its job and prevent the inflations or recessions from happening.

All we need is more wise men

October 13, 2008

BBC NEWS | Business | US banking regulation ‘outdated’

“We’ve got a 21st century financial services marketplace and a 19th century regulatory model,” Mr Pitt says.

“I think we need much more capability in the hands of government to act decisively and smoothly when glitches in our markets occur to ensure there’s transparency, to ensure our regulators have real risk management capacity to spot trends and problems before they become crises,” he told BBC Business Daily.

That would be the Harvey Pitt for whom USA Today ran this sidebar at the time of his resignation:

Some of Harvey Pitt’s stumbles:
July: Pitt, apparently without consulting the White House, asks that the SEC be elevated to Cabinet status with a pay raise for the chairman.
Oct. 3: House Democrats criticize Pitt for reportedly meeting with the chairman of Goldman Sachs, which is under SEC investigation.
Oct. 9: Democratic leaders ask President Bush to remove Pitt, saying he is caving in to the accounting industry by opposing John H. Biggs as head of a new accounting oversight board.
Oct. 31: The SEC orders an investigation into the selection of William Webster to head the accounting board after reports that Pitt withheld information from other SEC commissioners about Webster’s involvement with a company now facing fraud charges.