Posted tagged ‘internet’

Only (Dis)Connect

June 9, 2011

News today of the essence of your modern GOP:  the Wisconsin legislature’s joint finance committee just passed a measure that would:

(A) force the University of Wisconsin to give back $39 million in federal funds to support the spread of high speed internet across the state…

(B) would essentially kill the nonprofit internet provider network that serves most of Wisconsin’s public schools and almost all of its libraries.  Oh, and

(C):

“Another provision in the plan would bar any University of Wisconsin campus from participating in advanced networks connecting research institutions worldwide, according to [state superintendent of public instruction] Tony Evers’s memo.”

Which is to say that the University of Wisconsin researchers would be materially hampered in conducting research in any field that involves significant amounts of data and the expertise of people more than a sneaker-net away.

The immediate stupidity of all this is, I think, obvious.

So for the rest of this, I’ll just dive into a couple of the broader implications of this latest folly.

First:  this is the Pawlenty doctrine in action.  No public action should be taken when a Google search reveals a private alternative, no matter how inadequate that substitute might be.

I’m not making that up.  This is how the those currently dominating Wisconsin — and GOP — politics framed this issue:

Republican lawmakers told the Wisconsin State Journal that the university should not be in the telecommunications business.

By this standard, of course, Wisconsin should simply shutter the University of Wisconsin, or rather, eliminate all state support for the institions; after all, the University of Phoenix provides a private sector alternative.  Hell — why should taxpayers subsidize drivers on I 94 heading to Madison from Milwaukee; why not convert the whole system to toll-supported private ownership? After all, private enterprise seeks nothing more than simple equity:

Telecommunications companies themselves cast the debate as a question of competition. Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, was quoted on Channel3000 saying that WiscNet should  be allowed to run only without financial support from the University of Wisconsin.“WiscNet can continue to offer services, but in the future they are just going to do that on a more level playing field with the private-sector options that already exist,” Mr. Esbeck said.

Because, of course, everyone knows that the unfettered free market in US telecom services has left us with bleeding edge internet access. Or not.

This is what’s at stake in the political debate right now, so starkly expressed that even the MSM should be able to figure this one out.

The Republican party and its supporters reject the idea of the commonweal.  Outside of defense (and subsidies for the most comfortable) there is nothing a modern society could need — no infrastructure, no common good — that a government should provide.

Really:  education, transportation infrastructure, knowledge-making, the weather service, parks:  you name it, and there is a private alternative, and no matter whether it costs more or does less, or puts individuals or the nation at risk, private = better.

Sadly, though, that means  the entire GOP argument about government, debt, deficits and the economy turns on a false “fact.”

That’s the “fact” that the market for all kinds of goods and services is the ideal “free market” — the economists’ spherical cow — populated by that Randian hero, the perfectly rational economic actor.  Never mind that what Ec. 10 courses define as a free market exist for a very small number of transactions in the real world, nor that buckets of Nobels have been handed out lately to economists who realized that all kinds of factors — features of economic activity and intrinsic qualities of human nature — produce a world of folks engaged in exchange who do qualify as god-like, always-reasoning beings.

Which is to say that in the best reading, our Republican friends are simply mired in fantasy…

…or else, (and more likely IMHO, that many or perhaps most of the leadership is simply bought and paid for by the usual suspects.

In any event, the distinctino doesn’t really matter.  Whatever is going on inside the heads of Walker and the Fitzgeralds, or the Boehner’s and all the rest, the end result is the same:  current GOP thinking and action both transfers public goods to private hands to the net detriment of the citizenry as a whole…

…while directly threatening the future wealth and power of Wisconsin — in this case — and the United States as a whole.

Which is my second point.  Just to focus on the seemingly minor point of crimping the University of Wisconsin’s need for speed in its internet:  cutting off these funds action  it harder for any citizen of Wisconsin to learn, to research, to advance their ideas in schools or for a business idea or whatever. That’s what it means when you maim internet access at public libraries:  over the years a less-informed, less data-practiced citizenry is no asset to a state.  In time, Wisconsin will enjoy some difficult-to-quantify — but real — loss of good jobs, of new enterprises, probably of population.  It will be a poorer place.

And that effect will be magnified by the direct damage to basic and applied research done right now by limiting the return on Wisconsin’s enormously hard-won stock of human capital at the universities.

I hope to blog later today on a couple of stories of research and researchers that have made exceptional use of big data and the connections to be forged between different bodies of knowledge and people with diverse expertise. But for now, what matters is that such work is increasingly the cutting edge of a whole range of scientific and technological research initiatives.  And the one thing required for such work is access to a robust network. This is what the Wisconsin Republican-led legislature is targeting, with a determination that extends to turning down other people’s money.

The states really are the laboratories in which the future of our nation is being tried…so look to Wisconsin to see what could happen in a wholly GOP led United States.

There we see in microcosm how it is that empires die:   first they sell themselves off to the highest bidders. Then they crumble.

The Republican party cannot be trusted with even a whiff of power.  We have a lot to do over the next year and a half.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Images:  Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century

 

Program Notes: Technology Review/Former Student Props edition

October 26, 2008

A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.

First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005.  It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.

I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to.  Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions.  (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.)   He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.

Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.”  Erica Naone is another one of our stars.  She graduated from our program in 2007.  This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain  language names, the DNS monikers like “inversesquare.wordpress.com” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named.  That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.

While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground.  There be dragons out there.*

On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)

The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge.  A must read, IMHO.

(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources.  I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here.  The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail.  I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research.  She demanded a published source.  I asked if my own book would do.  She said yes.  Sic.)

*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.”  I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds.  Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.

Image:  J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.

(Stolen Tag Line alert): The Way We Live Now

March 25, 2008

Read this. (h/t Grace).

Partly, this is just to wallow in the horror of the contemporary mediastream.

But this is, obliquely, another response to Sean Carroll’s advice to scientists confronting science journalists.  My sober reaction to that post can be found below, but the horror contained in Gene Weingarten’s ordeal gets at the much bigger problem facing public communication of science.

Who the hell is going to hear it amidst all that noise?

That’s certainly a problem for science on TV, something with which I’ve had some experience.  When I started at NOVA in 1986, there were, really, just four networks:  the commercial webs and PBS.  On PBS, at least two, and often more of the fifteen weekday primetime hours were devoted to science.  Not a lot — but actually visible in the schedule.  Throw in a couple more on average, what with specials and limited series, and you’d get something like 4 hours per 60 for all four national broadcast soures as a minimum.

Now, with my cheapest-possible-digital cable, I have about 60 channels at my disposal.  None of them, with one possible exception, are all-science channels.  Except for my local PBS outlet, very few run much science or tech at all.  The signal to noise ratio has gotten much worse in 20-odd years, and even PBS  has seen an erosion of its high profile science portfolio.

And so on.  The litany of lost print jobs for science writers is an old one.  The science blogosphere is a help, an entirely new source of science news and opinion — but I’ll offer the heresy that pull media has more impact on its users and less impact on the culture than ubiquitous push offerings.  (I.e. — those who trouble to read blog posts get a lot out of them; but a nationally broadcast series like Cosmos has the ability to change thinking in a much more culture-moving way because it reachs people who do not self select in the same way.)

All of which is a long way round to saying, somewhat glumly, that to some extent the good advice that Sean provides, and the various addenda with which his commenters enriched the stew seem to me on bad days like rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic.  On good days, it makes me think that we actually need to conceive of our stories somewhat differently.  For an example I’ll blog about as soon as I move my book revision forward some:  take this article from Friday’s NYT, about resistance to childhood vaccination, and ask yourself what’s missing from this not-bad report?

Image: Pieter Breugel the Elder, “Tower of Babel,” 1563.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.