Category Archive 'Technology'
23 Jun 2018

The American Character

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I was looking through the archives of my blog, looking for a book reference I’d forgotten, when I found this old column from Fred on Everything which demands republishing.

Fred Reed looks at what has become of the American character.

Americans tend to regard their national character as comprising such things as freedom, independence, individualism, and self-reliance…

In fact we no longer have these qualities and probably never will again. Generally we now embody their opposites. Modern society has become a hive of largely conformist, closely regulated and generally helpless employees who depend on others for nearly everything. The cause is less anything particularly American than the technology that governs our lives. The United States just moves faster in the direction in which the civilized world moves.

Character springs from conditions. Consider a farmer in, say, North Carolina in 1850. He was free because there was little government, self-reliant because what he couldn’t do for himself didn’t get done, independent because, apart from a few tools, he made or grew all he needed, and an individualist because, there being little outside authority, he could do as he pleased.

All of that is gone, and will not return. Freedom has given way to an infinite array of laws, rules, regulations, licenses, forms, requirements. Many make sense, may even be desirable in a complex world, don’t necessarily make for a bad life, but they cannot be called freedom. Various governments determine what our children learn, whether we can paint the shutters, who we must sell our houses to, who we can hire, what we can say if we want to keep our jobs, where we can park, and whether and how we can build an outbuilding.

People who live infinitely controlled lives become accustomed to such control. Obedience becomes natural…

Individualism has withered under the pressure of the mass media and a distaste for eccentricity. Self-reliance died long ago. We depend on others to repair our cars, grow our food, fix the refrigerator, and write our operating systems. The habit of reliance on others has reached the point that even the right of self-defense has come to be regarded as wrong-minded…

Most poignantly, we are become a nation of employees, fearful of losing our jobs. Prisoners of the retirement system, afraid of transgressing against the various governing bodies before whom we are helpless, unable to feed ourselves, we are at least comfortable. We are not masters of our lives.

Dense populations and the complexity of machines and institutions lead inevitably to regulation, which leads to acceptance of regulation and therefore of authority, which becomes part of the national character. This we see. In my lifetime the change has been great. In rural Virginia in the Sixties, you could walk down the road with your rifle to shoot beer cans, swim in the creeks without supervision and life guards and “flotation devices” approved by the Coast Guard, and generally be left alone. Now, no. Regimentation has grown like kudzu. We obey. The new generation knows nothing else..

At the moment we see a great increase in regulation in the guise of preventing terrorism. Other pretexts could have been found and, I suspect, would have been: fighting crime or the war on drugs or something. The result might have been a drift rather than a headlong rush toward control. But sooner or later, technology determines politics. The computer, not the Constitution, is primary.

I suspect that the concern about terrorism is just a particular manifestation of a growing obsession with safety. Not too long ago, Americans were a hardy breed—foolhardy at times, but the one comes with the other. Now we see attempts to eliminate all risk everywhere. Cities fill in the deep ends of swimming pools and remove diving boards. We require that bicyclists wear helmets, fear second-hand smoke and the violence that is dodge ball. Warnings abound against going outside without sun block. To anyone who grew up in the Sixties or before, the new fearfulness is incomprehensible.

The explanation I think is the feminization of society, which seems to be inseparable from modernity. The nature of masculinity is to prize freedom over security; of femininity, security over freedom. Add that the American character of today powerfully favors regulation by the group in preference to individual choice. Note that we do not require that cars be equipped with seat belts and then let individuals decide whether to use them; we enforce their use. The result is compulsory Mommyism, very much a part of today’s America.

Does technological civilization inevitably lead to totalitarianism? Certainly the general fear, in combination with technology, makes a sort of soft Stalinism easy. Just now we move toward national ID cards, smuggled in by linking records of drivers’ licenses. Passports, scanned and linked to data bases, provide a record of our travels. Security cameras proliferate. Some of them read the license plates of all passing cars. Email can be monitored, phones easily and undetectably tapped. Now the government is experimenting with X-ray scanners for airports that provide near-pornographic images of passengers. Whether these will be used for dictatorial ends remains to be seen. Historians may one day note that surveillance, when possible, is inevitable.

What then is the national character today? I think we are first an obedient people. We submit. We are comfortable with authority, and seem to be most comfortable when we are told what to do. We prize security, safety, and predictability. Increasingly we accept being treated like convicts at airports and elsewhere. We want to be taken care of. We can do few things for ourselves. We expect government to decide much that was once regarded as outside of government’s ambit. And we are to the marrow of our bones incapable of rising against the creeping tyranny.

Too bloody true, alas!

26 Apr 2018

Jaron Lanier Regrets His Own Role in Creating Digital Maoism

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Jaron Lanier tells New York Magazine how Big Internet Tech Companies went wrong.

We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won. But we don’t act like it.

We have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness having won. We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know? …

when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling. It’s a very strange thing. The numbers show an economy that’s doing well, but the reality is that the way it’s doing well doesn’t give many people a feeling of security or confidence in their futures. It’s like everybody’s working for Uber in one way or another. Everything’s become the gig economy. And we routed it that way, that’s our doing. There’s this strange feeling when you just look outside of the tight circle of Silicon Valley, almost like entering another country, where people are less secure. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t think it’s worth it, I think we’re wrong to want that feeling.

It’s not so much that they’re doing badly, but they have only labor and no capital. Or the way I used to put it is, they have to sing for their supper, for every single meal. It’s making everyone else take on all the risk. It’s like we’re the people running the casino and everybody else takes the risks and we don’t. That’s how it feels to me. It’s not so much that everyone else is doing badly as that they’ve lost economic capital and standing, and momentum and plannability. It’s a subtle difference. …

I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.

And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.

It’s this thing that we were warned about. It’s this thing that we knew could happen. Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics, warned about it as a possibility. And despite all the warnings, and despite all of the cautions, we just walked right into it, and we created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks. We did it out of this desire to be both cool socialists and cool libertarians at the same time.

RTWT

17 Feb 2018

Peter’s Desktop Clean-up

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I know someone who wanted to optimize his PC, so he formatted C:.

11 Feb 2018

George Gilder On Technology

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George Gilder

Forbes interviews Gilder on the future of Big Tech.

Q: One of your lifelong theories, which reaches back to your 1980s bestsellers https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1596988096?ie=UTF8 and The Spirit of Enterprise, is the role of the human spirit and human agency, something economists and governments don’t see or don’t want to acknowledge.

Gilder: It’s the greatest of all forces. Think about what’s going on in the U.S. today, particularly in our university system. As Tyler Cowen describes in his book The Complacent Class, we’ve adopted a kind of ideology of cautionary principles and stationary states. He really puts his finger on it. We’re not living in an age of boldness and abundance, but in an age of retrenchment and shrinking horizons and careful rearrangements of existing resources. A lot of it is epitomized by this whole idea that unless human beings stop moving, the climate’s going to collapse on us.

The climate-change paralysis has been very destructive, not only to our national economy but particularly to Silicon Valley. Every time I find a company that’s doing everything right, I discover a peculiar feature of its technology that’s designed chiefly to stop it from emitting carbon dioxide. And that feature twists the technology into a pretzel, making it less useful and less promising. Take Google. It’s making an elaborate effort to render all of its massive data centers around the world “carbon-neutral.” They’re all linked up to various druidical Sunhenges of solar panels or quixotic kites or windmills. I mean, that’s some archaic way to produce energy!

I think we’re really in the middle of a loss of confidence, a loss of courage that is expressed and perpetrated by a massive expansion in regulations. This began in the Bush era, was vastly expanded during the Obama years, but has now been marginally retrenched. My hope is that the Trump retrenchment signals a truly new approach to the world and the human predicament.

16 Jan 2018

Every Male Still Dating Needs This App

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I’d buy this app today, if I were young and unmarried.

Metro:

App creates contracts for one night stands to ‘prove’ sex is consensual.

Ever thought casual sex would be a lot easier if there was a legally binding contract proving consent?

Well, as it’s 2018, there’s now an app for that.

Let’s say you’ve met someone in a bar, you get along and it looks like you might be going home together.

To make sure the sex you want to have is consensual, all you do is open up an app and send a request like you would a message on Whatsapp.

The app in question is LegalFling which claims to be filling a void in the minefield that is dating.

25 May 2017

This is India — The Place You Call When You Have Technical Problems

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12 Apr 2017

When Humans First Daubed Arrows With Poison

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The Conversation:

When did human beings start tipping their weapons with poison to hunt prey? This is a question at the forefront of recent archaeological research.

In southern Africa San (or Bushman) hunter-gatherer groups, such as the /Xam of the Western Cape and the Ju/wasi and Hei//om of Namibia, used poisoned arrows for hunting during the 19th and 20th centuries. The origins of this technology, though, may be far older than we thought.

Recently, traces of the poison ricin were found on a 24 000 year-old wooden poison applicator at Border Cave in South Africa’s Lebombo mountains. If this identification is correct it would mean that people in southern Africa were among the first in the world to harness the potential of plant-based poisons.

RTWT

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

27 Jan 2017

Harvard Guys Make Metallic Hydrogen

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The Independent reports:

For nearly 100 years, scientists have dreamed of turning the lightest of all the elements, hydrogen, into a metal.

Now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy, scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in creating a tiny amount of what is the rarest, and possibly most valuable, material on the planet, they reported in the journal Science.

For metallic hydrogen could theoretically revolutionise technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains and ultra-efficient vehicles and dramatically improving almost anything involving electricity.

And it could also allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.

But the prospect of this bright future could be at risk if the scientists’ next step – to establish whether the metal is stable at normal pressures and temperatures – fails to go as hoped.

Professor Isaac Silvera, who made the breakthrough with Dr Ranga Dias, said: “This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics.

“It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

At the moment the tiny piece of metal can only be seen through two diamonds that were used to crush liquid hydrogen at a temperature far below freezing.

The amount of pressure needed was immense – more than is found at the centre of the Earth.

The sample has remained trapped in this astonishing grip, but sometime in the next few weeks, the researchers plan to carefully ease the pressure.

According to one theory, metallic hydrogen will be stable at room temperature – a prediction that Professor Silvera said was “very important”.

“That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remains a diamond when that pressure and heat is removed,” he said.

If this is true, then its properties a super-conductor could dramatically improve anything that uses electricity.

“As much as 15 per cent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story,” the scientist said.

And metallic hydrogen could also transform humanity’s efforts to explore our solar system by providing a form of rocket fuel nearly four times more powerful than the best available today.

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,” Professor Silvera said.

“And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so it would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.

“That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets.

“We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important.”

However some scientists have theorised that metallic hydrogen will be unstable on its surface and so would gradually decay.

Asked what he thought would happen, Professor Silvera said: “I don’t want to guess, I want to do the experiment.”

Complete story.

03 Jan 2017

System Updates

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21 Sep 2016

You Know How Kids Get a Kick Out of It When Older People Can’t Handle Technology?

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27 Aug 2016

World’s Oldest Revolver, 1636 not 1597

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You are thinking “the Colt Patterson of 1836,” aren’t you?

This video and stories all over the Internet attribute this 8-shot very early flintlock revolver on the basis of the maker’s mark to Hans Stopler of Nuremburg, who apparently began working in 1597. They then date the weapon to 1597, despite the plaque listing its owner as Georg von Reichwein dated 1636.

1636 is early enough for me, making the date of the production of the first revolver an even 200 years before Samuel Colt’s Patterson model.

Hat tip to Guns America.

10 Jul 2016

The Intentional Obsolescence Trap

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My wife and I bought a new BMW in the early 1980s (Our first new car!). It was terrific, fun to drive, luxurious and reliable. We sold it about ten years later. It had over 350,000 miles on the original engine.

We bought another new Beemer more recently. I discovered, too late, that it came with run-flat tires (no traction at all on gravel roads –Virginia Horse Country is full of gravel roads, and we lived on one–, accompanied by constant false electronic warnings of low tire pressure) which proved good for 10,000 miles. The run-flat tires were used because BMW (encouraged by government bureaucrats to save energy by reducing weight) had chosen to eliminate the spare tire.

What really burned my cork, though, was the discovery that the engine had no dipstick, no way to check the oil. The owner is intended to rely entirely on the dashboard computer, the same computer that issues “The World Is Ending! The Sky Is Falling! Your Engine Has Blown Up!” warnings in very cold weather, or anytime (easily) blocked engine or trunk compartment drains cause wiring to get wet.

I’ve recognized myself the same characteristics of modern consumer products Oilman2 inveighs against. I agree with him. I’ve been swearing lately that my next automobile is going to have been made on the other side of 1960, back when cars were made out of steel, not plastic, and had distributors and carburetors you could adjust yourself and no goddamned computers or emissions crap.

When you buy a car, it is designed for a maximum lifespan of about 10 years, but many are designed with even less. This gives the “design engineer” a window of materials within which he can operate. As an example, cars from the 1950’s used metal dashboards. Now, many reasons are given for why plastic and foam dashboards are currently used, including safety. But I will posit here that the safety was secondary and a great sales driver for using a lower cost material. …

Have you ever owned a car you wanted to keep, only to have the dashboard crack? The air conditioning vents crack? The control knobs crack? That is UV light doing what it does, breaking things down by shattering chemical bonds. …

As a long term material, plastic… well, it just sucks. …

My buddy George was lamenting to me just the other day that the starter on his tractor has a plastic gear that contacts and spins the flywheel. Yep – it goes out very regularly. He asked them why they no longer made a metal one, and was told that the plastic design “put less stress and wear on the flywheel”. Seriously? Really? A part that is truly designed to fail regularly, to protect another metal part that rarely, if ever, fails? I have replaced ONE (1) flywheel in my almost 60 years, and it was damaged by an idiot that just kept cranking a worn out starter. …

In a world where things cost what they are actually worth, it is nuts to knowingly buy anything you will be forced to purchase again in a few years. Today, things do not cost what they are worth – they are cheap, built cheaply with minimal cost materials and minimal standards. They are built in what I term ‘justenuf’ style – justenuf to work for a job or two. They are cheap in America due to the strong dollar as well, further fueling this morass of planned obsolescence, cheap plastic junk and ‘justenuf construction’. …

So my advice is pretty simple:

Buy items that you can repair

This may mean buying older things and restoring them to service. A 1960’s or earlier vehicle will be restorable for a cost of around $10-20,000. What does a new vehicle cost? Can you work on it yourself? Nope, so how much does a trip to the shop cost you? Minimum $500 for the easy things – easily 2x or 3x that for more difficult parts replacement.

What about a lawn mower? Easily $500 or more for something reliable like a Honda or a Husqvarna. A rebuilt one with fresh motor can be had for $300 or less – I see them at the same shops I used to take my mower to for service.

Buy items that have simple, reliable designs

Anything with an ECU (electronic control unit or computer control) is not normally fixable by a guy with some tools. This is intentional, to force you back to the dealer system for service. Anything with computer or digital controls is likely designed in similar vein. Is it really necessary to have touchpad controls and a logic board on a washing machine? To have a refrigerator that has a grocery list linked to your I-phone?

Every time digital is added to a device, the cost goes up for the initial purchase, but the maintenance and repair costs skyrocket. There is little difference in the mechanics internally – freon and compressor for a fridge or freezer and timing circuits and solenoids for the washer. The ‘digital’ end is another level of complexity tacked on to make a common item appear more “tech-ish” and new again.

Buy new items with fewer tech features – reduce points of failure.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Vanderleun.

18 Jun 2016

Criticism

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XKCD1

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

05 Jun 2016

Artificial Following Nature

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HypodermicNeedle
CobraFang
Above: the tip of a hypodermic syringe needle.
Below: the tip of a fang from the Monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia).

Both are designed to pierce the skin and admit fluids into the bloodstream, although it is often the case that the intended effects are polar opposites.

Artificial designs frequently imitate those of nature; in this case, mankind was approximately 25 million years late.

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