Category Archives: Idea Soup

Your Digital Privacy? It May Already Be an Illusion

[div class=attrib]From Discover:[end-div]

As his friends flocked to social networks like Facebook and MySpace, Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information technology at Carnegie Mellon University, worried about the downside of all this online sharing. “The personal information is not particularly sensitive, but what happens when you combine those pieces together?” he asks. “You can come up with something that is much more sensitive than the individual pieces.”

Acquisti tested his idea in a study, reported earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He took seemingly innocuous pieces of personal data that many people put online (birthplace and date of birth, both frequently posted on social networking sites) and combined them with information from the Death Master File, a public database from the U.S. Social Security Administration. With a little clever analysis, he found he could determine, in as few as 1,000 tries, someone’s Social Security number 8.5 percent of the time. Data thieves could easily do the same thing: They could keep hitting the log-on page of a bank account until they got one right, then go on a spending spree. With an automated program, making thousands of attempts is no trouble at all.

The problem, Acquisti found, is that the way the Death Master File numbers are created is predictable. Typically the first three digits of a Social Security number, the “area number,” are based on the zip code of the person’s birthplace; the next two, the “group number,” are assigned in a predetermined order within a particular area-number group; and the final four, the “serial number,” are assigned consecutively within each group number. When Acquisti plotted the birth information and corresponding Social Security numbers on a graph, he found that the set of possible IDs that could be assigned to a person with a given date and place of birth fell within a restricted range, making it fairly simple to sift through all of the possibilities.

To check the accuracy of his guesses, Acquisti used a list of students who had posted their birth information on a social network and whose Social Security numbers were matched anon­ymously by the university they attended. His system worked—yet another reason why you should never use your Social Security number as a password for sensitive transactions.

Welcome to the unnerving world of data mining, the fine art (some might say black art) of extracting important or sensitive pieces from the growing cloud of information that surrounds almost all of us. Since data persist essentially forever online—just check out the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, the repository of almost everything that ever appeared on the Internet—some bit of seemingly harmless information that you post today could easily come back to haunt you years from now.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

Building an Interstate Highway System for Energy

[div class=attrib]From Discover:[end-div]

President Obama plans to spend billions building it. General Electric is already running slick ads touting the technology behind it. And Greenpeace declares that it is a great idea. But what exactly is a “smart grid”? According to one big-picture description, it is much of what today’s power grid is not, and more of what it must become if the United States is to replace carbon-belching, coal-fired power with renewable energy generated from sun and wind.

Today’s power grids are designed for local delivery, linking customers in a given city or region to power plants relatively nearby. But local grids are ill-suited to distributing energy from the alternative sources of tomorrow. North America’s strongest winds, most intense sunlight, and hottest geothermal springs are largely concentrated in remote regions hundreds or thousands of miles from the big cities that need electricity most. “Half of the population in the United States lives within 100 miles of the coasts, but most of the wind resources lie between North Dakota and West Texas,” says Michael Heyeck, senior vice president for transmission at the utility giant American Electric Power. Worse, those winds constantly ebb and flow, creating a variable supply.

Power engineers are already sketching the outlines of the next-generation electrical grid that will keep our homes and factories humming with clean—but fluctuating—renewable energy. The idea is to expand the grid from the top down by adding thousands of miles of robust new transmission lines, while enhancing communication from the bottom up with electronics enabling millions of homes and businesses to optimize their energy use.

The Grid We Have
When electricity leaves a power plant today, it is shuttled from place to place over high-voltage lines, those cables on steel pylons that cut across landscapes and run virtually contiguously from coast to coast. Before it reaches your home or office, the voltage is reduced incrementally by passing through one or more intermediate points, called substations. The substations process the power until it can flow to outlets in homes and businesses at the safe level of 110 volts.

The vast network of power lines delivering the juice may be interconnected, but pushing electricity all the way from one coast to the other is unthinkable with the present technology. That is because the network is an agglomeration of local systems patched together to exchange relatively modest quantities of surplus power. In fact, these systems form three distinct grids in the United States: the Eastern, Western, and Texas interconnects. Only a handful of transfer stations can move power between the different grids.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

Sex appeal

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

Having condemned hyper-sexualized culture, the American religious Right is now wildly pro-sex, as long as it is marital sex. By replacing the language of morality with the secular notion of self-esteem, repression has found its way back onto school curricula – to the detriment of girls and women in particular. “We are living through an assault on female sexual independence”, writes Dagmar Herzog.

“Waves of pleasure flow over me; it feels like sliding down a mountain waterfall,” rhapsodises one delighted woman. Another recalls: “It’s like having a million tiny pleasure balloons explode inside of me all at once.”

These descriptions come not from Cosmopolitan, not from an erotic website, not from a Black Lace novel and certainly not from a porn channel. They are, believe it or not, part of the new philosophy of the Religious Right in America. We’ve always known that sex sells. Well, now it’s being used to sell both God and the Republicans in one extremely suggestive package. And in dressing up the old repressive values in fishnet stockings and flouncy lingerie, the forces of conservatism have beaten the liberals at their own game.

Choose almost any sex-related issue. From pornography and sex education to reproductive rights and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, Americans have allowed a conservative religious movement not only to dictate the terms of conversation but also to change the nation’s laws and public health policies. And meanwhile American liberals have remained defensive and tongue-tied.

So how did the Religious Right – that avid and vocal movement of politicised conservative evangelical Protestants (joined together also with a growing number of conservative Catholics) – manage so effectively to harness what has traditionally been the province of the permissive left?

Quite simply, it has changed tactics and is now going out of its way to assert, loudly and enthusiastically, that, in contrast to what is generally believed, it is far from being sexually uptight. On the contrary, it is wildly pro-sex, provided it’s marital sex. Evangelical conservatives in particular have begun not only to rail against the evils of sexual misery within marriage (and the way far too many wives feel like not much more than sperm depots for insensitive, emotionally absent husbands), but also, in the most graphically detailed, explicit terms, to eulogise about the prospect of ecstasy.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

Manufactured scarcity

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

“Manufacturing scarcity” is the new watchword in “Green capitalism”. James Heartfield explains how for the energy sector, it has become a license to print money. Increasing profits by cutting output was pioneered by Enron in the 1990s; now the model of restricted supply together with domestic energy generation is promoted worldwide.

The corporate raiders of the 1980s first worked out that you might be able to make more money downsizing, or even breaking up industry than building it up. It is a perverse result of the profit motive that private gain should grow out of public decay. But even the corporate raiders never dreamt of making deindustrialisation into an avowed policy goal which the rest of us would pay for.

What some of the cannier Green Capitalists realised is that scarcity increases price, and manufacturing scarcity can increase returns. What could be more old hat, they said, than trying to make money by making things cheaper? Entrepreneurs disdained the “fast moving consumer goods” market.

Of course there is a point to all this. If labour gets too efficient the chances of wringing more profits from industry get less. The more productive labour is, the lower, in the end, will be the rate of return on investments. That is because the source of new value is living labour; but greater investment in new technologies tends to replace living labour with machines, which produce no additional value of their own.[2] Over time the rate of return must fall. Business theory calls this the diminishing rate of return.[3] Businessmen know it as the “race for the bottom” – the competitive pressure to make goods cheaper and cheaper, making it that much harder to sell enough to make a profit. Super efficient labour would make the capitalistic organisation of industry redundant. Manufacturing scarcity, restricting output and so driving up prices is one short-term way to secure profits and maybe even the profit-system. Of course that would also mean abandoning the historic justification for capitalism, that it increased output and living standards. Environmentalism might turn out to be the way to save capitalism, just at the point when industrial development had shown it to be redundant.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

Shopping town USA

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]
In the course of his life, Victor Gruen completed major urban interventions in the US and western Europe that fundamentally altered the course of western urban development. Anette Baldauf describes how Gruen’s fame rests mostly on the insertion of commercial machines into the decentred US suburbs. These so-called “shopping towns” were supposed to strengthen civic life and structure the amorphous, mono-functional agglomerations of suburban sprawl. Yet within a decade, Gruen’s designs had become the architectural extension of the policies of racial and gender segregation underlying the US postwar consumer utopia.

In 1943, the US American magazine Architectural Forum invited Victor Gruen and his wife Elsie Krummeck to take part in an exchange of visions for the architechtonic shaping of the postwar period. The editors of the issue, entitled Architecture 194x, appealed to recognised modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames to design parts of a model town for the year “194x”, in other words for an unspecified year, by which time the Second World War would have ended. The architects Gruen & Krummeck partnership were to design a prototype for a “regional shopping centre”. The editors specified that the shopping centre was to be situated on the outskirts of the city, on traffic island between two highways and would supplement the pedestrian zone down town. “How can shopping be made more inviting?”, the editors asked Gruen & Krummeck, who, at the time of the competition, were famous for their spectacular glass designs for boutiques on Fifth Avenue and for national department store chains on the outskirts of US cities.

The two architects responded to the commission to build a “small neighbourhood shopping centre” with a design that far exceeded the specified size and function of the centre. Gruen later explained that the project reflected the couple’s dissatisfaction with Los Angeles, where long distances between shops, regular traffic jams, and an absence of pedestrian zones made shopping tiresome work. Gruen and Krummeck saw in Los Angeles the blueprint of an “an automotive-rich postwar America”. Their counter-design was oriented towards the traditional main squares of European cities. Hence, they suggested two central structural interventions: first, the automobile and the shopper were to be assigned two distinct spatial units, and second, space for consumption and civic space were to be merged. Working to this premise, Gruen and Krummeck designed a centre that was organised around a spacious green square – with garden restaurants, milk bars, and music stands. The design integrated 28 shops and 13 public facilities; among the latter were a library, a post office, a theatre, a lecture hall, a night club, a nursery, a play room, and a pony stable.

The editors of Architectural Forum rejected Gruen’s and Krummeck’s design. They insisted upon a reduced “regional shopping centre” and urged the architects to rework their submission along these lines. Gruen and Krummeck responded with an adjustment that would later prove crucial: they abandoned the idea of a green square in the centre of the complex and suggested building a closed, round building made of glass. They surrounded the inwardly directed shopping complex with two rings. The first ring was to serve as a pedestrian zone, the second as a car park. This design also failed to please. George Nelson, the editor-in-chief, was scandalised and argued that by removing the central square, the space for sitting around and strolling was lost. For him, the shopping centre as closed space was inconceivable. Eventually, Gruen and Krummeck submitted a design for a conventional shopping centre with shops arranged in a “U” shape around a courtyard. Clearly, those that would celebrate the closed shopping centre a few years later were not yet active. It was only a decade later that Gruen was able to convince two leading department-store owners of the profitability of a self-enclosed shopping centre. Excluding cars, street traders, animals, and other potential disturbances, and supported by surveillance technology, the shopping mall would embody the ideal, typical values of suburban lifestyles – order, cleanliness, and safety. Public judgement of Gruen’s “architecture of introversion” fundamentally changed, then, in the course of the 1950s. What was it, exactly, that led to this revised evaluation of a closed, inwardly directed space of consumption?

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

France: return to Babel

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

Each nation establishes its borders, sometimes defines itself, certainly organises itself, and always affirms itself around its language, says Marc Hatzfeld. The language is then guarded by men of letters, by strict rules, not allowing for variety of expression. Against this backdrop, immigrants from ever more distant shores have arrived in France, bringing with them a different style of expression and another, more fluid, concept of language.

Today more than ever, the language issue, which might at one time have segued gracefully between pleasure in sense and sensual pleasure, is being seized on and exploited for political ends. Much of this we can put down to the concept of the nation-state, that symbolic and once radical item that was assigned the task of consolidating the fragmented political power of the time. During the long centuries from the end of the Middle Ages to the close of the Ancien Régime, this triumphant political logic sought to bind together nation, language and religion. East of the Rhine, for instance, this was particularly true of the links between nation and religion; West of the Rhine, it focused more on language. From Villers-Cotterêts[1] on, language – operating almost coercively – served as an instrument of political unification. The periodic alternation between an imperial style that was both permissive and varied when it came to customary practise, and the homogeneous and monolithic style adopted on the national front, led to constant comings and goings in the relationship between language and political power.

In France, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 resolved the relationship between nation and religion and gave language a more prominent role in defining nationality. Not long after, the language itself – by now regarded as public property – became a ward of state entitled to public protection. Taking things one step further, the eighteenth century philosophers of the Enlightenment conceived the idea of a coherent body of subject people and skilfully exploited this to clip the wings of a fabled absolute monarch in the name of another, equally mythical, form of sovereignty. All that remained was to organise the country institutionally. Henceforth, the idea that the allied forces of people, nation and language together made up the same collective history was pursued with zeal.

What we see as a result is this curious emergence of language itself as a concept. Making use of a fiction that reached down from a great height to penetrate a cultural reality that was infinitely more subtle and flexible, each nation establishes its borders, sometimes defines itself, certainly organises itself, and always affirms itself around its language. While we in Europe enjoy as many ways of speaking as there are localities and occupations, there are administrative and symbolic demands to fabricate the fantasy of a language that clerics and men of letters would appropriate to themselves. It is these who, in the wake of the politicians, help to eliminate the variety of ways people have of expressing themselves and of understanding one another. Some scholars, falling into what they fail to see is a highly politicised trap, complete this process by coming up with a scientific construct heavily dependent on the influence of mathematical theories such as those of de Saussure and, above all, of Jakobson. Paradoxically, this body of work relies on a highly malleable, mobile, elastic reality to develop the tight, highly structured concept that is “language” (Jacques Lacan). And from that point, language itself becomes a prisoner of Lacan’s own system – linguistics.
[div class=attrib]From theSource here.[end-div]

Can we say what we want?

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

The French satirical paper Charlie-Hebdo has just been acquitted of publicly insulting Muslims by reprinting the notorious Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet. Influential Islamic groups had sued it for inciting hatred. Is free speech really in danger worldwide?

The understanding and practices of freedom of expression are being challenged in the twenty-first century. Some of the controversies of the past year or so that have drawn worldwide attention have included the row over Danish cartoons seen as anti-Muslim, the imprisonment of a British historian in Austria for Holocaust denial, and disputes over a French law forbidding denial of the Armenian genocide.

These debates are not new: the suppression of competing views and dissent, and of anything deemed immoral, heretical, or offensive, has dominated social, religious, and political history. These have returned to the fore in response to the stimuli of the communication revolution and of the events of 9/11. The global reach of most of our messages, including the culturally and politically specific, has rendered all expressions and their controls a prize worth fighting for, even to the death. Does this imply that stronger restrictions on freedom of expression should be established?

Freedom of expression, including the right to access to information, is a fundamental human right, central to achieving individual freedoms and real democracy. It increases the knowledge base and participation within a society and can also secure external checks on state accountability.

Yet freedom of expression is not absolute. The extent to which expression ought to be protected or censored has been the object of many impassionate debates. Few argue that freedom of expression is absolute and suffers no limits. But the line between what is permissible and what is not is always contested. Unlike many others, this right depends on its context and its definition is mostly left to the discretion of states.

Under international human rights standards, the right to freedom of expression may be restricted in order to protect the rights or reputation of others and national security, public order, or public health or morals, and provided it is necessary in a democratic society to do so and it is done by law. This formulation is found in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under article 19, and in the European Convention on Human Rights.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

The concept of God – and why we don’t need it

[div class=attrib]From Eurozine:[end-div]

In these newly religious times, it no longer seems superfluous to rearm the atheists with arguments. When push comes to shove, atheists can only trust their reason, writes Burkhard Müller.

Some years ago I wrote a book entitled Drawing a Line – A Critique of Christianity [Schlußstrich – Kritik des Christentums], which argued that Christianity was false: not only in terms of its historical record, but fundamentally, as a very concept. I undertook to uncover this falsity as a contradiction in terms. While I do not wish to retract any of what I said at the time, I would now go beyond what I argued then in two respects.

For one thing, I no longer wish to adopt the same aggressive tone. The book was written at the beginning of the 1990s, when I was still living in Würzburg (in Bavaria), a bastion of Roman Catholicism. It is a prosperous city, powerful and conscious of the fact, which made it more than capable of provoking my ire; whereas for thirteen years now I have been living in the new East of Germany, where roughly eighty per cent of the population no longer recognize Christianity even as a rumour, where it appears as the exception, not the rule, and where one has the opportunity to reflect on the truth of the claim “this is as good as it gets”.

The second point is this: it seems to me that institutionalized, dogmatic Christianity, as expressed in the words of the Holy Scriptures and – more succinctly still – in the Credo, is losing ground. This is not only at the expense of a stupid and potentially violent strain of fundamentalism, as manifested in Islam and the American religious Right, but in Europe mostly at the expense of an often rather intellectually woolly and mawkish eclecticism. I will not be dealing here with any theological system in its doctrinal sense. I want rather to sound out the religious impulse, even – and especially – in its more diffuse form, and to get to its root. That is to say, to enquire of the concept of God whether in practice it accomplishes what is expected of it.

For people do not believe in God because they have been shown the proof of his existence. All such proofs presented by philosophers and theologians through the millennia have, by their very nature, the regrettable flaw that a proof can only refer to the circumstances of existing things, whereas God, as the predecessor of all circumstances, comes before, so to speak, and outside the realm of the demonstrable. These proofs, then, all have the character of something tacked on, giving the impression of a thin veneer on a very hefty block of wood. Belief in God, where it does not merely arise out of an unquestioned tradition, demands a spontaneous act on the part of the believer which the believers themselves will tend to describe as an act of faith, their opponents as a purely arbitrary decision; one, nevertheless, that always stems from a need of some kind. People believe in God because along with this belief goes an expectation that a particular wish will be fulfilled for them, a particular problem solved. What kinds of need are these, and how can God meet them?

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]