Sunday, October 25, 2020

Do you own your own face?

The question of whether you own your own face may not be as clear as you might think. Companies are already buying and selling information worldwide based on facial recognition technology. In January of this year I proposed that the United States adopt a constitutional amendment which would give each person ownership of his or her information including facial likenesses and any other biometric data. Now, some U.S. senators think that those gathering your likeness into their databases should have your permission first to do so.

Those senators are not alone. In September Portland, Oregon passed a sweeping ban on facial recognition technology for both government and businesses. San Francisco, Boston and Oakland have passed bans as well, but only for governmental agencies.

Those supporting such bans have cited racial and gender biases built into the algorithms controlling the technology as a central reason for the ban. Beyond this, a California legislator who led the fight to ban such technology for use in conjunction with police body cameras—including passing recordings through facial recognition software later—found out something even more disturbing. The technology which depends on a variety of algorithms is woefully inaccurate. The legislator and 25 of his colleagues were misidentified as persons listed in a law enforcement database as having criminal records.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Risky business: Cellphone satellite networks endanger asteroid early warning, threaten catastrophic space junk

During the coming decade companies that include Amazon, SpaceX and OneWeb are seeking to launch well over 100,000 satellites to service wireless networks on Earth. Many more satellites may follow after that.

Astronomers are crying foul because the satellites—which have proven to be much more reflective than anticipated—are making it difficult for observatories to survey the night sky. The satellites show up as multiple streaky white lines in long-exposure photography so essential to detecting new objects in the distant reaches of the universe.

Thus have the wonders of wireless communications blinded us to the risks of filling the sky with so many satellites. Were that the extent of the problem, it would be irksome to the world astronomy community but probably not a major concern to the rest of us. Unfortunately, much bigger risks await us as the number of satellites in orbit around planet Earth reaches, well, astronomical proportions.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Scavenger or thief: The line will continue to blur

The role of scavenger in nature is to find that which others have discarded or which no longer has life. Vultures are the best-known example of a species that lives off the dead carcasses of other animals. Many insects act as scavengers as well.

Human scavengers go by many names: junk removal—the junk man often reclaims things of value even as we pay him to take them away—recycling companies, and finally, those who out of economic necessity rummage through trash cans and pick out containers redeemable for a deposit that others leave behind.

In the human world, the more desperate the times, the more scavenging people are likely to do and the less stuff there will be to go around. That's when scavenging may cross the line into theft.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives

A friend of mine quipped that it is one thing to talk about the end of modernism—as the two of us have been doing for over 25 years—and quite another to live through it. It might seem that such notions are far too abstract to account for the anxiety of our fraught times. But underneath all the disorder we see in our pandemic-plagued economic, social and political lives is the crumbling of key assumptions about what we call modernity, a period of "enlightenment" that has supposedly freed us from the past.

First, let me recount what I regard as four key assumptions of modernism—I've written about them before—which are being demolished every day right before our eyes with the help of an invisible virus.

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

The next thing I need to remind you is that modernism is as much a religion as any other. In the not-too-distant past, whenever anyone raised questions about its basic tenets—directly or indirectly in one form or another—that person was quickly shushed. If the person persisted, he or she was then shamed. If shaming didn't work, then that person was shunned or even unceremoniously ejected from the party.

Enter COVID-19.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The 'new normal' has been postponed (and probably canceled)

There remains a hope that once we get past the economic and social effects of the pandemic, all of us will be able to return to something resembling normal life before the pandemic—even if it is a "new normal" marked by heightened vigilance and protection against infectious disease and more work at home for office workers as companies realize they don't need to maintain as much expensive office space.

But the date for this recovery to a new normal seems to keep getting postponed. The International Air Transport Association now projects a full recovery in international passenger traffic will take until 2024, a year later than the association projected back in April. The hotel industry will get a bit of a jump on the airline industry with a projected recovery by 2023. The situation is so bad for restaurants that no one seems to be willing to project a date for anything that might be called a recovery.

Office building owners—who are suffering lower rent collections and lease cancellations—seem lucky in comparison with a recovery expected by the end of 2022.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Do we have room for a billion Americans?

As I was reading Matthew Yglesias' piece "The Case for Adding 672 Million More Americans," the Soviet-era designation of Mother Heroine, initiated by Joseph Stalin in 1944, came to mind. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders gave Mother Heroine medals to mothers who bore and raised 10 or more children. Lesser honors were provided for mothers who bore and raised between five and nine children. There is some mention of additional financial assistance from the state to those with such large families, but I could not find much information on this.

For America's version of Mother Heroines (and Heroes), Yglesias proposes "not just paid leave but financial assistance, preschool and after-care services, reasonable summer programming, and affordable college for all qualified student"—all in order to encourage larger families (which he claims Americans actually want).

Yglesias thinks we need to increase our population so that we will be able to compete with 1.4 billion Chinese. Whether you think competing with the Chinese is important or not, there is a problem with the hidden metaphor that Yglesias is using throughout his piece. He is imagining that the United States of America is like the family room in your home. Normally, you might have two or three members in the room at once, watching television, reading, or munching on snacks. But actually, you could fit 10 or maybe even 15 people in the room comfortably if you rearrange the furniture.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

North Dakota blues: The legacy of fracking

When oil drillers descended on North Dakota en masse a decade ago, state officials and residents generally welcomed them with open arms. A new form of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" for short, would allow an estimated 3 to 4 billion barrels of so-called shale oil to be extracted from the Bakken Formation, some 2 miles below the surface.

The boom that ensued has now turned to bust as oil prices sagged in 2019 and then went into free fall with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The financial fragility of the industry had long been hidden by the willingness of investors to hand over money to drillers in hopes of getting in on the next big energy play. Months before the coronavirus appeared, one former oil CEO calculated that the shale oil and gas industry has destroyed 80 percent of the capital entrusted to it since 2008. Not long after that the capital markets were almost entirely closed to the industry as investor sentiment finally shifted in the wake of financial realities.

The collapse of oil demand in 2020 due to a huge contraction in the world economy associated with the pandemic has increased the pace of bankruptcies. Oil output has also collapsed as the number of new wells needed to keep total production from these short-lived wells from shrinking has declined dramatically as well. Operating rotary rigs in North Dakota plummeted from an average of 48 in August 2019 to just 11 this month.

Sunday, August 23, 2020