Giant leap for geek-kind
Today, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize by becoming the first commercial craft to reach “space” twice in one week. The psychological transformative power of this event didn’t really sink in until I just wrote “space” in the last sentence and realized that that word doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore. I haven’t been this excited about a technological achievement since…well, since the NASA Mars Rovers from earlier this year. Or maybe Cassini. Ok, so I’m highly space-excitable. There’s that strange word again.
No, this is way more exciting; my dreams of being a NASA astronaut ended years ago when I forced myself to admit that they’re never going to need a “SQL Specialist” on the space station. But being a boorish and out-of-place tourist? That’s practically my life’s work.
Anyhoo, I’ve just signed up to be first in line when Virgin Galactic starts flying. Maybe if I save up all of my frequent-flyer miles between now and then I can score a free trip. If you think I’m kidding, you haven’t seen my frequent flyer activity.
"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 2000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future.”
Daniel Hillis, The Long Now Foundation
Let's put some science into the terror alert debate
Is the U.S. government playing politics with recent terror warnings? I don’t really care. What I care about a lot more is: are those warnings effective? Fortunately, while people arguing the first question are probably not really interested in finding an answer, the second question should yield fairly well to dispassionate analysis.
Hype and political considerations aside, the two most frequently heard arguments in the debate over the value of periodic but vague terror alerts by the U.S. government are:
Con: The alerts make people apprehensive and afraid. This hurts our society (the “terrorists have already won” argument) and diminishes the impact of future alerts (the “boy who cried wolf” argument).
Pro: Even though the alerts may make people nervous, they also remind people to be vigilant. Since information is the most important weapon in the fight against terrorism, an attentive citizenry is worth some disruption to daily life (the “price of freedom is eternal vigilance” argument).
Both points are plausible, but are they true? I’m not sure, but there’s probably some useful behavioral data out there that could be used to evaluate the competing claims.
For example, is the “boy who cried wolf” phenomena measurable in the real world? Surprisingly, not everything named after a fairy tale is completely reliable. In other words, are people who are repeatedly subjected to false alarms actually less likely to effectively react to a real emergency situation? After all, most military and emergency workers are constantly drilling with “false” alarms and no one seems to feel that this compromises their readiness. Of course these teams are repetitively practicing specific skills, not just being repetitively told to be anxious. Maybe that’s the difference.
Similarly, is the “vigilance” claim accurate? Are people who are repeatedly told to be on guard actually better able to identify and respond to emergency threats than people who are more relaxed? Many skydiving or SCUBA instructors go to great lengths to teach their students how to be physically relaxed in dangerous situations; the justification being that an attentive but at-ease mind is more effective at coping with unexpected circumstances. Does this logic apply to national terror alerts?
These are fairly narrow questions which are well suited to scientific investigation. Much of this investigation has almost certainly already been carried out in the past half a century. I’d like to see the media focus on reviewing relevant data from commercial, government and academic sources before bringing on the next set of political experts to fling unverifiable mud at each other. Ain’t my naïve idealism cute?
Working at CoreStreet, I’ve developed a nose for simple and elegant cryptography, and a recent project by Claire Whelan and David Naccache of Dublin City University smells mmm, mmm clever. The researchers subjected declassified government documents with sensitive words blotted out to an obvious-in-retrospect process:
The first task is to identify the font, and font size the missing word was written in. Once that is done, the dictionary search begins for words that fit the space, plus or minus three pixels, Naccache explained.
After that, a bit of common-sense human intervention was sufficient to deduce the hidden words.
This is going to cause a lot of heartburn in the intelligence community. There are staggering quantities of word-blotted documents crammed into government archives and the “Dublin Technique” puts many of them at risk. I would be a bit surprised if word-blotting ever stood up to the type of serious cryptographic, linguistic and contextual analysis that important US documents are subjected to by rival governments, but Whelan and Naccache have put potentially sensitive information within the reach of the unwashed masses. Almost as bad as the exposure of compromising words is the confusion that’s likely to arise as media organizations mine ambiguous results from blotted documents and select whichever “hits” match the conspiracy theory du Jour. What’s good for public transparency is sometimes bad for public safety.
There’s talk of changing document censorship techniques, but no easy answer exists for files available primarily on paper. Perhaps this will add another incentive to move all government records into the electronic age. I have a feeling this little academic pebble will make some interesting ripples.
It’s a shame that instead of blotting, Nixon had the paranoid prescience to make sure that his more picturesque utterances were replaced with “[expletive deleted]” when his White House tapes were transcribed. A “Dublinized” version of those conversations would make for mighty good C-SPAN.
Coolest space mission that nobody remembers
Slashdot has a story today that jogged my memory. In 1970, the Russians landed a remote controlled rover called “Lunakhod 1” on the moon and drove it around for almost a year. It looked like a set of tractor wheels mounted on an old washtub - which is probably a reasonable guess about it’s actual method of construction. The name literally means, “moonwalker”, so while the Soviets did get an early lead on NASA in unmanned ambulatory space droids, they also planted the seeds of popular western culture which would eventually lead to the downfall of communism. Blowback.
Hostile surroundings, no security worries
If you're planning just about anything big, important, expensive or highly symbolic here on earth, you're pretty much going to have to obsess about security at every step of the way. Among the many small joys of the NASA Mars rovers is that they can do their job without worrying about the bad guys. Sure, security is pretty tight on the ground before launch, but once the rockets are away it's just us vs. the laws of physics.
I hope I live long enough to read about the first crime committed on Mars. Wonder what it’ll be. Probably copyright infringement.