Friday, November 25, 2011

Song of the Day: Raleigh Moncrief - Lament For Morning

So for my Song of the Day I go from country music to this? Yes, my seven readers, I have strange tastes. I was once again listening to some of my free music sources and this song caught my ear. It's different, but it's growing on me.

Raleigh Moncrief - "Lament For Morning"

By the way, can you remind me again why anyone would bother to listen to the radio anymore? Other than talk radio and sports, there is simply no reason for radio to exist.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Google Ngram Viewer

Do you like words as much as I do? Here is a cool tool for you to play with. It's called Google Ngram Viewer.

Google Ngram Viewer

Type a word and see how its popularity has changed over time. This is particularly interesting as new phrases enter our language.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Re-Engineering Afghanistan

I found another fascinating article the ties engineering and politics together. But they are not a great combination. I guess politics and anything would be a bad combination, come to think of it.

Think about this article the next time you read how government investment in infrastructure will "stimulate" our economy. Government can't even do a good job when it has the best of intentions--and it often doesn't. From IEEE Spectrum magazine:
"Re-engineering Afghanistan" by Glenn Zorpette

The subtitle says it all:
"The coalition has spent hundreds of millions trying to give Afghanistan electricity. Unfortunately, it made many of the mistakes it made in Iraq"

If I quoted portions of the article that I thought deserved extra emphasis I'd end up quoting too much of the article. And I've already done that in plenty of other posts on this blog.

So I'll leave it at this: Read the article and see what you think about whether government can do a better job than the private sector in allocating scarce resources. And ask yourself what the hell we're doing over there.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Engineers and Scientists

I read a provocative article about engineering and science recently. As an engineer it caught my eye because it seems like the word "science" has a more positive connotation than "engineering" does. If there is a big technical achievement, it gets reported as a scientific breakthrough when often it is actually engineering that deserves the credit. Check out the article, from Design News magazine:

"Distinguishing Between Scientists & Engineers" by Henry Petroski

Mr. Petroski starts off with a great example:
"In October 2010, when 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped a half-mile underground for two months were brought safely to the surface, a headline in the Wall Street Journal described the 'rescue formula' as '75 percent science, 25 percent miracle.' In fact, as a participant in the feat was quoted in the story itself, the rescue was '75 percent engineering and 25 percent a miracle.' It was engineers who had designed the advanced drill bit that enabled an access shaft to be driven in record time; it was engineers who designed the rescue capsule that was used to haul the miners out one-by-one; and it was engineers who had designed the ancillary equipment that was necessary to carry out the rescue."

The two terms, science and engineering, are NOT synonymous. They may be close, but they're not the same.

"Aerospace engineer and scientist Theodore von Kármán, who directed the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech and was involved in founding NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is credited with formulating a simple distinction between engineers and scientists. In one of its many variant forms, his dictum says that scientists seek to understand what is, while engineers seek to create what never was."

"What distinguishes the two pursuits may be said to be: engineering is the design of new devices and systems that serve a useful purpose that is not met by existing technology. The purest of scientists do not do this; they seek knowledge for its own sake, with no particular application or design in mind."

"Whatever relevant scientific knowledge and understanding are available to help achieve the goal will certainly be welcome, but in the absence of it, engineers forge ahead. Sometimes this means doing science themselves, such as by devising experiments and collecting whatever data might be necessary for design decisions to be made."

There, now that I've gotten that off my chest (thanks, Dr. Petroski!), I feel a lot better. Nothing against scientists, nothing at all, but I am happy and proud to be an engineer. :)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Governments can see through the cloud.

The cloud. Surely everyone knows what it is by now (it's when your data--e-mail, documents, spreadsheets--lives in a remote data center rather than on your personal computer). And many of us have e-mail accounts in the cloud. It's nice to be able to access your e-mail and documents from any computer or smartphone, from any location.

But there is a downside. Not surprisingly, it comes from government. Consider this article from Reuters:
"Internet firms co-opted for surveillance: experts" by Georgina Prodhan

The article gets straight to the point:
"Internet companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are increasingly co-opted for surveillance work as the information they gather proves irresistible to law enforcement agencies, Web experts said this week."

"Although such companies try to keep their users' information private, their business models depend on exploiting it to sell targeted advertising, and when governments demand they hand it over, they have little choice but to comply."

"'When the possibility exists for information to be obtained that wasn't possible before, it's entirely understandable that law enforcement is interested,' Google's Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf told Reuters in an interview."

"'Every decent-sized U.S. telecoms and Internet company has a team that does nothing but respond to requests for information,' Soghoian told Reuters in an interview."

"While U.S. courts are obliged to publish reports on wire-tapping of telephone lines, no similar information is required to be made public with respect to the Internet -- which grew up after the laws on electronic communications were passed."

"Google does voluntarily publish a transparency report every six months in which it details the number of requests it receives from governments around the world to remove content from its services or hand over user data."

"But the numbers do not reveal how many users are affected by each request -- only trends country by country ("

"Some governments are requiring Internet companies to collect more data and keep it for longer, said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, executive director of Poland's Panoptykon Foundation, which campaigns for human rights in light of modern surveillance."

And here is the real story. Governments that support freedom and privacy will thrive, in my opinion. Governments that don't, won't. There is a tremendous opportunity here for countries to develop thriving information technology sectors, if they want to. For example, if Canada resisted the urge to let governments have this data, if they had strict privacy laws where such information was safe from government, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a thriving data center hub develop in Montreal or Ottawa (just across the border, relatively close to large population centers in the northeastern United States). I know they won't, of course, given how liberal Canada is as a whole. But the opportunity is there. Similar opportunities exist for countries in Europe or Eastern Asia.

And the scary conclusion of the article...

"The ease and cost of surveillance are at an all-time low, Soghoian said, with Google charging an administrative fee of $25 to hand over data, Yahoo charging $20, and Microsoft and Facebook providing data for free."

"'Now, one police officer from the comfort of their desk can track 20, 30, 50 people all through Web interfaces provided by mobile companies and cloud computing companies,' he said."

"'The marginal cost of surveilling one more person is now essentially approaching zero.'"