Category Archives: Skeptic

Exactly how big is a kg?

Standards fascinate me. One of the most problematic standard in use almost universally today is the kilogram (kg). The problem is that no one really knows exactly how much mass a kilogram actually has. By extension that means that no one knows how heavy a pound is either since the US government defines it in relationship to the SI kg unit.

Originally the metric system was supposed to be defined in terms of “natural laws” that the common man could measure for himself. The kg was originally defined as a cubic decimeter of water under certain conditions. This is probably what you were taught in school, one of many metric misconceptions (see why everything you know about the metric system is wrong).

But that approach was jettisoned as impractical due to variations in water density, temperature, etc. In 1889 the standard became defined by a set of “physical prototypes” that were manufactured and distributed to major countries. So what was a standard based on “natural laws” became based on an arbitrary hunk of platinum and iridium.

Only that has not worked either (at least not to the number of significant digits desired). The problem is that the different physical prototypes are changing mass by a small but measurable amount. So today there is effectively no precise consistent definition of a kilogram, and thus by extension the pound.

The plan going forwards is to define the kg in terms of basic physical properties, similar to what has been done with the meter and the second. But for now, kg is only an estimate for given levels of precision.

BYOD, but not on takeoff

One of the more frustrating thing about flying is being asked to turn off your devices on takeoff and landing. You probably already suspect that your Kindle was not going to make the plane crater into the ground, but reading this will make you even more convinced that the whole thing is quite absurd.

Off course now we hear that pilots and navigators will start using iPads in the cockpit. iPad in the cockpit, perfectly safe. Kindle on seat 26f, safety hazard.

To paraphase Bruce Schneier, it’s Safety Theater, nothing more.

iHypocrisy

The Washington Examiner calls out Apple on it’s hypocritical Cap and Trade stance. They point out that Apple is calling for Carbon Taxes that it will largely avoid paying due to it’s offshore manufacturing.

Shifting out of neutral

A three judge panel in Washington DC has ruled that the FCC does not actually have the authority to impose net-neutrality regulations. This is a big victory for the free market internet, but I have no doubt that the Obama administration will respond by trying to enact net-neutrality via legislation.

One wonders how we have managed survived so far without it.

Just a bit more complicated than that

Phil Windley posts about Google’s recent moves in China and describes them as a result of conflict between Google’s desired to do what’s right (not censor) and doing what it needs to do to stay in business in one of the largest markets in the world. That’s an interesting take on it, but it doesn’t wash with recent history.

To be clear, Google was fine with doing evil for several years now. The lived with the government restrictions and did business up until recently when they were penetrated (reportedly badly) by hackers that no one seriously believes aren’t at least backed by the Chinese government. Also the decision to buck the government was also made easier by Google’s own lagging competitive position in China.

If the real story ever comes out I’m sure it will be fascinating. Until then I’m not sold on Google’s altruistic motives in this dispute.

Ghost in the machine?

When the Toyota Sudden Acceleration Syndrome circus was in full swing I had a strong sense of déjà vu. We have been here before. What’s ridiculous is that the obvious answer is staring us in the face and we don’t want to accept it.

All modern cars have brakes that have far more stopping power than their engines can deliver. If you jam both the accelerator and the brake your car will stop (although I don’t recommend actually doing it).

So there are really two explanations here:

1) Some mysterious fault causes the brakes to fail while the accelerator suddenly engages. This fault is both unreproducible under lab conditions and undetectable after the incident.

2) The drivers are stepping on the wrong pedal.

Why is this important to you? The government is talking about require “smart brakes” on all new cars that would cut off the accelerator when depressed.  Some cars apparently already have this feature.

But this won’t do anything to help the driver that is simply pressing the wrong pedal. If required for all cars, it will raise the price of your next car for a feature that you don’t really need.

MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World

Nico Popp suggests that incidents such as the recent Google hack may lead to governments and large corporations adopting a form of Mutually Assured Destruction cyber defense.

On one hand there is a lot of sense in this, especially for governments. However I suspect retaliation would be more of a economic (or worst case military) nature.

At some level that’s exactly what is going on with the Google case. Google obviously believes that the Chinese government is behind the attack and Google has retaliated by threatening to stop censoring content in China, even at the risk of getting thrown out of the country. Of course now they seem to be backing down and both sides are now looking for a face saving compromise.

But one problem with the MAD theory of cyber-warfare is that you most often don’t have any idea who to retaliate against. At least not with sufficient degree of certainty.

So for now, MAD looks pretty unlikely in the cyber-warfare game.

How’s that working for you?

While most journalists blame the demise of traditional news media on the internet, there is another interesting side to it. Pew Research recently released it latest poll on how the public perceives media accuracy and the results are staggering. Only %18 percent of the public believes the media treats all sides fairly, only %29 believes it general gets its facts straight, and only %20 believe that the media is willing to admit mistakes.

These numbers have plummeted in the last couple of years and there is little evidence that they have bottomed out. In fact I predict that barring a change is strategy the numbers will be worse next year.

It doesn’t need to be that way. The media can recover the public’s trust, but it won’t be easy. The first step will be to fire most of the editors they currently have and bring in new blood committed to fair and objective reporting. That will never happen, of course, it’s much easier to keep blaming the internet.

How’s that working for you media?

Cool stuff, in twenty years

Felix Gaehtgens calls Microsoft onto the carpet about what it is ever going to do with U-Prove. Kim Cameron responds here with a call for patience. Both make good points, but I fear that as interesting as U-Prove is, it is way too far ahead of the market.

There are two reasons for this; first it is patent encumbered technology. Patent encumbered technologies fair very poorly in today’s market. After a few high profile patent fights, any technology that is patent encumbered is treated like nuclear waste by most vendors. Even if Microsoft adopts fair licensing terms it becomes a “get a lawyer first” barrier to adoption. In twenty years this won’t be a problem (so long is Microsoft doesn’t file for any more patents on related aspects).

Second, it solves a problem that the market doesn’t really care about today (although they should). This is the same problem that the notion of an Identity Oracle has. You haven’t heard much about that idea recently and for good reason. There is just no money to be made with it (yet). The use cases usually trotted out for both of these are typically edge conditions, my favorite being the RU/18 one. It’s like the Hello World of Identity.

The only people who REALLY care if you are over 18 when you buy something are your parents and the government.

In today’s world there are two privacy problems, under sharing and over sharing. Under sharing is when you have to fill out the same stupid questionnaire at every new doctor’s office you visit. Now that is an issue that people care about. I know they care about it because non-computer people complain to me about it often.

Over sharing is when you have to put your home address in to register for something even though shipping isn’t required. I almost never hear anyone complain about that and those that do just put bogus addresses in anyway. Maybe in twenty years the average person will care enough about privacy to worry about over sharing. But not today.

So U-Prove will be cool stuff in twenty years. Maybe.

54 million small dead animals later

In 2006 a lack of adult supervision allowed the EU parliament to pass an ill conceived initiative called REACH. The REACH program will require retesting for toxicity every chemical in use in the EU that predates the newer testing regimes.

Now there is a report that estimates it will cost industry 9.5 billion Euros and require 54 million test animals. All to test chemicals that are already in wide-spread use.

Scientific illiteracy is quite expensive.