Posted: September 16th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Politics & Policy | Tags: , , | No Comments »

The story of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock has exploded over the internet today. In case you’ve been hiding under a proverbial rock, here’s the short version: Ahmed built a clock. He brought the clock to school, to show one of his teachers. Panic ensues, through absolutely no fault of his own.

For the record, here is a picture of the clock:

Ahmed's clock

To me, it looks like a circuit board in a protective case. But I’m a computer engineer with a minor in physics, so I’ve seen lots of circuit boards and protective cases.

The problem isn’t that ignorant people were confused at first glance. The problem is that, even after they were completely convinced that it was a clock, and even after they ascertained that there was no evidence of nefarious intent, they still punished the kid for doing absolutely nothing wrong.

Ken White performs an excellent evisceration of the absurd behavior by authority figures towards 14 year old Ahmed.

In his head, Ahmed lives in an idealized world he learned about in robotics club: a world where individuality and curiosity and initiative are appreciated. Or at least he did. But this week he found out that he actually lives in a different world, a grim real world controlled by school administrators and cops who are deeply suspicious of individuality, if not openly hostile.

Just read the statements by the police:

“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation. It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

To answer the rhetorical question “Do we take him into custody?”, simply follow this heuristic:

Did he break the law?
Yes –> Yes
No –> No

Yet building a clock requires “broader explanation”, because these school administrators, teachers, and police are simpletons. Their minds are uncomplicated with knowledge or creativity. The idea of challenging oneself intellectually for fun is simply beyond them. It reminds me of a quote from The Hacker’s Manifesto:

“My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”

However, it goes beyond that. Authorities are perpetually looking for a way to assert their control over us. The inconvenient truth is that we are not usually in any real, imminent danger. With the limited availability of actual threats, authorities look for more and more innocuous actions to punish, reminding us THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM THREATS AND WE NEED THEM! The fact that he was Muslim (and looks Arab) was simply the excuse they needed — an easy way to prey on prejudice. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM TERRORISTS!

If there was no prejudice against Muslims, they would suspend 7 year olds for chewing a pop tart into the vague outline of a gun. They would suspend 8 year olds for playing cops & robbers with finger guns. They would suspend 7th graders for twirling pencils. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM VIOLENCE!

Or, perhaps, they would strip search a 13 year old girl for suspicion of possession of ibuprofen. Maybe they would suspend and prosecute an 11 year old for possessing a Japanese maple leaf. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM DRUGS!

Of course, this extends to all levels of authority.


The FBI wants to back-door all our encryption. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM CHILD MOLESTERS!

Local police wants to stop-and-frisk. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM CRIMINALS!

The DEA bulk collects phone, license plate, and who knows what else data on American citizens, en masse. LOOK! THEY ARE PROTECTING US FROM DRUGS!

I hope Ahmed receives justice from this. I hope he launches a successful STEM career. I also hope he takes to heart the very important lesson, “Authority is not your friend.”

R.R. Wilson’s Congressional Testimony, April 1969

Posted: June 4th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Science | Tags: , | No Comments »

Going through some old links, I rediscovered this old testimony. This is the most beautiful defense of scientific research I have ever seen:

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.

DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

Google: Scary? Awesome? Scary Awesome?

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

After my recent acquisition of an iPhone, I decided to fix up my long-neglected Google Reader account, to feed into NewsNetWire on my handsized crack.

After adding my feeds, Google — apparently using my emails from Gmail as a reference — took it upon itself to suggest several new feeds I may enjoy:

AMERICAN.COM — A Magazine of Ideas, Online

E. Kowalski’s blog

Firearms and Training

Residents of Gainesville, FL

Soul of Star Trek

Apparently, Google thinks that I am a libertarian(ish), mathematically-inclined, gun-loving Sci-Fi nerd who lives in Gainesville, FL. Google is, in fact, entirely correct.

This is awesome, because I found at least one blog I would like to follow.

This is scary, because Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, doesn’t understand privacy. Of course, Google’s PR Fire Dept claims poor Schmidt was terribly misquoted.

Years ago, Wired ran a story portraying 2 worlds of pervasive surveillance. One was a dystopian world, a police state where the government used a network of hidden cameras to maintain order and eliminate crime. The feeds from this video, of course, was entirely protected and secret. The other world, less dystopian, was also a world under constant surveillance — but all the video feeds were publicly available. Want to know if your friends are already at the bus stop? You can check the feed. Want to know what the lines at an event are? You can check the feed.

While many look at both worlds with some level of disquiet, the truth is we are approaching both worlds. The former, the government is instituting without a peep from us — in the US, traffic cams are everywhere. On the other hand, we are freely creating the later world through social media; why bother installing public surveillance? People surveil themselves and proudly submit it for public consumption via YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.

In a way, the very act of publishing information might be an abandonment of anonymity and information we normally consider private. A couple of years ago, researchers discovered they could easily link data sets, despite anonymizing attempts. Have we ever truly had anonymity and privacy, or has it merely been an illusion created by insufficiently advanced data collection and mathematical techniques?

If privacy (or the illusion of such) dies (and some say it already has), who has killed it — the Googles, the Governments, the Statisticians, or the Tweets?

NASA and the Scientific Divide

Posted: November 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Science, Technology | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Recently, I met a man who walked the surface of the moon. After his brief talk, we were invited to ask him questions. One surprising question was, “Why waste money on space exploration?” Coming from a background of hard science, I found this question jarring. “How can someone not want to explore space?” The man who once walked the moon seemed similarly disconcerted. As he struggled to answer in terms that resonated with the layfolk, the intellectual disconnect was agonizing.

NASA is in an era of highly publicized disasters, with increasingly boring or technical missions. These issues only look to get worse; budget woes will leave us without manned spaceflight for at least 4 years, and our backup plan is to buy trips on Russian rockets. With less and less exciting missions, and the public’s lack of scientific interest and understanding, it is easy to see why our generation has become apathetic to NASA’s mission. However, despite its apparent recent struggles, NASA has an extensive resume of accomplishments and contributions to our society, which few people realize.

In the past 51 years, NASA has achieved that which was once thought impossible — we have sent people to live in space, we have landed on another body in the solar system, we have sent probes out of our solar system, we have landed probes on other planets. To accomplish this, NASA has, out of necessity, developed technologies we now take for granted, from improved artificial limbs to enriched baby foods.

Even without such useful spin-offs, NASA and other government space research programs have created a space-travel infrastructure, pouring the billions necessary to develop techniques such as putting satellites into orbit. Such high-risk, high-cost expenditures are unlikely to have been pursued by private enterprises, as they would not even have the funds to accomplish these programs. These technologies are available in the private sector, opening up new industry applications in communications, private space travel, and privately funded research.

The scientific research that NASA has provided is staggering. From moon samples, to Jupiter probes, to space telescopes, to extra-solar probes, to weather satellites and space-based geological research, NASA has provided unique and invaluable resources to biologists, geologists, chemists, meteorologists, physicists, astronomers, and more. This research has fueled discoveries whose value cannot yet be known.

Here is a brief history lesson. In 1803, President Jefferson asked Congress to allocate $2,500 to an expedition to explore the Missouri river, hoping to discover the extent of the Louisiana purchase and a path to the Pacific Ocean. Without knowing what would be found, the Corps of Discovery mapped the Missouri River, discovered over 100 new species, and made the first mineral maps describing one of the most resource-rich regions on our planet. Our explorations, discoveries, and established diplomatic presence in the area allowed the US to maintain full control over the most geopolitically valuable regions of the world — the Mississippi-Missouri drainage basin. With this transportation conduit, the vast resources discovered in the west, the massive tracts of arable land, and enormous strategic depth, the US was able to position itself as an unrivaled economic, military, and political hegemon.

None of these outcomes were expected or anticipated. The purchase was a gamble and the expedition was a gamble. The results helped fuel 2 centuries of growth. Do we want to turn our backs on the next great frontier? Are we willing to cede the future to India and China, both of whom are aggressively developing space programs? I would hope that anyone who wishes to protect our future prosperity and security can see that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no”.

Fortunately, it seems that the public agrees. However, as the Apollo generation ages, and our generation gains more influence in policy, NASA’s support will be in jeopardy if we cannot convince ourselves that our future is worth fighting for.