tag: Tech

Jan 2010

The genie's out of the bottle

A message was recently sent to an online group of which I’m a member. Dealing with numerous issues, the group has expanded beyond merely “energy resources” and now tends to cover the broader issue of sustainability. Recently one member (Pedro from Madrid) suggested — quite correctly in many ways — that the problem is “technology”. He writes:

… I am very much in line with Einstein, when he said “We can not solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And it is clear that something went wrong, specially since we developed machines (technology) and started massive exploitation of cumulated fuel resources from the lithosphere. We should not expect that using technology “wisely” we are going to solve anything. Better use our brain to change the paradigm. That way of living is over, whether we like it or not.

Now, that particular Einstein line is often wheeled out in discussions about sustainability and technology. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time studying Einstein’s work, and has a great deal of respect for him both as a scientist and a philosopher, I’m the first to acknowledge that there’s a great truth within that quotation. However, I think it’s somewhat unlikely that he would have agreed with the conclusions that Pedro has drawn from his words. Certainly he wrote “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity” but he was also realistic about the likelihood of reversing this trend (at least without total collapse).

And such a total collapse (what’s known in sustainability circles as a “die-off”) was obviously unthinkable to Einstein. He wrote:

I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind […] Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

Then later in that same essay, he writes

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed […] we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. […] technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.


Humanity clearly cannot continue along the same road we’ve been on for the past few centuries. We made a wrong turn at industrialisation (arguably even earlier; when we decided to take up agriculture) and desperately need to correct our course. But undoing the past is not an option. We can’t simply backtrack… return to pre-industrial pastoralism. Or return even further to a hunter-gatherer existence. I hardly need to explain why such options are unavailable to us. Perhaps if the planet got six and a half billion people lighter, such a course of action may be thinkable? But even then, it’s likely we’d just start the same process again.

Technology is a genie that won’t go back in the bottle. Are we to abandon electricity? What about the wheel? The plough? Sharp edges and lighting the dark places? Do we get rid of fire-making?

We’re tool-users, so the only option is to use technology more wisely. Perhaps Pedro is correct and this won’t “solve our problems”. Indeed, I’m rather sceptical that it will. But just like Einstein, I don’t see despair as an option. We should be seeking “a way out” of the mess we’ve created, even if the odds are stacked heavily against us.

We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.Albert Einstein

Let’s consider two hypothetical scenarios. One: some kind of “technological wisdom” allowing us to harness some of our tools and ingenuity and reduce our collective impact on our ecology to sustainable levels. Two: sustainability through a wholesale abandonment of technological progress.

While Scenario One has — in my view — a miniscule chance of success, Scenario Two is simply a non-starter. To pursue the second at the expense of the first (which is the only way to pursue it) is to succumb to despair. To admit defeat.

The major problems we face are not technical per se. Realistically the world has enough engineers to deal with whatever technical challenges we do face. Rather, the problems that need to be urgently addressed involve how we, as a culture, view the world and behave within it. They are essentially problems of group psychodynamics (yes, yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but I wouldn’t have spent the past few years studying the subject if I didn’t think it was important).

We are discovering today that several of the premises which are deeply ingrained in our way of life are simply untrue and become pathogenic when implemented with modern technology.Gregory Bateson | Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization

The unfortunate reality is that we cannot go back. Certainly if we continue along our present destructive course we may well end up, greatly reduced in number, living in a world that resembles the past in some ways… an end to mass production, feudal political structures, and yes; a dramatic reduction in available technology. But so long as there’s still a handful of humans in this world, some of them will be sharpening sticks and lighting fires.

Abandoning technology is a pipe dream. Instead we need to use it more wisely (and likely, more sparingly). Einstein also wrote that technological progress was “like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal”. It seems beyond obvious that the long-term solution to such a situation is not to convince the guy to drop the axe for a while. The solution is to successfully treat the pathology.

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Nov 2009

A quick note about wind power

I’m generally a fan of engineers and the engineering mindset. Although I’ve now left that industry, I always felt that being an engineer meant that I was essentially a problem-solver. In fact, often when people asked me what I did, that was my response… “I solve problems”. Of course, the primary problem I tended to be solving back then was how to get fizzy pop into bottles as efficiently as possible which — let’s face it — probably doesn’t rank very high on the list of the world’s priorities. All the same, the last project I worked on prior to my career change involved saving a company that was about to go out of business. Safeguarding the world’s fizzy pop supplies may not be all that important, but ensuring that a couple of thousand people kept their jobs (many in some of the most deprived towns in America) seemed like a positive thing at the time.

These days my views about the nature of unnecessary economic activity call even that assessment into question, but we live and learn, eh?

Given my belief that engineers are the world’s problem solvers (leastways when it comes to physical systems), I was both taken-aback and dismayed when I encountered an article in The Guardian yesterday entitled Britain’s renewable energy targets are ‘physically impossible’, says study. It cites a study carried out by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which insists that Britain needs to begin looking at some of the more esoteric geo-engineering solutions to Climate Change because there is no chance of installing enough renewable power in the required timescale.

They talk about a lack of construction and installation capacity for wind turbines (as one example) and instead suggest untested and, in many cases, still-theoretical solutions. This seems bizarre to me when the obvious response to a lack of turbine manufacturing and installation capacity is to add more, not throw our hands up in the air and suggest that it’s somehow easier and more realistic to explore theoretical carbon capture technologies than it is to build some more turbine factories and installation vessels.

Certainly research should continue into these new technologies, but if the Institution tells us that we run out of turbine manufacturing capacity in 2018, then I suggest that increasing that capacity before 2018 might be something we should explore rather than announcing it’s impossible.

In 1997 the Spanish government made a decision to begin a rapid expansion of wind energy. About a week ago, on November 8th, a milestone was reached when — for a period of five hours — wind power accounted for 50% of the electricity being produced in the country (link in Spanish). And they are far from finished building turbines.

The technical problems are not insurmountable. The rapid expansion of renewables is not impossible. It just requires the political will. And engineers willing to solve problems.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

The air we breathe

Ladies and gentlemen, the future.


The Airpod, air-powered car.

That air stuff… it’s great when you think about it. A ubiquitous, but entirely unobtrusive mixture of gases that’s wrapped around our planet several miles deep and provides fuel for many of the processes that occur within our body. It isn’t so much “easily accessible” as it is “impossible not to access” under normal circumstances.

Now before anyone looks at that strange little car and starts thinking either (a) that compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, or (b) that I’m suggesting compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, let me please request you stop thinking it. Because it’s not. And I’m not.

What I am suggesting, however, is that compressed air is a far better energy-carrier than batteries (or hydrogen fuel cells).

Let me qualify that statement.

Firstly, I’m not really talking about cars here. I still view the personal car as unsustainable, though there’s no reason compressed-air buses couldn’t be part of a future public transport system.

And secondly, I’m not speaking specifically about the energy-efficiency of compressed air Vs batteries.

What I am suggesting is that a wind-turbine powering your home / apartment building / housing estate (scale up as required) could be connected to an air-compressor during off-peak hours. Then when it’s calm and the turbine isn’t moving (or the sun isn’t shining, if solar panels are your primary generator) the compressed air can be used to produce electricity. It beats almost every other energy system I can think of hands down in the sustainability stakes. As well as the sheer elegance of the idea.

See the trouble with batteries is that they’re pretty short-lived, all things considered. They need to be replaced every few years and disposing of the old ones often involves dealing with nasty chemicals. With a compressed air system, on the other hand, you need a machine-shop and a bit of know-how (or the phone-number of someone with a machine-shop and a bit of know-how… hint: see the Yellow Pages under ‘Mechanic’) and you’ve got something that’ll last indefinitely. I’ve seen compressors in factories that have been lovingly maintained for thirty years and which, given continued loving maintenance, should last at least thirty more. I watched the mechanic in an Egyptian bottling plant manufacture spare parts for his compressor from a pile of off-cuts in the yard. No it wasn’t the prettiest piece of equipment I’d ever seen, with at least half of it having been replaced with local scrap over the years, but it still functioned to a high level of efficiency.

Compressed air is not without its dangers. But as an energy carrier it sure beats hydrogen in that respect. And compressor technology is old and proven. Over the decades we’ve made it pretty damn reliable. I have a hunch that “reliable” is exactly what we need right now.

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May 2009

The best thing ever…

… no really. This is what the internet is for. (via)

I know it’s easy to say this now, but I dreamt of a website very much like that a while ago. Absolutely beautiful. Requires speakers, a broadband connection and enough time to truly appreciate where you can take it.

my life’s work, she said, is the impact that this has

4 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

May 2009

Awww… it's a little nuke

Over at U-Know! someone posted a link to an article in The Guardian from last November (Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes). The article discusses a technology under development by Hyperion Power Generation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s essentially a small nuclear reactor capable of powering tens of thousands of homes and costing a relatively modest $25m.

A quick search on google news reveals an article on Reuters as recently as this week (Hyperion Has a $100M Valuation for Mini Nuclear Power) which includes the paragraph:

Although nuclear power produces radioactive waste, it doesn’t release greenhouse gases and it has vocal supporters in the new administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. So it’s not so far-fetched for investors to see the potential of Hyperion’s nuclear option.

Now those two articles and a reading of Hyperion’s website (mostly marketing bumpf investor relations) are the extent of my knowledge on this subject, so I don’t know enough about the specifics of their solution to offer a considered critique of the actual technology. However there are some generic criticisms of this approach to energy production that I feel are valid and worth highlighting. All the same, I’m flagging this post in advance as a “first thoughts / first impressions” thing. OK?

And on that basis… yikes!

Small enough to be transported on a ship, truck or train, Hyperion power modules are about the size of a “hot tub” — approximately 1.5 meters wide. Out of sight and safe from nefarious threats, Hyperion power modules are buried far underground and guarded by a security detail. Like a power battery, Hyperion modules have no moving parts to wear down, and are delivered factory sealed. They are never opened on site. Even if one were compromised, the material inside would not be appropriate for proliferation purposes. Further, due to the unique, yet proven science upon which this new technology is based, it is impossible for the module to go supercritical, “melt down” or create any type of emergency situation. If opened, the very small amount of fuel that is enclosed would immediately cool. The waste produced after five years of operation is approximately the size of a softball and is a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Perfect for moderately-sized projects, Hyperion produces only 25 MWe — enough to provide electricity for about 20,000 average American sized homes or its industrial equivalent. Ganged or teamed together, the modules can produce even more consistent energy for larger projects.

The Hyperion team is committed to helping make the clean and safe benefits of nuclear power — benefits that could assist in solving the worst of our planet’s problems — available in even the most remote locations. We hope you will enjoy learning about Hyperion through our web site!

“Nefarious threats”? They make it sound like they’re securing the place against attack from Dr. Evil. Or that we live in a world where the worst thing that could happen is Terry-Thomas might show up and attempt to do something dastardly. Poor copywriting aside, I believe that passage from their website, coupled with some of the claims being made in the media, should raise some serious concerns.

Thousands of little nuclear reactors encased in concrete, scattered all over the world, maintained and secured by the lowest-cost local contractors? There’s a whole bunch of things wrong with that.

First of all, this commits us to a heavily industrialised future which I’m not sure is a sensible decision (i.e. one in which uranium mining and processing is done on a scale that rivals the modern oil industry — how this squares with the claim in the Reuters piece that “nuclear power […] doesn’t release greenhouse gases” is anybody’s guess). I’m not suggesting we abandon technology or automation or electrical energy; merely that we need to scale our usage of these things back dramatically if we wish to use them sustainably. Be far smarter and more selective in the technologies we adopt or continue to use.

Secondly, the waste management issues just give me the head-staggers. It’s one thing having a few secure, essentially semi-militarised, locations where the waste is produced and stored. Even that’s problematic in my view. But to handle a massively distributed network (“available in even the most remote locations”) with a reasonable guarantee that none of the stuff ever ends up in the local reservoirs? Significantly increasing the amount of highly toxic waste we produce when there are alternatives? Future history books will view such decisions as criminally negligent… beyond reprehensible and into pure evil. Always assuming there’s going to be history books chronicling our times and crimes.

Thirdly, I’m always worried when the person selling the technology creates a huge straw man regarding security. What’s he trying to distract us from?

‘You could never have a Chernobyl-type event – there are no moving parts,’ said Deal. ‘You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it’s too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.’Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes, The Guardian

I’m not too worried about someone weaponising this stuff. North Korea’s already done that, and depending upon how the next few years go in Pakistan, some seriously hardline Islamists may get their hands on that technology too. Also, I’m not so sure that we can rely upon Israel to pursue a rational, evidence-based foreign policy and even the countries we view as being a relatively safe pair of hands are more than capable of rationalising a pre-emptive strike one of these days. So the “scary people with nukes” cat is very much out of the bag.

What worries me isn’t a nation state getting hold of this stuff and weaponising it, but a less organised bunch of psychos getting hold of it and poisoning wells and water-tables for several generations. See, I’m not sure exactly what part of “stealing a barbecue with your bare hands” would have prevented the September 11th hijackers doing so if it was part of their mission. For me the security risk of these things is a dedicated group of nutters — some of whom, perhaps, work for a local concrete supply company? — who don’t care about getting their hands burnt, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately it seems there are plenty of people who’d be willing to expose themselves to a lethal dose of radiation as they steal a bunch of uranium “softballs” from one of the more remote clusters of these things.

Even if powdering the stuff and dumping it into a handful of municipal reservoirs was demonstrated to only raise the risk of childhood leukemia by 0.5% in those areas, how soon before you’ve got a bunch of ghost-towns? Ghost-cities? Millions of families won’t make a level-headed and rational assessment of the risks when the headlines scream “Radioactive Reservoir! Al Qaeda dumps uranium in Dallas water supply!”

The whole thing is fraught with the kind of “What Ifs” that just don’t enter the equation when you recommend a combination of renewable energy and a reduction in consumption.

But I’d be interested in having those “What Ifs” answered and I’ll look out for more information on this over the coming months should it start to gain credibility. Maybe this is the magic space dust we’ve been waiting for.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2008

Coming soon: House for sale in Golders Green

As you may have read elsewhere (given how long I’ve been away from this place, chances are you’ve already read about most of the stuff I’ll be covering over the next couple of weeks), the complete membership list for the British National Party (BNP) has been leaked and published online (there’s some question about the legality of linking directly to the list, but I’m fairly certain I’m allowed to point out that it’s been published on Wikileaks, and is therefore one cat unlikely to be rebagged any time soon).

The list includes full names and addresses as well as telephone numbers, email addresses and — for many members — all manner of other additional information (age, profession, hobbies, etc.) as well as the occasional comment added, presumably, by the database administrator. My personal favourite of these comments is “No ‘promotional material’ requested. Concerned about his job”.

Oh dear.

Like most people who’ve seen the document, I immediately searched the text for various postcodes. With over 13,000 names on the list there’s a fair chance, after all, that I’ve had a BNP member or two as a neighbour in the past. In fact, during my time in England I had no less than nine addresses (as well as a brief period of no-fixed-abode) and it seems was never more than a mile away from a hardcore racist. Even when I lived in a small village in Hampshire.

Two geographical oddities stood out though. Firstly, I was bemused to notice that there are two members who live in Ireland. I presume they are ex-patriot Brits rather than Irish citizens who’ve decided to join the ultra-right British nationalists. Ex-pats, eh? There’s another word for them, isn’t there? Now, if I could only remember it… ah, that’s right: immigrants!

I don’t know; they come over here, steal our jobs……

I noticed the other geographical oddity when I checked to see if there were any BNP members in London NW11. I lived there for two years. Lovely place. Better known as Golders Green. And it turns out there is one. Only one, I grant you, but even so.

For those who aren’t aware, Golders Green is the heart of the London Jewish community. Something tells me there’ll be the tinkling of broken glass on Ravenscroft Avenue sometime soon.

Yeah it’s funny, but there’s more to it than that

I’m not going to deny the fact that I’m finding this whole debacle very amusing. When a far-right organisation with openly racist policies screws up in such a spectacular fashion it’s hard not to laugh. And it does appear to have been a case of shooting themselves in the foot. It was a disaffected member who published the list, not some shadowy left-wing conspiracy. However, neither can I deny that I’m somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing.

On a general note, it demonstrates the dangers of centralised databases. How long will we have to wait, I wonder, until the first disaffected employee of the UK’s National Identity Register skips town with a copy of the biometric details of everyone in the country? I don’t know how much that kind of data would be worth to, for example, a Moscow crime syndicate but I suspect it’d be enough to make it worthwhile for our hypothetical disgruntled IT contractor.

And before anyone says, “oh but that couldn’t happen ‘cos the Identity Register will be far more secure” let me point out that only a fricking idiot believes that they can create a 100% secure database. Especially one that has to be accessed by a whole range of different services on an almost continuous basis. In fact, for a bunch of reasons, I’d put money on the National Identity Register being fundamentally less secure than the British National Party membership database.

That, however, is far from the extent of my unease regarding the publication of this data.

Firstly, it’s a safe bet that some of the people on that list are not BNP supporting racists. I notice, for instance, that there are several “family memberships” that include the names of quite a few under-16s. I wouldn’t like to be held accountable today for the views I held when I was 14 (they weren’t racist views, incidentally, just silly and painfully misguided). Beyond that, we have no way of knowing that a given “family membership” wasn’t purchased by one overzealous family-member on behalf of their horrified kids.

On top of that, I’d like to relate a minor event from my own youth. I once decided — with a friend — to sign up for and “infiltrate with the aim of discrediting” the scientologists. Needless to say, it was a ridiculous idea (scientologists do such a good job at discrediting themselves it’s hard to know what we could have achieved even if we’d succeeded) and it never went very far. Nonetheless, it would not surprise me to discover that my name, along with an out-of-date address, can be found somewhere in the dianetics archives.

Of the 13,500 names on the BNP membership list, there’s probably no more than one or two silly leftist youngsters who thought they could do some damage by signing up and attacking the organisation from within. All the same, just by looking at a list of names and addresses it’s impossible to tell who that one or two might be. Please bear that in mind before passing judgment.

Another issue… this time from a Ken MacLeod novel rather than my own youth, but still very relevant. In one of his early books (might even be The Star Fraction, his glorious first novel) one of the characters regularly messes with the head of an old rival by signing him up to various organisations and mailing-lists that he finds objectionable. Again, maybe no one on the BNP list falls into that category, but it would be a mistake to automatically assume every single name on it belongs to a hardcore racist.

Clearly the vast majority do. But there will be the handful of fifth-columnists, investigative journalists, agents of political rivals and so forth.

On top of all that there’s also the (much more likely) possibility of mistaken identity. We’ve all heard the stories about the pediatrician whose house was attacked by braindead anti-paedophile vigilantes. Memo to braying mobs: make sure you have the right Mr. Jones in Lincoln won’t you? ‘Cos the other one is a retired solicitor who worked for the Refugee Council and he’s got a heart condition.

Bunch of tossers

All that said, there’s no doubt that the 13,500 names on the list almost certainly include 13,300 racist scumbags. And while I have no problem with anyone who seeks to ridicule them for those views, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that it should go any further than “ridicule” (at least as long as they are merely “views” and not “activities”). Nonetheless, those who hold sensitive jobs (police and teachers primarily) should be investigated, and if they’re not part of the 200 decent people who I’ve generously assumed are on the list, then they should be fired. The British National Party is a legal political party and I hope it goes without saying that I’m not a fan of the concept “thoughtcrime”. If you want to hold those views, then you are entitled to do so and shouldn’t be punished for it.

However, if you self-define as a racist activist dedicated to driving immigrants out of a country, then you must accept that there are certain jobs that aren’t appropriate for you. “Police officer” is one of those jobs. Full stop. And I’d argue that “school teacher” falls into that category too.

When all’s said and done though, and despite the seriousness with which we should all take the far right, my primary reaction to all this is still one of mirth. It’s hard not to relish the spectacle of the BNP giving itself a good kicking. And to add an hilarious dash of irony to the proceedings, Justin at Chicken Yoghurt points out that

The crowning jewel of the story is that the BNP, who only this month called the Human Rights Act ‘surely one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation ever passed by the mother of Parliaments,’ and reiterated its promise to repeal it when the party – don’t laugh – becomes a ‘British Nationalist government’, have now asked the police to investigate breaches of the Human Rights Act.

It appears that the stalwart members of the Master Race are eager to wrap themselves in the European flag when it suits. As is their right of course. After all, they’re only human.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2008

Invalid XHTML

Just a bit of web-tech administrivia for those of you interested in such things. Having always displayed a “Valid XHTML” button discretely on this site, I’ve just discovered that YouTube has been making a liar out of me ever since I started embedding their videos.

I’m sure there must be a way of sorting it out, but I really can’t be arsed right now. Until I look into it though, I’ve removed the “Valid XHTML” tag.

Other YouTube embedders beware!

1 comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Aug 2008

Nuclear Reaction

Busy busy busy. All the same, I do have a few minutes spare with which to plug Nuclear Reaction. This Greenpeace blog is run by Justin of Chicken Yoghurt fame, which means that as well as exposing the lies, insanity and sheer stupidity that characterise the pro-nuke lobby, it will also be rather well-written.

Check it out.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Jul 2008

Paranoid facebook crazy talk

Over on a web forum I visit occasionally, we’ve been discussing the ‘Facebook’ website / social engineering experiment. And I think I may have gotten a bit ranty to be honest. Given that this is a more appropriate forum for such rantiness, I figured I’d reproduce my “summary position” here.

Even without following those discussions, it’ll come as no surprise to you that I’m firmly in the anti-Facebook camp. And when I say “firmly”, I mean in the sense that they’re having to build me a special camp in the next field… even further from the pro-Facebook camp than the regular anti-Facebook camp.

A couple of days ago, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, made a speech about the company’s plans for the future. It contains an interesting statement. And by “interesting”, I mean “fucking terrifying”.

But before I get onto that, let me recap the main pre-existing arguments for never visiting the facebook site ever again.

They fall into three broad categories.

Firstly, the question of what happens to your information once it gets uploaded to Facebook is a very murky one. They certainly never explicitly claim copyright or ownership of your information, but they do claim all manner of usage rights that amount to almost the same thing in practice, even if not by legal definition. Within this same point is the fact that Facebook made it impossible to delete your account up until recently (when bad publicity forced them to change policy). They still make it difficult (you can’t delete your info, you ask them by email to do it for you) and — vitally — given that they are not obliged to notify you when they sell your data to a third party, you have no idea whether or not it’s already been flogged to UltraMegaCorp by the time they get round to deleting it.

And in practice, it almost certainly already has. Because Facebook have an ongoing relationship with numerous corporations to provide them with user data on a regular basis. These include Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast. Amongst others.

Secondly, the political and philosophical problems posed by any large centralised database are, at the very least, worthy of cautious consideration. A consideration that few have given it. Mostly because it’s “voluntary”, not because people are unable to consider these things. When the government propose it and talk about it being mandatory, then people rightfully question the decision.

Thing is, the same problems that exist with a mandatory database also exist with a voluntary one if everyone volunteers.

These kinds of databases are an absolute nightmare from a social justice and civil-liberties standpoint. They encourage an uncomfortable power/control relationship between those who control the data and those who provide it. While on the one hand, the data will allow the database owner to track and identify broad trends within the data-set, it will also allow them to identify mechanisms to manipulate those trends, and the interactive nature of the Facebook website may even provide the mechanisms by which such controls are put in place.

“Is control controlled by it’s need to control?” as Burroughs perceptively asked. And yes, it is. But control still tends to come out better in its relationships with those it controls.

If you get me.

And this is problematic even if control is benign. Even if the guy at the top is Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Even if he’s in charge, the risks of him screwing things up are just too great.

Which brings me onto Number 3. It’s very much linked to the second argument, but deserves a bold intro of its own.

Thirdly, it’s not James Stewart running this thing. It’s the fucking CIA!

And no. That’s not a kooky conspiracy theory. Check it out for yourself. There’s been articles written on the subject in the mainstream media, and Facebook haven’t argued with any of them to the best of my knowledge (which I feel certain they would do if they were nonsense). One of the big finance guys behind Facebook is a board member for In-Q-Tel.

In the words of Tom Hodgkinson’s Guardian article

In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA.

I’d rather not link directly to their website, by the way. Yes I am that paranoid. The strapline for In-Q-Tel dot com?

In-Q-Tel identifies, adapts and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader U.S. intelligence community.

Ohhhhhhkaaaaaay. I mean honestly. If you’re not going to be paranoid about those people, who are you going to be paranoid about? Eh?

Think about that for a second. I’m not saying that Facebook is the CIA, by the way. Merely that they are part-funded by a guy who kind of works for the CIA. So I think you’ll agree, despite their claims to the contrary, the idea that the CIA don’t have open access to this data, and aren’t analysing it for some reason is, oddly enough, the far-fetched one in this particular instance.

Weird, huh?

I have this image of the CIA opening up a website and asking people to volunteer as much personal information as possible. And of people signing up in their droves. 90 million people at last count. And I say to myself, “don’t be silly Jim, that image is too far-fetched. Even Philip K. Dick would have rejected it as too implausible for a short story”.

People, willingly donating a ton of data (that’s imperial, not metric by the way, we’re talking a lot of data) about themselves to the C.I. fricking A. For them to make shitloads of money with by selling it to Coca fricking Cola. Money to fund Eris-knowns-what, but I doubt it’s cat fricking sanctuaries. I mean these people will be classified as a terrorist organisation by future historians! Don’t be willingly surrendering your life history, personal philosophy, favourite books, music, films to them. Don’t tell them who your friends are, and where you like to hang out and what medication you’re on and what mood you’re in. Don’t open yourself up to these people! And don’t be filling in their silly little tests.

– What answer did you choose for question 6? “C” huh? Y’know only 8% of respondents chose “C”? Funny that… …

What do you mean: “funny that… …”?

– “Ohhhh… Nothing.”

Because they ain’t just making money off your data, they’re giving it to the folks downstairs in psy-ops. And they’ve been cooking up some deeply strange stuff to do with it.

And look, when I say “these people”, they’re probably nice enough, y’know? Treat their friends and family well, and give to charity regularly. But they’re on the wrong mission. And that’s what’s important here.

It’s hardly a coincidence, therefore, that Peter Thiel (the power behind the throne at Facebook) should be a self-described neoconservative activist who espouses a philosophy that can be accurately summarised as

… trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls “nature”, and install a virtual world in its place.

No. No. No! You don’t want to be helping people like him (a) get richer, or (b) do anything at all that he wants to do.

Right? When the nutter down the road starts ranting about destroying the real world and creating a new one that he controls… you feel a bit sad for him and hope he’s feeling better soon. When a billionaire with CIA connections starts expressing those thoughts out loud… you hope you’ll not be the only one at the barricades come the day.

Anyways, that’s my Facebook rant. Sorry it went on so long, but it’s always good to get that kind of thing off your chest.

(and to those who say, ‘But I don’t give my real details’, I would suggest that doesn’t actually invalidate most of the above… even assuming they ain’t logging your IP address. Which, let’s face it, they probably are. If the people behind Facebook asked you to help them out with this social engineering experiment they’re running, would you really want to take part even under condition of anonymity? Really?)

Anyways, the recent development that sparked this little outburst is the news that the CEO of Facebook (the chap on the throne, situated in front of Peter Thiel) gave a recent speech in which he outlined the next steps for the company. It included the line

I really want to see us build a product that allows you to really feel a person and understand what’s really going on with them and feel present with them

Is it just me that doesn’t want those people to have that kind of product?

UPDATE 3:30pm: As pointed out in the comments below, and upon re-reading The Guardian article, it does seem like I may have misinterpreted the financing of Facebook. Although a director of In-Q-Tel is a major advisor to Facebook, there’s no evidence provided that Facebook is actively funded by them. So it may well be that they are not benefitting financially from the company. I stress “may”, because I still feel that many of the connections between the US intelligence community and Facebook will be — almost by definition — clandestine. The CIA, like all national secret services, is not an organisation known for conducting its business in public. Even if they are not direct investors in the corporation, I believe they will still benefit financially, as well as in other ways, from having access to the information provided by Facebook users. Thanks to Michael, in the comments, for highlighting the potential inaccuracy.

I’ve already linked to it above. But I want to make it clear that while I’ve read a few things on this, most of the research was done for me by Tom Hodgkinson of The Guardian earlier this year. His article is the real eye-opener. This is a pointer towards it as much as it is anything else.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2008

I'm not spamming you

Just a quickie. I’d like to assure anyone who may have received some junk email over the past 24 hours claiming to be from a numero57.net email address, that it has nothing to do with me. I’ve just received a large number of ‘bounced’ messages (the subject line was “JANUARY 75% OFF”) and a cursory glance would suggest that they were sent from ‘web’ at ‘numero57.net’.

However, this is misleading. A closer examination of the header details of the spam emails reveals that they actually originate from an ‘telecomitalia.it’ address, but the “from” address has been spoofed to read mine.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s really not much I can do about this, folks. I’m sorry that you’re getting spammed, but I simply can’t prevent an anonymous stranger (possibly in Italy, though even that’s probably a zombie machine) from typing my address into the “from” field of his software.

Goddamn spammers!

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