MonthJuly 2012

CNN’s Bogus Drone-Deaths Graphic

CNN drone graph

CNN is running a story on a CNN graph that, in he words of Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, “indicates that the Pakistan drone program overseen by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama killed 163 innocent people in 2009, 40 innocent people in 2010, 26 innocents in 2011, and zero innocent people in 2012.” Friedersdorf continues:

Is our drone-strike program really only killing bad guys now?

The casual CNN reader can be forgiven for drawing that conclusion. Why worry about drones if everyone dying from them is now a militant? she might conclude. What the authors neglect to mention is this bit from the May 29, New York Times story that explains how the United States government — and perhaps our allies of convenience inside Pakistan? — define “militant.” Per the newspaper (emphasis added), “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” […]

Americans ought to know that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims to have verified a minimum of three civilian casualties in 2012, that the U.S. government’s definition of militants makes its claims unreliable, and that our method of identifying militants almost certainly isn’t foolproof. Clive Stafford Smith, who has reported from Pakistan, wrote in The Guardian last month that “just as with Guantánamo Bay, the CIA is paying bounties to those who will identify ‘terrorists’. Five thousand dollars is an enormous sum for a Waziri informant, translating to perhaps £250,000 in London terms. The informant has a calculation to make: is it safer to place a GPS tag on the car of a truly dangerous terrorist, or to call down death on a Nobody (with the beginnings of a beard), reporting that he is a militant? Too many ‘militants’ are just young men with stubble.”

The Atlantic: CNN’s Bogus Drone-Deaths Graphic

Wikipedia Blacks Out Russian Version in Protest

The AP reports:

Wikipedia on Tuesday shut down its Russian-language site for 24 hours to protest a bill that would give the Russian government sweeping powers to blacklist certain sites, the latest in a flurry of legislation that appears aimed at neutering a growing opposition movement that has protested President Vladimir Putin‘s rule. […]

The Kremlin has made no public comment on the bill, but lawmakers from Putin’s party were among those who wrote the legislation, and it is likely to pass. It follows other recent laws that have targeted groups Putin views as rivals or bad influences: A law imposing heavy fines for protesters was quickly pushed through parliament in June, and a bill that would label NGOs receiving foreign aid as “foreign agents” was approved just last week.

Time: Russian Wikipedia Shuts Down Site to Protest Bill

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

The Oatmeal, Tesla

Nikola Tesla would have been 156 today. You should celebrate by reading The Oatmeal’s comic on why Tesla was the greatest geek ever and his response to Forbes’ criticisms of that comic.

(Yes, I’m using the term “comic” very loosely here, it’s mostly text)

Early Issues of Heavy Metal Reassessed

Heavy Metal issue one cover

Sean Witzke reviews the first two issues of Heavy Metal magazine:

The first issue of Heavy Metal is shakily put together by the offices of National Lampoon. Equal parts translated reprints from Metal Hurlant, American underground comics, and new work, which is how the book would eventually move forward throughout the years. The first issue isn’t quite sure of the tone it wants to set or the kind of material they’d be interested in publishing. Metal Hurlant had a very vague definition of “science fiction”, one that the uncredited introductory editorial at the start of the issue pokes fun at. Heavy Metal is just a name for the book, and the material inside may have an emphasis on science fiction it is by no means a collection of science fiction or fantasy. Instead it a showcase of the kind of talent and the kinds of comics that would become the magazine’s standard – here in the first issue are Moebius, Druillet, Corben, Mezieres, and Vaughn Bode. All make their first appearances to herald a defining run on the series where for YEARS in every issue, at least one story was made by an absolute genius of the medium, even if it was a two page gag strip.

Full Story: supervillain: Time builds itself painlessly around them

(via Ian)

See also:

Heavy Metal Fan Page

Ian’s Moebius site

Black Market for Body Parts Spreads Among the Poor in Europe

The New York Times reports:

Facing grinding poverty, some Europeans are seeking to sell their kidneys, lungs, bone marrow or corneas, experts say. This phenomenon is relatively new in Serbia, a nation that has been battered by war and is grappling with the financial crisis that has swept the Continent. The spread of illegal organ sales into Europe, where they are gaining momentum, has been abetted by the Internet, a global shortage of organs for transplants and, in some cases, unscrupulous traffickers ready to exploit the economic misery.

In Spain, Italy, Greece and Russia, advertisements by people peddling organs — as well as hair, sperm and breast milk — have turned up on the Internet, with asking prices for lungs as high as $250,000. In late May, the Israeli police detained 10 members of an international crime ring suspected of organ trafficking in Europe, European Union law enforcement officials said. The officials said the suspects had targeted impoverished people in Moldova, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Full Story: New York Times: Black Market for Body Parts Spreads Among the Poor in Europe

DARPA Training Computers to Write Dossiers

DARPA is trying to put me out of a job:

They look a bit like communally written Wikipedia pages. But these articles—concise profiles of people and organizations, complete with lists of connected organizations, people, and events—were in fact written by computers, in a new bid by the Pentagon to build machines that can follow global news events and provide intelligence analysts with useful summaries in close to real time. […]

On the new site, if you search for information on the Nigerian jihadist movement Boko Haram, you get this entirely computer-generated summary: “Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram is led by Ibrahim Abubakar Shekau. (Former leaders include Mohammed Yusuf.) It has headquarters in Maiduguri. It has been described as ‘a new radical fundamentalist sect,’ ‘the main anchor for mayhem in the state,’ ‘a fractured sect with no clear structure,’ and ‘the misguided extremist sect.’ “

Lucky for me:

The profile of Barack Obama, for example, correctly identifies him as the president of the United States, but then summarizes him this way: “Obama has been described as ‘Nobel Peace Prize winner,’ ‘the only reasonable guy in the room,’ ‘an anti-apartheid campus divestment activist,’ and ‘the most trusted politician in the CR-poll.’ ”

At another point it notes, “Obama is married to Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama; other family members include Henry Healy, Malia Obama, and Ann Dunham.” (Healy is a distant Obama cousin from Moneygall, Ireland. Obama’s younger daughter, Sasha, isn’t mentioned.)

The system lacks real-world knowledge that would help a human analyst recognize something as false, humorous, or plainly irrelevant.

MIT Technology Review: An Online Encyclopedia that Writes Itself

Yes, it’s a far cry from replacing your favorite non-fiction writers, but the possibility that this sort of thing could start to cut into the total number of paid writing and editing positions in the next few years is starting to get real.

See also: Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

New Particle Resembling Long-Sought Higgs Boson Uncovered at Large Hadron Collider

As you’ve likely heard, both the ATLAS and CMS teams at the Large Hadron Collider believe they’ve found the Higgs Boson:

Crucially, both teams’ findings appear exceptionally robust. In physics terms, evidence for a new particle requires a “3-sigma” measurement, corresponding to a 1-in-740 chance that a random fluke could explain the observations, and a claim of discovery requires a 5-sigma effect, or a 1-in–3.5 million shot that the observations are due to chance. In December representatives of the two experiments had announced what one called “intriguing, tantalizing hints” of something brewing in the collider data. But those hints fell short of the 3-sigma level. The new ATLAS finding met not just that level of significance but cleared the gold standard 5-sigma threshold, and CMS very nearly did as well, with a 4.9-sigma finding. […]

The newfound particle fits the bill for the Higgs boson, but the researchers cautioned that more work is needed to compare the properties of the particle to those predicted for the Higgs. After all, the LHC’s detectors cannot identify the Higgs directly. The LHC accelerates protons to unprecedented energies of four trillion electron-volts (4 TeV) before colliding a clockwise-traveling proton beam with a counterclockwise beam. From the smash-up new particles emerge, some of them existing for just an instant before decaying to other particles.

Full Story: Scientific American: New Particle Resembling Long-Sought Higgs Boson Uncovered at Large Hadron Collider

Previously: CERN May Have Found the Higgs Boson Particle, but Don’t Get Too Excited Yet

Wiki Inventor’s Latest Creation Decentralizes the Web

New from me at Wired:

Ward Cunningham, the creator of the wiki, is proud of his invention. “We changed the world together,” he says of those who contributed to his software development site C2, which spawned the online collaboration software that underpins Wikipedia and countless other services across the net.

But there is one thing about the wiki that he regrets. “I always felt bad that I owned all those pages,” he says. The central idea of a wiki — whether it’s driving Wikipedia or C2 — is that anyone can add or edit a page, but those pages all live on servers that someone else owns and controls. Cunningham now believes that no one should have that sort of central control, so he has built something called the federated wiki.

This new creation taps into the communal ethos fostered by GitHub, a place where software developers can not only collaborate on software projects but also instantly “fork” these projects, spawning entirely new collaborations.

Wired Enterprise: Wiki Inventor Sticks a Fork in His Baby

I’m thinking about getting this up and running and moving the dossiers to it.

See also:

Smallest Federated Wiki on Github (requires either Ruby and Sinatra or Node.js and Express)

One-click installer for Amazon Web Services (there are also instructions for getting it up and running quickly on Heroku)

Real-Life Steampunk Wants to Hack the Power Grid

Danielle Fong

Caleb Garling, my colleague at Wired Enterprise, writes:

You might think of Danielle Fong as a real-life incarnation of Steampunk, that science-fiction literary genre that re-imagines Victorian technology in a post-apocalyptic future. The difference is that her prototype isn’t fiction. Fong’s original plan was to put her tanks into cars. She holds up Elon Musk, the founder of electric car pioneer Tesla, as a role model. “He was willing to go all out,” she says. But rather than equip cars with combustable engines or rechargeable batteries, LightSail planned to fill them with compressed air. The hot air would drive the pistons in a new breed of automobile engine.

But after a nudge from their backers, Fong and team decided that — whatever Musk has accomplished with Tesla — convincing old-school automakers to put these tanks into their vehicles was an almost insurmountable task. So she chose another almost insurmountable task: Reinvent the power grid.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Steam Punk Remakes Power Grid with Compressed Air

Cyberculture History: Early, Influential Online Community The WELL in Danger

First Minitel, now this:

The WELL is a virtual online community with user-generated content that was so influential, it was once featured on the cover of Wired magazine, and a top 80’s UK pop star created an account, to promote his brand there. (Sound familiar?) As you might have read last week, corporate owner Salon.com laid off the WELL staff and is now looking for a buyer. Now the WELL’s last users (it still has over 2,000 subscribers) are making a last-minute bid to buy the WELL from Salon: A thread called “Would you kick in $1,000 for The Well?” (subscriber account required), has already garnered over 120 members pledging $1000 (some less, many more, with at least one pledge of $10,000), for an estimated total of over $120,000. That’s a lot of money, especially coming from so few people, but it may not be enough. Many have pointed out that the Well.com domain name is probably quite attractive to organizations willing to pay a lot to own it. (For example, an HMO who wants turn well.com into a wellness resource.) So at the moment, it’s still unclear what this user-driven campaign will do, though I hope the WELL can survive in some form.

New World Notes: Will The WELL Survive? Members Pledge $100K+ to Buy Influential Virtual Community from Corporate Owners

See also:

The World’s Most Influential Online Community (And It’s Not AOL)

Cyberculture History: French Proto-Internet Minitel to Shutdown at the End of June

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