Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • What’s It Like to Fly the Space Shuttle? We Find Out

    img_7996

    As a person who really enjoys flying airplanes, I never thought I would ever say this, but flying a simulator can be as much fun as flying the real thing. Of course it helps when the simulator is a replica of the space shuttle cockpit at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

    On a recent assignment for AOPA Pilot magazine, I arrived early for an interview with Ken Ham, commander on the shuttle flight scheduled to lift off on May 14. While I waited, an engineer fired up the simulator where we were going to conduct the interview and let me make some practice approaches.

    Known as the Shuttle Engineering Simulator, or SES, it’s not the full motion simulator used for full flight profile training, but rather a fixed-base simulator used by astronauts and engineers for both training and testing changes that will be made on the shuttle. The SES is very similar to the e-cab used by Boeing and other aircraft makers to test systems before putting them on the real thing.

    Whether it was a change to a guidance computer, or an upgrade to the software controlling the nine glass panel displays, many of the improvements made to the shuttle over the years were tested right here. Shuttle commanders and pilots (commander is in left seat, pilot in the right) also use the SES for training, especially early on in their preparation.

    The wood on the floor in front of left seat has been worn smooth by thousands of heels sliding back and forth controlling the rudder pedals over the years. With the news that the shuttle will likely continue flying into 2011, instead of being retired later this year as previously scheduled, the SES may yet see a few more heels.

    Sadly, even with the extension, this was as close as I would probably get to my astronaut dreams. Still I was eager to try flying the heaviest and most expensive glider ever built.

    Primary flight display passing through 33,000 feet

    Primary flight display passing through 33,000 feet

    Computers control much of the flight until the last 4-5 minutes before landing. So I was given the chance to fly several approaches into the Kennedy Space Center, landing on runway 15. My flights began with the shuttle heading east towards the Atlantic passing over KSC at 50,000 feet and 240 knots (equivalent air speed or KEAS).

    It turns out the shuttle is a terrible glider. I don’t have a lot of glider experience, but I know that pitching nose down at 20 degrees and a descent rate of more than 10,000 feet per minute isn’t considered good. An airliner typically follows a 3-degree glide path when approaching the runway. According to Commander Ham, this is probably the biggest challenge facing the average pilot.

    “The sight picture is a lot different,” he said, “but it’s a pretty easy task for an experienced pilot to make a safe landing with just a little bit of information,” Commander Ham said, adding that a perfect landing is very difficult.

    Of course, like many things, it might be easy when everything is going right. It’s the emergencies and unexpected scenarios that require the bulk of the training.

    “Then things get a bit more difficult. It starts to challenge your flying skills a bit more,” Commander Ham noted, saying it is similar to flying other aircraft where you train for emergencies. “It’s just another flying job.”

    I paused and debated to myself whether or not to challenge that last point. Never mind.

    Back in the sim, I passed through 40,000 feet and got ready to start my turn around the heading alignment cone or HAC, which is a guidance system that allows pilots to follow a circular descent path to the runway. As I continued the turn, I could see the Florida coast out the left window, and out of habit, I started looking for the runway.

    The view from left seat inside the SES

    The view from left seat inside the SES

    My airspeed was around 290 knots as I turned to line up with runway 15 and pass through 12,000 feet. The shuttle is remarkably stable to fly as I suppose would be the case with any brick featuring stubby wings. Moving the stick is a bit unusual because it requires only small wrist movements.

    Perhaps most interesting is that it pivots in the middle of the palm for pitch (controlling nose up or nose down). Commander Ham explained later that this is to prevent inadvertent movement during launch. “It’s a beautiful design, you can fly uphill at 3g’s with your hand on the stick and nothing happens,” he said.

    So far the approach hadn’t been too difficult. In front of me there was a heads-up display (HUD) with airspeed, altitude and other key flight parameters. Most importantly there was a flight-path marker and guidance diamond. These navigation aids make it rather easy for a pilot to find the way to the runway and line up, assuming that everything is working. You just keep the flight-path marker on the guidance diamond and the runway should eventually appear in front of you.

    On final approach, a pair of triangles rose from the bottom of the HUD when it was time to begin the flare, which slows the rate of descent. In a typical small airplane, a pilot might begin the flare at 10 to 30 feet above the runway traveling around 60 knots. In the shuttle, you start the flare at 2,000 feet and 300 knots. That part would take some getting used to.

    “This is the critical part,” Commander Ham explained. “At 2,000 feet, if you don’t start pulling up, you’re going to die.”

    So I followed the guidance on the HUD and touched down the main gear with a squeak at 200 knots with the nose still pointing rather high in the air. After what seeemed like a very long time, the nose gear eventually came down with a thud and I rolled safely to a stop.

    A space shuttle commander has countless landings in simulators at the Johnson Space Center, and at least a thousand simulated landings in NASA’s Shuttle Training Aircraft. I realize I’m a long way from having the skills necessary to fly the orbiter. But if I were ever stowed away in the cargo bay and the announcement came over the speakers, “Is there a pilot on board?” I would at least have a chance of getting the world’s heaviest glider on the ground safely.

    Images: Jason Paur/Wired.com


Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • WordPress Founder: Open Source Is About People, Not Technology

    We’ve discovered a lot of great ideas here at The Economist Innovation Conference in Berkeley, California. Pixar’s President spoke on how the company creates great films and Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) discussed the history of the @ symbol, among other presentations and workshops.

    Now one of the biggest forces in social media, founder of WordPress Matt Mullenweg, has taken the stage to speak about the open source movement, the origins of WordPress, and how it has fostered innovation.

    Here are my notes on his talk:


    Open Source and the Origins of WordPress


    Mullenweg opened by remarking that open source is not about technology, but about people. He focused a little on the history of open source — he believes it started in 1984 at MIT. Since then, there has been a slow transformation of how we view software, from proprietary to free and open-source. The birth of Linux was one of the major turning points for open source.

    WordPress’s founder then focused on his own story of starting WordPress: he didn’t build the software from the ground-up, but looked to the open source software that he was using at that time to blog. That software was b2/cafelog. When he and his partner Ryan Boren realized that it was abandoned, they decided to build on top of it to create a better open source blog software, the beginnings of WordPress.

    A few years after he built WordPress, he built the company that now surrounds it: Automattic. The Automattic empire not only includes WordPress and WordPress.com, but Gravatar, Akismet, blo.gs, IntenseDebate, and PollDaddy. He also built his company to be an international, telecommuting company, because he wanted to get the best talent, no matter where they were. In fact, only six WordPress employees are in the Bay Area.


    Software Has Changed


    Software design has fundamentally changed, Mullengweg said. There is no such thing as a “killer feature” anymore because of extensions and plug-ins — if an app like Firefox or WordPress doesn’t have the feature you want, you can add it with an API or a plug-in. It means that everybody has a different, unique version of WordPress, and thus it changes how he builds on his platform.

    The audience got a chance to ask questions; the big one was about how WordPress makes money. The answer: Back-up services, hosting, anti-spam, and other paid upgrades make the majority of revenues. While not many users buy these features, when you have millions of users it adds up. He also is happy that its revenue model isn’t overwhelming its users.

    Overall, Matt Mullenweg is one of the biggest and most prominent proponents of open source. It promotes innovation because it allows developers to share ideas and code to build better ideas for less of a cost. WordPress’s founder said that the city of San Francisco this year will spend more on software than WordPress has spent in its entire time of existence. He hopes that eventually that kind of spending will go away as open source becomes a more integral component of our lives.


    Your Thoughts


    What do you think of the open source movement? Is it essential to the future of software? Is it monetizable and sustainable? Is Matt right when he says open source is about people, not technology?

    Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


    For more technology coverage, follow Mashable Tech on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook



    Reviews: Facebook, Firefox, Gravatar, Linux, Twitter, WordPress

    Tags: innovation, Inovation Conference, matt mullenweg, The Economist, WordPress

Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • The Future Newsroom: Lean, Open, and Social Media-Savvy

    Shared by Digittante

    Online Journalism is dead (again), Long Live Online Journalism...

    Newspaper Laptop ImageOn the campus of Penn State University, a rivalry between a rogue campus blog and the official newspaper has become a fascinating mirror of the strife between old and new media. In only a matter of months, the unofficial campus blog Onward State, has marshaled the power of social media to compete with the award winning 112-year-old campus paper The Daily Collegian. With one-tenth of the Collegian’s staff size, Onward State has constructed a virtual newsroom that collaborates in real-time with Google Wave, outsourced its tip-line to Twitter, and is unabashed about linking to a competitor’s story.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about this sociological Petri dish is that many of the players began as teenagers. In other words, the old/new media rivalry might not be generational, but ideological. What follows is a practical look at the successful social media strategies of Onward State, and a comparison of the world views of two camps of student journalists and their professional counterparts — a comparison that portends a long war to come.


    A Crowdsourced Newsroom


    Onward State Image

    “We focused on our Twitter presence from the very beginning, and it’s paid dividends for us in terms of referring traffic to the site and really becoming a part of the community,” said Davis Shaver, founder of Onward State. Tapping the power of the crowd has been essential to multiplying the resources of Onward State’s relatively tiny news team. By being responsive to the social media community, Shaver told Mashable that they “curated this ecosystem in the sense that people will actually send stories to us on Twitter.”

    The transparent back-and-forth embeds Onward State into the hub of campus conversation. For instance, when an academic department decided to try its hand at democracy and hold a naming contest for the new student center, Onward State was a natural partner, whom they first informed via Twitter. As such, Shaver never underestimates the “sheer power that a well-run Twitter feed can have.”

    On the other side of the aisle, The Collegian takes a decidedly expert-based approach. Editor-in-Chief Rossilynne Skena said that while social media is “great for getting out short bursts of information,” the Collegian’s competitive advantage is “really going into depth and detail about a particular subject,” complete with perspectives from local leaders. Instead of putting their ear to the social media grindstone, The Collegian tracks down leads through trusted sources. Once a connection is made, Skena prides herself on being able to assign a person experienced in the field with personal “training” from the Collegian.

    Shaver’s defection from The Collegian, due to what he believed was a technologically-phobic bureaucracy, is a mirror imagine of what was happening to some newsrooms in the mid-2000s. Erin Weinger, a former Los Angeles Times fashion writer, recounts her frustrations with her editorial team. “It took multiple meetings and various e-mails to get the permission needed to get my section on Twitter,” she said.

    “Journalism has remained so unchanged … that journalists didn’t feel they had to change.” As such, there was a general skepticism of online sources. “Leads can be found everywhere now, from places you’d never deem credible in the past. Amateur blogs, for one … But, five years ago, if you said you were citing a stranger on the Internet you’d [probably] get yelled at by an editor.”

    Appropriately enough, Erin now runs her own LA fashion blog.


    To Link, or Not to Link


    Collegian Image

    It should be no surprise then that Onward State happily promotes a competitor’s story with direct links, while The Collegian questions the very logic of such a strategy. Shaver admitted that he doesn’t always produce the web’s best content, and has “no qualms about writing the blog post and porting to the story.” For Skena, linking to a competitor’s story “doesn’t make sense.” A symbolic move which tells readers to “go read our competition” would be devastating to the trust they’ve worked for over a century to gain, according to Skena.

    The largely philosophical wrestling match over linking stories became a professional journalism crisis when a New York Times journalist was caught plagiarizing in order to push out a time-sensitive news story. Felix Salmon, a blogger for Reuters, argued that the root of this dishonesty lies squarely in the link-phobic mindset of old-media journalists.

    “[W]hat’s more depressing still is that even the bloggers at the [New York Times] and [Wall Street Journal] are link-phobic, often preferring to re-report stories found elsewhere, giving no credit to the people who found and reported them first. It’s almost as though they think that linking to a story elsewhere is an admission of defeat, rather than a prime reason why people visit blogs in the first place.

    Salmon concluded, “It’s a print reporter’s mindset.”


    Virtual Collaboration


    “Our office really consists of my dorm room, I guess. We don’t have any kind of physical structure, so we use [Google] Wave as our virtual newsroom,” said Shaver. Throughout the day, Shaver and his team monitor several waves at once, each tailored for a different department. In a single browser tab, Shaver has a unique eagle’s-eye view of the entire newsroom. In real-time, his editorial team can toggle between multiple conversations or throw an idea out to the crowd for greater perspective.

    Consistent with its crowdsourcing mantra, Google Wave permits more inclusive perspective and helps keep eyes everywhere on campus. For perspective, Shaver uses Google Wave to canvas his writers, which hail from different social groups on campus. As such, he’ll put “the nucleus of an idea up in wave and [let] it float and see what people say about it.”

    As for keeping tabs on campus activity, because there is no formal workplace, Onward State writers are already situated throughout the university. For instance, when the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile came to Penn State, Onward State reporters were already sprinkled throughout campus, and a writer in the vicinity could have been tapped to snag a quick photo. As silly as it may seem to give priority to something like the Weiner Mobile, hyper-local news is still about competitive advantage, and speedy reporting gives Onward State an upper-hand.

    The low-overhead of a crowdsourced newsroom has become an appealing alternative as the Internet’s top destinations, from Craigslist to Google, erode the advertisement cash cow that once funded well-staffed newspapers.

    Now, a talented writer with a broadband connection can reach the same audience. As new media advocate Jeff Jarvis wrote on his blog “I’m seeing that it’s possible for someone to come along with relatively little investment and a much smaller staff that operates more collaboratively to compete with the big, expensive traditional newsroom at low cost.”

    In contrast, The Collegian thrives in the dynamic of a centralized newsroom. “What we really like is when we’re able to work with the people face-to-face,” said Skena. Instead of tossing up an idea to a digital billboard, Skena likes the ability to throw the keyboard to a colleague for help punching through writer’s block.


    Hobbyists Aren’t in it For the Money


    When Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Newscorp, began elaborating on its threats to pull Fox News content from Google News, the thrust of his point was simple: “Quality content is not free.”

    Arriana Huffington, who’s blog was implicitly indicted in Murdoch’s article, responded with a visceral rebuttal. Huffington argued that people like Murdoch “can’t understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues — great and small — that interest them. For free. They don’t understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, who maintain their own blogs for free, who Twitter for free, who constantly refresh and update their Facebook page for free, who want to help tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities… for free.”

    Onward State’s motivational strategy seems to be representative of this view. “Money making is not something that we’ve really embraced yet,” said Shaver. The money from one fund raiser they did manage went to a staff party.


    A Divergent Future


    In reality, the “old vs. new media” split is not a cleanly sliced dichotomy. Media titans, such as CNN, now regularly respond on-air to Twitter chatter, especially during the 2009 Iran Election Crisis, for example. But, as Jon Stewart has joked, the adoption of social media has been a messy collision of disparate worlds.

    Perhaps the future of how this will all unfold is again best foretold by the situation at Penn State. Onward State plans to dive into the dark waters of amateur content, developing a larger space for user-generated content on both Facebook and its website. The Collegian, in contrast, has just begun (as of January) to play with a more interactive Twitter feed, and is explicit about keeping user content at arm’s length.

    However, it’s far too early to tell which strategy is, ultimately, more advantageous. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the flash-bang success of online college newspapers may be unsustainable, especially if a charismatic leader leaves the paper for, say, a semester abroad. Professional blogs as well, may find some undiscovered Kryptonite. If the pace of innovation is any indication, it may not be long before we know the answer.


    For more social media coverage, follow Mashable Social Media on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook



    More journalism resources from Mashable:


    - The Future Journalist: Thoughts from Two Generations
    - Can E-readers and Tablets Save the News?
    - 5 Essential Tools for the Mobile Journalist
    - 8 Things to Avoid When Building a Community
    - 8 Must-Have Traits of Tomorrow’s Journalist

    Image courtesy of iStockphoto, fotosipsak


    Reviews: Craigslist, Facebook, Google, Google Wave, Mashable, Twitter, Wikipedia, iStockphoto

    Tags: BLOGS, citizen journalism, facebook, journalism, newspapers, social media, twitter, universities, university


Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • Why Dark Coffee Is Easier on Your Stomach

    Shared by Digittante

    YAY for coffee!

    black_coffee

    SAN FRANCISCO — Roasting coffee beans doesn’t just impart bold, rich flavor. It also creates a compound that helps dial down production of stomach acid, according to research presented on March 21 at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society. The discovery may explain why dark-roasted brews are gentler on the stomach than their lighter peers, and could lead to a new generation of tummy-friendly coffees.

    sciencenewsEven though several studies have found a cup-a-day habit imparts health benefits such as decreased risk of obesity, Alzheimer’s and colon cancer, many coffee lovers drink decaf or forgo the beverage altogether because it irritates the stomach or spurs heartburn. Previous work suggested that coffee made from steam-treated beans tamps down this gastric distress, a finding attributed to lower levels of caffeine and other compounds in these brews.

    “But there is no experimental or human data that says these compounds increase gastric acid,” said Veronika Somoza of the University of Vienna, who presented the research.

    To explore the science behind these gentler brews, Somoza and her colleagues used water and three other solvents to extract compounds from regular commercial coffee blends. Each solvent extracted a different profile of compounds, including caffeine and N-methylpyridinium, a ringed compound that doesn’t appear in green coffee beans but is created in the roasting process. Stomach cells exposed to each suite of compounds upped their acid secretion, except for the cells exposed to the extract containing NMP.

    The team then compared the chemical profiles of a dark-roasted and light-roasted brew made with regular roasted and steam-treated beans. Both versions of the dark-roasted coffee had more than 30 milligrams per liter of NMP, as compared with the lighter roast, which had 22 mg/l. The light roast that was subjected to steam treatment, a technique thought to weaken coffee’s stomach-provoking powers, had a mere 5 mg/l of NMP.

    Follow-up work confirmed the molecule’s mild-mannered nature. Human stomach cells treated with coffee that had medium or high concentrations of NMP secreted far less acid than cells treated with coffee containing the least amount of NMP, Somoza reported. And the activity of many of the genes and proteins involved in this gastric secretion were quashed in cells exposed to NMP-rich coffee.

    The research team is now conducting a pilot study in which subjects swallow a sensor embedded in a capsule that measures the stomach’s pH and transmits the readings to a computer. Preliminary results suggest that stomach acid surges for a longer time when subjects drink light-roast coffee compared to dark-roast.

    “Most people think that non-processed food is beneficial, that possibly raw foods are best, but we do not believe that,” Somoza said. “There are healthy, beneficial compounds in processed food. Our idea is to identify these beneficial compounds and enhance them.”

    How NMP acts on the gastric system isn’t well understood. Acid secretion didn’t change noticeably in stomach cells treated with NMP alone. And caffeine’s name hasn’t been cleared — the friendlier darker brews also had less caffeine than their lighter-brewed counterparts.

    This lower caffeine may also contribute to the darker roasts’ antacid powers. While chemists are fond of breaking bigger things into their smaller parts, these parts often work in concert, said Bhimu Patil of Texas A&M University in College Station. “It’s important to break things down to understand them, but most of the time, there is a synergistic effect.”

    Image: eclectic echoes/flickr

    See Also:


Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • The Casual Observer: Anatomy of a Multi-Author Blog

    A Guest Post by Kosmo from The Casual Observer.

    I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Casual Observer, a site that has the goal of bringing an eclectic mix of fresh content to its readers every day.  We currently have ten authors contributing on a regular basis, with a handful of others writing an occasional article.  In a blogosphere dominated by niche-oriented, single author blogs, what makes The Casual Observer tick?

    Why Multiple Authors?

    When I started the site, I had no intention of involving multiple authors.  While I always intended for the site to contain an eclectic mix of content, I originally anticipated that I would write all the content.  The site took a slow turn toward being team written when a friend of mine mentioned that he was taking a trip to the 2009 Masters golf tournament.  I liked the idea of allowing the readers to see what goes on at Augusta, so I asked him to write a guest article.  I liked it so much that I asked him to come on board and write a weekly sports column.  This was in spite of the fact that I am a sports fanatic.  I liked what Johnny brought to the table in terms of writing talent, and his sports interests varied enough from mine to be complementary.

    Over the course of the last year, I have approached other authors (or had them approach me) to write on various topics.  This has allowed me to move closer to my goal of provide diversity of content similar to that of a newspaper or magazine rather than the niche content that most blogs contain.  I knew from the start that this would be an uphill climb for readership, but my own varied interests made this more fun than a niche site.

    Another reason for having multiple authors is the ability to produce more frequent content.  From day one, I have wanted to publish a new article every day, allowing readers to find a new edition of The Casual Observer at their virtual front door, much as they found the printed newspaper at their physical door.  With a full time job and two kids under the age of 3, this would be extremely difficult if I was the sole author.

    How it Works

    Very quickly, I laid out a document detailing the relationship between The Casual Observer and authors.  The basics were that the authors were considered independent contractors rather than employees (an important distinction in US tax law), that they retained copyright to their works, and that they should refrain from content that could be construed as defamation of character.

    At the same time, I created a profit sharing agreement.  The gist of the profit sharing agreement is that after overhead costs (such as hosting) are deducted, advertising revenue would be shared proportionally, based on the number of articles an author wrote.

    Am I putting the cart ahead of the horse by having a profit sharing agreement before there are actual profits?  My thought process was that it was better to have an agreement in place up front than to try to hammer one out three years down the road.  It’s much easier to get an agreement on how to split potential future income than actual current income.

    Bumps in the Road

    Has the path been smoothly paved and lined with fresh flowers?  Not always.  There are some problems that go along with multiple author blogs.

    First and foremost, the other authors will miss deadlines.  It is a foregone conclusion that life events will sometimes prevent an author from getting an article submitted.  An author may even go on hiatus for a while when their life gets busier than usual.  When this happens, I try to put myself in the author’s shoes.  A non-paying writing gig is going to take a backseat at times.  It’s important to be able to fill these content voids when necessary.

    Much more disturbing is the potential for plagiarism.  I was actually forced to sever the relationship with a former writer when I found evidence of plagiarism.  I was reviewing the current submission when I had a sudden case of déjà vu.  Where had I read this before?  Ah,yes.  CNN.  Multiple paragraphs had simply been copied and pasted.  A quick review of previous articles quickly found that they too had been copied from other sources.  At that point, I realized that I was probably a bit naïve to have complete trust in the honestly of my writers.  I now have a policy of randomly checking articles for originality – even when the author is a close friend.  I hate doing this, but it’s necessary to protect myself from copyright infringement claims.

    What’s next?

    I have been very pleased with the way The Casual Observer has progressed.  We currently have nearly 500 articles in our repository – ranging from sports to fiction to Middle East politics.  While I don’t anticipate a surge in the number of authors, I remain on the lookout for writers who could provide fresh content that would further enhance the reader’s enjoyment of the site.

    Post from: Blog Tips at ProBlogger.

    468x60.jpg

    The Casual Observer: Anatomy of a Multi-Author Blog

    Share This

Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • Steve Jobs ridding ‘66 BMW motorcycle in NatGeo feature:HIGH TECH,HIGH RISK,& HIGH LIFE IN Silicon Valley Oct-82

    brilliant…. found at 

    HIGH TECH, HIGH RISK, AND HIGH LIFE IN Silicon Valley

    By MOIRA JOHNSTON

    Photographs by CHARLES O’REAR

    SILICON VALLEY appears on no map, but this former California prune patch, an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, is the heartland of an electronics revolution that may prove as far-reaching as the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

    It is a place where fast fortunes are made, corporate head-hunting is profitable sport, and seven-day workweeks send cutting-edge technology tumbling over itself in its competitive rush to the marketplace.

    Not surprisingly, flying—fast, challenging, and risky—is a sport that appeals powerfully to Silicon Valley men such as Bob Noyce, who snatches every chance to fly his twin-engine Turbo Commander to Aspen to ski, to his Intel plant in Phoenix, or just to wheel in the sky around Silicon Valley.

    At age 54, he is one of the grand old men of an industry so young that its pioneers are scarcely in their 50s, yet so powerful that it is fast becoming known as the oil business of the eighties. Noyce had a key role in inventing the integrated circuit, the tiny computer chip that is the brains and basic building block of virtually all of today’s electronic equipment, providing the quantum leap that created much of the wealth that spreads below his wings in a golden tide of purring Mercedes-Benzes and half-million-dollar homes in the hills. From the air the valley itself, with its grid of roads and rectangular buildings, has taken on the look of an integrated circuit.

    Fifty years ago it was a landscape of orchards supplying half of the world’s dried prunes. Even through the sixties, it bloomed with plums, pears, apricots, and cherries, one of the nation’s most bountiful agricultural regions. Today only 13,000 acres of orchards survive out of an original 100,000. By the late 1960s, as industry surpassed agriculture as Santa Clara County’s economic base, buildings of the valley’s many semiconductor companies were beginning to fill the region from Palo Alto to San Jose, named in 1980 as the nation’s fastest growing city.

    Yet this dynamic growth happens behind a deceptively sedate facade. Driving through Silicon Valley, I am flanked by a monotone sprawl of low rectangular buildings, on which corporate nameplates display fusions of high-technology words that give few clues as to what goes on inside: Siltec, Avantek, Intersil, Signetics, Intel, Synertek. Inside, an intense concentration of brains, innovation, and enterprising zeal creates products that have captured one-fifth of the estimated 16-billion-dollar worldwide semiconductor market. And, despite recession, more of the aggressive little start-up companies that are the valley’s backbone are constantly being born.

    Befriending the computer, and putting it to work and play in daily life a decade before most of us found the courage to touch a keyboard, Silicon Valley and its families may well be a glimpse of a computer-and-communications culture that is the prototype of the future.

    The freewheeling egalitarianism that has replaced the rural pace is nowhere more visible than at Intel, one of the valley’s most innovative semiconductor companies. Leisure-time pilot Bob Noyce, a physicist, and Gordon Moore, a chemist, run Intel from modest cubicles separated from a surrounding sea of cubicles only by head-high movable partitions. Here, at the highest executive level, sport shirts and accessibility have replaced corporate pinstripes and wood-paneled boardrooms. Noyce says of his Spartan habitat, “It makes you feel as if you’re in touch with what’s going on.”

    The “Intel culture,” as they call it, fanned with messianic zeal by co-founder Andy Grove, has produced the microprocessor, an all-purpose “computer on a chip” that can be adapted to infinite uses, the chip that opened the era of personal computers.

    This innovative spirit not only is the life-blood of Silicon Valley but also may be the key to its survival in an increasingly intense trade war with Japan, the competitor it perceives as a mortal threat in the international marketplace. Maintaining Silicon Valley’s creative lead as chips grow so complex that computers increasingly help design them is one of Noyce’s principal challenges. With a certain wistfulness for the days of the individual breakthrough, he says, “Now it’s a team effort. In 1970 Federico Faggin designed the 4004 microprocessor chip by himself at Intel in nine months; our 32-bit microprocessor took 100 man-years!”

    But the individual can still star as an entrepreneur. Competitive energy vibrated from Sandy Kurtzig as she told me, “I have taken a bet that ASK Computer Systems will be doing 100 million dollars in annual sales in four years. We will.” Sharing a quiet brunch after tennis with her husband, Arie, a research manager at Hewlett-Packard, and their two young sons, this lively brunette in slacks and sweater is president of ASK, which she founded with $2,000 in the back bedroom of her apartment in 1972. Since ASK went public last year, the worth of the company’s stock has soared to more than 75 million dollars.

    Sandy, 35, entered the industry with a mathematics-and-chemistry degree as well as a master’s in aeronautical engineering. Aware of the nation’s productivity crisis, she shrewdly saw that “the technology of the chip had far outstripped our capacity to put all that potential to work.” Sandy targeted software, the programs that tell computers what to do. She developed software systems for minicomputers and sold them as easy-to-use packages to accomplish tasks such as inventory control and accounting in manufacturers’ factories and offices. Her strategies have been so successful that, while chip stocks plunged in 1981, ASK’s rose to make the firm perhaps the nation’s fastest growing public software company.

    Yet Sandy, like most of Silicon Valley’s successes, does not wallow in hedonistic excess. True, she recently purchased a baronial Tudor-style home, but says, “We didn’t buy the house to show off. It was mainly to be on the flats where the kids could ride their bicycles.”

    But in a valley characterized by venture capitalist Don Valentine as “a pocket of entrepreneuring that attracts a breed of buccaneer capitalists and high-risk takers—an area barely big enough to contain the egos,” there are some Silicon Valley winners who revel in flamboyant display.

    “Money is life’s report card,” says a laughing Jerry Sanders, a street-wise kid from Chicago who parlayed an engineering degree and intuitive salesmanship to the presidency of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and to a reputation as the valley’s highest flying businessman. Exuding brio and self-confidence, he measures his success in a string of homes, hand-tailored suits, a Rolls-Royce, and a Bentley. In good years he makes grand gestures to employees: a $350,000 Christmas party in San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium; in a lean year he served hot dogs and sauerkraut with panache that won cheers.

    But for Sanders, as for Silicon Valley, work is the thing. The valley was born in 1955. Dr. William Shockley, Nobel Prize-winning co-inventor of the transistor at Bell Telephone Laboratories, sent out a call to a dozen handpicked young Ph.D.’s in physics and chemistry to join him in a warehouse in Mountain View, at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.

    Noyce and Moore answered the call. There they would exploit the properties of silicon, a semiconductor of electricity whose conductivity could be modified by the addition of minute amounts of chemicals, allowing on-off electric signals—the very basis of computers—to occur at mind-boggling speeds. As transistors replaced vacuum tubes, the computing power of an unwieldy roomful of metal boxes ultimately could be contained in a hand-held calculator.

    Ironically, Shockley’s pioneering laboratory failed. “His ideas were too far ahead of the still primitive silicon technology, and he never produced a manufacturable product. What he did was to spawn Silicon Valley,” says Shockley alumnus Harry Sello. Believing they had something—a better transistor—Noyce, Moore, and six others got financial backing from Fairchild Camera and Instrument to develop it. Since the founding of Fairchild Semiconductor in 195 7, the valley’s first viable semiconductor company, no fewer than two dozen companies have spun off from it, including the present leading triumvirate: Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and National Semiconductor, all started by former Fairchild men.

    The start-ups and spin-offs could never have flourished without infrastructure, the valley’s vital support system that has built up south of Stanford University. Born before Silicon Valley, it began in 1939 with Hewlett-Packard, granddaddy of the area’s electronics firms. Today it is an incestuous network of suppliers, customers, venture capitalists, brains, research institutes, computer and software companies, schools, and headhunters, the executive recruiters who move men around the valley at a dizzying rate in a tradition of musical jobs that is a key to the valley’s contagious vitality.

    With the convergence of infrastructure, innovative minds, and venture capital in the sixties, dramatic improvements in integrated circuitry (which basically masses many transistors on a single chip) brought prices plummeting. Noyce and Moore sold their first transistors to IBM for $150 apiece; today the price would be a fraction of a penny.

    Toward a More “Personal” Computer

    Steve Jobs is pleased with the falling prices. He hopes that his computer will become the Volkswagen of the industry, the computer every family can own. The 27-year-old co-founder of Apple Computer, whose typewriter-size instrument is pioneering the incorporation of the computer into daily life, bristles a little, too, as he reminds, “We’d rather call the Apple a personal than a home computer.” Although 1981 and 1982 have been the “years of the personal computer,” with giants like IBM jumping into the market and about two million now in use in the United States, predictions that computers would be the nerve centers of our homes by the early 1980s have proved premature.

    “It’s no more difficult than learning to cook, but people are afraid they can’t handle it,” says Jobs’s Silicon Valley neighbor Dan Fylstra, whose VisiCorp software packages are simple enough for use in the home. The machines are just not yet “user friendly” enough. Though research labs all over the valley are struggling to solve the elusive problem of speech recognition, we are a long way from marketing a computer that can respond to ordinary conversation—the ultimate friendliness.

    So Jobs and his growing host of competitors have directed their sales efforts to office uses. But the Apple has inspired a dedicated cult of hard-core enthusiasts who trade new uses for the computer in the columns of Apple magazines; one engineer has programmed his Apple to activate a small motor that rocks the crib when his colicky baby cries or wriggles. And Jobs has become a potent role model for a new breed of bright kids who are writing and selling software programs and, with their arcane computer skills, gaining the prestige formerly tasted only by the high-school football team.

    Over herb tea in a vegetarian restaurant, Jobs explained to me, “For us, computers have always been around. That’s what separates us guys from you guys. You were born B.C.—Before Computers. And it’s because of this place. I was born here. When I was 14,1 was asking famous computer engineers here questions. Apple came out of the microprocessor, created in this valley just five miles from here.”

    Jobs’s passion has paid off handsomely. With Steve Wozniak he built his first Apple in 1976 in his parents’ Los Altos garage because they couldn’t afford to buy a computer; now he owns Apple Computer stock worth 100 million dollars. While the chip companies suffered this spring, Apple’s revenues soared 81 percent over last year’s. Apple now occupies 22 buildings in Silicon Valley and plants in Texas, Singapore, and Ireland, which is bidding to become Europe’s Silicon Valley.

    Although Jobs drives the requisite Mercedes, success seems not to have spoiled the first folk hero of the computer age. In plaid shirt and jeans, he still prefers, as a friend said, “to drive his motorcycle to my place, sit around and drink wine, and talk about what we’re going to do when we grow up.”

    The excitement of Apple’s presence in Cupertino has touched the district school system. Here children are introduced to computers as early as the first grade.

    Bobby Goodson, the school district’s computer specialist, believes computer literacy is going to be the next great crisis in education. “If kids don’t understand computers, how can they handle the future?” she asked, as she restrained a class of seven-year-olds eager to get their hands on a computer for the first time.

    A little girl with pigtails hunches over the keyboard, fiercely concentrating on following Mrs. Goodson’s instructions. “Type in ‘10 PRINT “BARBARA.” ‘ Now type ‘RUN.’” Her name pops up on the screen. Bouncing with delight, she rushes ahead to execute the next instruction. Barbara fills the screen and begins repeating in relentless rows. Barbara looks up, awed by her own power. She has entered the computer age with the ease of skipping rope.

    “The broad integration into society, though, is going to be a 10- or 15-year process,” says Jobs. “But I believe we are already making a little ding in the universe.”

    Not All Share the Good Life The social impact and the profits, Jobs notes, scarcely touch the lives of the 120,000 people who work on Silicon Valley’s assembly lines. Most of those who live in ethnically mixed east San Jose—black, Hispanic, and about 18,000 Vietnamese and other Asian refugees—cannot afford to own a home.

    But the opportunity that lures entrepreneurs gives some workers, too, a crack at the California dream. Secure in a comfortable home in Cupertino with her husband —Thanh, a computer engineer—Tien Nguyen, a gentle beauty with lush black hair pulled into a topknot, relives her escape from Vietnam in 1975.

    “We left with nothing. I had just the slacks and blouse I had on. My father feared that when the Communists came, they would kill the whole family. The police put us—my parents, my three sisters, my younger brother—on a barge in the Saigon River with no shelter, no food, no drink. A tugboat pulled us to the open sea to an American ship we shared with 20,000 people. We slept on deck. My older sister, Dao, almost died of flu.”

    Brought to Silicon Valley by the pastor of a suburban church, Tien and Dao had assembly jobs within ten days. They found the route to upward mobility, the valley’s electronics schools, and soon moved up to better jobs at Tandem Computer.

    “We delivered papers after work and put our father through electronics school, and he has a job now with a valley electronics company,” Tien says with pride.

    The sisters have been upgraded again to office jobs at Tandem. But their smiles and chic clothes screen a deep homesickness. “But I feel strong,” Tien says. “In my country I would stay home and cook. Over there I couldn’t interface with all these people”— the local buzz word that reveals how well she has, well, interfaced.

    Even Light Industry Brings Pollution But the job growth that gives the Nguyen family a chance to prosper is compromising the sweetness of success. Straining from a small aircraft to see through the opaque veil of pink-brown smog that obscured the low mountains that flank Silicon Valley, county planner Eric Carruthers cracked to me, “On a clear day you can still see it’s a valley.”

    Most of the smog is belched from automobiles. Below us, as rush hour began, rivers of red lights ran south, as Silicon Valley disgorged a quarter of a million people to housing tracts 10 and 20 miles away. “Jobs have grown faster than housing,” Carruthers said. In 30 years San Jose has grown from 95,000 to nearly 660,000.

    To deal with such growth, Santa Clara County has embraced a new program for systematic regional planning that it hopes will replace wanton expansion. And the need is urgent. The county recoiled this past winter when it was revealed that hazardous chemicals from 11 of the valley’s major electronics firms had leaked from buried tanks and, in one instance, contaminated public water.

    Voicing the shock shared by cities that had assumed the electronics industry was nonpolluting, San Jose’s mayor, Janet Gray Hayes, said, “I remember thinking about smokestacks in other industries. I didn’t expect this problem in my own backyard.”

    The county has proposed to have the cities use their powers to limit new jobs as a means of curtailing housing expansion. As mayor of Sunnyvale, Dianne McKenna joined her city council in declaring a four-month moratorium on new industrial building, during which limits were voted on waste water and the number of employees per building for new plants.

    Campaigning against the runaway growth that threatens the quality of life that once inspired the nickname Valley of Heart’s Delight, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 37-year Santa Clara County resident Wallace Stegner cautions, “It happens slyly. You see an orchard go next to you, but there are still a lot of orchards. Then it becomes catastrophic.”

    “The problems are the growing pains of any community that grew fast after World War II, plus the breakneck speed of change in Silicon Valley companies,” says Bob Kirkwood, Hewlett-Packard’s manager of government affairs. “The start-ups of the 1960s are just beginning to have the luxury of lifting their heads to look around.”

    As they do, some have gained a special view of the universe. Cherry Lorenzini, whose husband Bob’s company, Siltec, produces the silicon wafers from which chips are made, says: “I can point out a satellite to my kids in the night sky and say, ‘You know, there might be some of our silicon up there.’ ” Proud of her role, she says, “For a man to reach his moon, he needs a support team. Bob designed his first crystal-growing furnace on our dining-room table. We were the little guys going in and eating up the competing companies. His dream was to take Siltec from scratch to SO million dollars; now the goal is ISO million. But for the men in this industry, it’s total dedication,” she adds. “I merged my dreams with his, but many women can’t accept their limited roles in their husbands’ lives.”

    There are other problems. “It’s a tremendously striving, intellectually oriented population. They tend to be workaholics who can fall prey to alcoholism, divorce, and depression,” says Dr. Rudolph Grziwok, director of the county’s Fairoaks Mental Health Center in Sunnyvale. “Burn out” has become a common valley syndrome, for not all can maintain the winner profile.

    In this environment, relationships can suffer. Driving home in his Mercedes-Benz from his weekly dance class, one of the valley’s brightest engineers said: “Stars are rewarded. There are stock options—you’re riding in one! And my house is another. But you’ve just seen my social life. The projects are incredibly interesting, but they’re on your mind seven days a week. Relationships get screwed up. Somebody who was very important to me met somebody who didn’t work every weekend, and that was it.”

    Pressure Spawns Drug Abuse

    For those on the assembly line, the stress shows in drug abuse. Marijane Esparza, an instructor at a San Jose drug rehabilitation center, described the vicious cycle that gripped her for several years as a board stuffer, soldering chips to the circuit boards that are inserted into computers.

    “You start on drugs because the job’s so boring, hour after hour, and you don’t even know what the board is for. You take ‘crank’ [amethamphetamine] and you feel a flash of energy—zzt, zzt, zzt—and do you work!

    You do twice as many boards! Then, the technician standing behind you says, ‘Hurry up, you did 100 boards last night.’” The pressure to maintain the drug-induced productivity rate, she and others fear, encourages the use of drugs.

    Theft, an estimated third of it to support the drug habit, has been growing by leaps and bounds, according to Patrick Moore of the organized-crime section of the county sheriff’s office. Greed has created an illicit market for the chips, as well as for the tapes and masks from which they can also be copied (page 458). A stolen chip design can save a corporation or nation ambitious for advanced technology millions of dollars and man-years in research and development.

    “Integrated circuits are small, extremely valuable products,” says Moore. “Someone can walk out with a fortune in his fist.”

    The largest haul yet occurred over the 1981 Thanksgiving weekend—3.5 million dollars in chips from Monolithic Memories. “Truckloads!” said an astonished Doug Southard, Santa Clara County’s deputy district attorney, as he prepared his case against two men arrested. The spectacular recovery of the chips in South Lake Tahoe this past spring confirmed Southard’s suspicions of a connection with the 1980 theft of 11,000 memory chips from Synertek. “It’s organized crime—with a small ‘o.’ Not Mafia, but well-organized rings. The common thread is drugs and violence,” he says.

    International Duel Heats Up Other thefts being investigated are increasingly casting the specter of international industrial espionage over Silicon Valley.

    “The Japanese are coming awfully close to copying our chips,” said Roger Borovoy, Intel’s chief counsel. “They can buy them off the shelf and make detailed photographs of them without breaking any law. But if we get our hands on a copied chip, we’ll sue!”

    It was computer software, not chips, however, that made headlines this year, when the FBI in San Jose and San Francisco arrested nine people, most of them employees of Japan’s Hitachi and Mitsubishi industrial giants. The nine and a dozen other Hitachi and Mitsubishi employees in Japan were charged with attempting to buy stolen data concerning IBM’s new superfast 3081 computer from undercover FBI agents.

    The power of the Japanese electronics industry had already been reflected in the tear-soaked balance sheets of Silicon Valley. In 1981, before Silicon Valley had one on the market, the Japanese cornered 70 percent of the world market for the 64K random-access memory (RAM) chip—most of the other 30 percent going to non-valley competitors Texas Instruments and Motorola. The 64K RAM—four times as powerful as the 16K RAM it supplanted—can handle 65,536 bits of information (1,024 per K). Minuscule though it is, the 64K chip, and the early Japanese domination of its sales, will be remembered in Silicon Valley as the technological equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

    A conjunction of events—the 64K RAM, the international recession, corporate price wars—sent the valley’s semiconductor profits plunging.

    Frustrated but irrepressible, the valley responded with the esprit and determination of wartime.

    Lobbying in Washington, Silicon Valley leaders bemoaned the lack in the United States of a national industrial policy similar to that of Japan, which throws its resources behind specific areas, such as chips.

    AMD’s Jerry Sanders fumed, “I just don’t want to pretend I’m in a fair fight. I’m not. The Japanese pay 7 percent for capital; I pay 18 percent on a good day. They get hundreds of millions of dollars of free R and D [research and development] paid for by their government. Then their products arrive here in a flood.”

    As the trade war escalated into a critical test of the two cultures, Silicon Valley became a metaphor for the American way. “We’ll outcompete the Japanese in the marketplace,” asserted Harry Sello. “After all, we Yankees invented competition. Against the Japanese companies, we offer superiority in infrastructure, software, and, above all, innovation.”

    Carrying that confidence into the enemy camp, Intel aggressively launched an advanced new memory chip in Tokyo, breaching the Japanese market, and, this spring, fired its 64K RAM into the fray, announcing, “They’ve won the first skirmish, but we’ll win the war.”

    The Valley’s Pulse Beats On But Silicon Valley’s power was being assaulted by other forces. The need for capital to sustain growth is forcing many of the smaller companies to sell out to major corporations, a move an industry financial specialist, Sal Accardo in New York City, believes may strip the valley of its “flair, drive, and creativity.”

    And by fouling its own nest with pollution, congestion, and soaring housing and labor costs, Silicon Valley is forcing industry out. Charles Sporck, president of National Semiconductor, flies regularly to Malaysia and Arizona to visit his assembly plants. Apple’s Jobs flies to a June board meeting in Ireland.

    Yet Apple and Intel are still headquartered here. Giants like IBM and Hewlett-Packard are committing themselves to expanded research facilities in Silicon Valley. And profit-driven investors are pouring capital into a buoyant new wave of chip, computer, and software companies, the definitive act of economic faith that, in the words of Sal Accardo: “Silicon Valley will continue to be the cerebrum, a magnet for creative minds.”

Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • Trailer for Parallel Lines: five short films that use the same dialogue

    Parallel Lines is a project by from Ridley Scott Associates that will be released April 8. It's a neat premise!

    Five directors were each challenged to create short films in different genres using the same dialogue. The five 5 beautifully diverse films are by Greg Fay, Jake Scott, Johnny Hardstaff, Carl Erik Rinsch and animators Hi-Sim and their genres range from drama, animation, action, to sci-fi and thriller.

    Trailer for Parallel Lines


Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • “Tron Legacy” Trailer Featuring Jeff Bridges Hits the Web [VIDEO]

    New Academy Award-winner Jeff Bridges reprises his role as arcade regular and computer programming genius Flynn in the trailer for Tron Legacy, which just made its official web debut today. The film is a long-anticipated sequel to the 1980s geek classic Tron, and this is the first full-length trailer.

    The film (or at least the trailer) focuses on Flynn’s son, who goes looking for his father in the now-abandoned arcade that was the launching point for the first movie, only to find him in a more technologically advanced version of the fantastic and dangerous virtual world introduced in the first film (which won much acclaim for special effects).

    Since the franchise has always been about the latest in filmmaking technology, Tron Legacy will be presented in 3D. A 3D trailer actually premiered before select showings of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Tron fans traveled from distant cities to see it. The movie is also trending on Twitter right now, so we think this has the makings of a hit.

    Disney plans to release Tron Legacy on December 17, believing that it will draw a big audience during the lucrative holiday season.

    We know many Mashable readers are going to be interested in seeing this film, but does it have any chance of living up to the iconic original? Watch the trailer and leave a comment letting us and other readers know what you think.


    Watch the Trailer



    Reviews: Mashable

    Tags: 3D, disney, Film, jeff bridges, Movies, trailer, tron legacy, video

Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • Kindness Breeds More Kindness, Study Shows

    randomkindness

    In findings sure to gladden the heart of anyone who’s ever wondered whether tiny acts of kindness have larger consequences, researchers have shown that generosity is contagious.

    Goodness spurs goodness, they found: A single act can influence dozens more.

    In a game where selfishness made more sense than cooperation, acts of giving were “tripled over the course of the experiment by other subjects who are directly or indirectly influenced to contribute more,” wrote political scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University.

    Their findings, published March 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are the latest in a series of studies the pair have conducted on the spread of behaviors through social networks.

    In other papers, they’ve described the spread of obesity, loneliness, happiness and smoking. But there was no way to know whether those apparent behavioral contagions were actually just correlations. People who are overweight, for example, might simply tend to befriend other overweight people, or live in an area where high-fat, low-nutrient diets are the norm.

    The latest research was designed to identify cause-and-effect links. In it, Fowler and Christakis analyze the results of a so-called public-goods game, in which people were divided into groups of four, given 20 credits each, and asked to secretly decide what to keep for themselves and what to contribute to a common fund. That fund would be multiplied by two-fifths, then divided equally among the group. The best payoff would come if everyone gave all their money — but without knowing what others were doing, it always made sense to keep one’s money and skim from the generosity of others.

    kindness_networkOnly at the end of each game did players find out what the rest of their group had done. The game was run again and again, each time mixing group members and keeping their identities anonymous, so that decisions were never personal.

    When one person gave, others in their group tended to be generous during the next two rounds of play. Recipients of their largess became more generous in turn, and so on down the chain. When a punishment round was added — players could spend their own money to reduce the rewards of selfish players — generosity lasted even longer.

    “It is often supposed that individuals in experiments like the one described here selfishly seek to maximize their own payoffs,” wrote Fowler and Christakis. “The equilibrium prediction is to contribute nothing and to pay nothing to punish noncontributors, but the subjects did not follow this pattern.”

    According to the the researchers, the explanation lies not in calculations of odds and rewards, but in simple behavioral mimicry: Monkey see, monkey do, human style. When people are irrationally generous, others follow suit.

    The network described by Fowler and Christakis doesn’t necessarily replicate natural group dynamics, but suggests a general model for how behaviors spread. They suggest that researchers of altruism and cultural evolution study how different group configurations promote or limit the spread of behaviors.

    However, the findings aren’t just a feel-good story. Selfish behavior spreads easily, too.

    Images: 1) Heath Brandon/Flickr.
    2) James Fowler.

    See Also:

    Citation: “Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks.” By James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 10, March 9, 2010.

    Brandon Keim’s Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.


Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • NSFW: Hey, America! Our draconian copyright law could kick your draconian copyright law’s ass

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about the DMCA.

    On the one hand, as an author, I like that it gives me a way to stop illegal copies of my work being distributed in the US, so ensuring that I can continue to make a living without having to get a proper job. On the other hand, as an occasional journalist, I hate that it can also be used by trigger-happy lawyers to prevent certain embarrassing documents entering the public domain.

    Thus conflicted, it was with some trepidation that I received news from the old country that Gordon Brown’s government is getting ready to enact its very own version of the DMCA. Called the Digital Economy Bill (DEB), the new statute aims – amongst other things – to halt the rising tide of intellectual property theft on the Internet. But unlike the DMCA, its reach won’t be limited to national borders: any site anywhere in the world that’s accessible from the UK needs to obey the law or else it’s liable to find itself blocked from the entire country. I’m not kidding, this is China-level enforcement.

    The bill originated in the House of Lords (our second law-making chamber) where it’s being tweaked and plucked, with various clauses added and removed – before being sent to the Commons (our first chamber) for debate and a final vote. Here in a nut are the key clauses as it currently stands:

    Firstly, if the law passes, ISPs will be obliged to keep track of all allegations of illegal file-sharing made by copyright owners. These complaints will be used to produce an list of “persistent offenders” (subscribers who had received more than, say, 50 complaints about them) which will be made available on request to the copyright owners. The list will be anonymised, with subscribers identified only by a reference number, but copyright owners can then apply to the British courts to subpoena the names and addresses of the subscribers involved. Copyright owners can then take legal action directly, claiming substantial damages for each violation. The government is also able to take action: demanding that ISPs cut off internet access from households identified as persistent offenders.

    A second – and even more controversial – clause was bolted on by members of the House of Lords in response to the claim that over 35% of copyright breaches occur not through P2P sharing, but rather through media hosts like YouTube and file locker services like Rapidshare. The new amendment will give the courts the power to demand that British ISPs block access to any site that knowingly and unlawfully hosts copyright material. That’s not just sites hosted in the UK but any site anywhere in the world. As with the DMCA, the ISP won’t be liable until they are notified of the illegal content (the ’safe harbor’ defence) providing they then take immediate steps to block the sites hosting them. If, however, the ISPs refuse to act, they will be liable to the full legal costs of the copyright owner. But unlike the DMCA, the amended bill contains absolutely no penalties for copyright owners who file bogus or spurious claims. The effects are about as chilling as can be: it is in the copyright owners’ interests to make as many claims as they like, and in the ISP’s interests to immediately block every site they’re notified of in order to avoid potentially huge legal costs.

    Opponents of the bill point out that most cases will never come to court as ISPs will roll over immediately, as they frequently do under DMCA in the US. But the opponents don’t stop there. Hell, they don’t really stop anywhere. Between the amended blocking clause which could, in theory, see sites like YouTube blocked from the UK – and the potential for having one’s entire house disconnected from the web, the DEB has come in from a veritable gale of criticism, much of it vented right here in the blogosphere. Who’d have thunk it?

    TechCrunch’s own Devin Coldewey notes that the “persistent offenders” list won’t just affect domestic file-sharers. Internet cafes, hotels and anywhere else that offers public wi-fi access could find themselves taken offline if their customers are found to be swapping copyright files. If anything, these public access points are even more at risk as it doesn’t take many teenagers using your cafe to rack up 50 copyright violations: this despite there being no way for the establishments to police what their customers are doing online. As Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow put it, almost entirely without hyperbole, “UK Digital Economy Bill will wipe out indie WiFi hotspots in libraries, unis, cafes

    In fact Doctorow is one of the bill’s harshest critics, writing numerous posts about its dangers. Not only is he vehemently opposed to the persistent offenders clause but he also rails against the site-blocking amendment, arguing that it will essentially ban file lockers from the UK, even when much of the content hosted on them is perfectly lawful. In response to Doctorow and his ilk, thousands of UK web users have signed petitions opposing the bill. Even members of parliament have come out to publicly attack the proposed measures – as Tom Watson MP told me on Twitter: “Enshrining net filtering at ISP level scares me half to death…. Law has to have a starting point. This isn’t it. Copyright reform for the internet age should be Step One. Rip it up. Start again.”

    A clusterfuck, then. A total shit show, even more draconian than the DMCA and even more packed to the gills with chilling effects. There’s an election coming up in the UK and the government is apparently anxious that the law be pushed through before then, but to do so would be a travesty – instead the bill should be scrapped and revisited in the next parliament.

    Or at least that was my first thought. Then I actually read the bill.

    And, you know what, it’s actually not that bad.

    For a start, the first point of contention – the compilation of a persistent offenders list, and the potential banning of them from accessing the Internet – isn’t quite as unfair as it sounds. Despite Doctorow’s claim that “your entire family [can] be cut off from the net if anyone who lives in your house is accused of copyright infringement, without proof or evidence or trial”, there are actually multiple points at which evidence comes into play, and the accused file-swapper is given a chance to defend themselves. The bill requires the creation of an independent tribunal body to hear claims of unfairness arising from the new laws, and alleged infringers have not one but two rights of appeal to the tribunal. With each alleged breach, the new law demands that the ISP send a letter to the subscriber putting the allegations and the evidence to them.

    Only once a significant number of  breaches have been alledged (the drafters of the bill suggest 50) will the subscriber be added to the persistent offenders list. Again, they will be notified. Only at this point can the copyright owner appeal to the court – using a law that has been around for 36 years – to get the name and address of the offender. Even then, though, they won’t be taken to court. Instead, the copyright owner has to send the subscriber yet another letter (this will be their 52nd) warning them that legal action is imminent if they don’t stop. It’s only then that legal action will be taken, leading to a possible fine and – only at the extreme end of the scale – their Internet access being disconnected.

    The second point of contention – the blocking of file-sharing sites – is still pretty bad, but again it’s not quite what some commentators [*cough* Cory *cough*] suggest with headlines like “Lords seek to ban web-lockers (YouSendIt, etc) in the UK“. Yes, the courts will have the power to require ISPs to block sites that egregiously host copyrighted files. But they can only do so if the site involved has refused to remove the copyrighted files – a last resort against foreign file lockers who ignore British court injunctions. More importantly it’s also a power that the British courts have had since the 2002 E-Commerce Directive Regulations (with ISP’s being similarly liable for inaction): the new legislation simply creates a DMCA-style process for making take-down requests easier to issue.

    After several hours of reading – not just the proposed new law but also all of the existing copyright law, plus the current World Intellectual Property Organisation Treaty (the UK is a signatory) and also hundreds of pages of discussion around all of the above – a few things became clear…

    For one thing, many of those opposing the bill don’t seem to be opposed to the bill itself so much as they’re opposed to the entire notion of copyright law, particularly when it’s used by “greedy record companies” or “rich recording artists”. As one commenter put it on the Guardian: “If you want to be solely a ‘recording artist’ and find you’ve been caught short – tough. No one owes you a living. You’ve been rendered obsolete by technology (not me) and you either adapt or fade away like so many other industries.” The only copyright law that people like that will accept is one that lets them steal whatever they like.

    Far be it from me to suggest that Cory Doctorow has an anti-copyright agenda, but there’s no doubt he’s the world’s leading proponent of the ‘give everything away free and reap the tangential rewards’ model of intellectual property protection. Creative Commons might work perfectly for a man who makes his living writing and speaking about how he gives things away free, but it’s not always the answer for musicians, authors and filmmakers who don’t have that particular sideline. And I say that as an author who just gave his last book away under a Creative Commons license and who isn’t going to go broke any time soon.

    Whatever Doctorow’s biases, headlines like “UK Digital Economy Bill will wipe out indie WiFi hotspots in libraries, unis, cafes” or “Leaked UK government plan to create ‘Pirate Finder General’ with power to appoint militias, create laws” do nothing to encourage rational debate. In fact, they’re curiously reminiscent of “Obamacare will kill grandma” claims from Republicans in the US. Why debate facts when you can drive people to your way of thinking through scary headlines?

    And yet, shrill objections aside, it’s equally clear that the Digital Economy Bill has its fair share of potential problems. There’s not a huge amount of new law in the bill, but there are a whole bunch of new processes – new takedown notices, persistent offender lists etc – all of which will need to work properly from day one. In the British government’s haste to rush it through before the upcoming election, there’s a huge risk of passing a bad statute which will prove impossible to enforce.

    Most clear of all though is that, beyond a general call to “scrap the bill and start again” (again: paging the Republicans), none of the opponents of the bill are suggesting a credible alternative. For all of our fears of “chilling effects” the fact is that the Internet is shitting all over the intellectual property rights of the UK creative industries (industries which account for 7.9% of the nation’s GDP). Existing law offers almost all of the protections required by copyright owners, but it’s too slow and costly to enforce in the face of widespread online infringement. A shake-up of the enforcement process is much needed – not just to protect fat cat record companies, but also to ensure the livelihoods of thousands of musicians, authors, filmmakers, photographers, artists and the rest who contribute to our cultural landscape. To those people, the effects of an online copyright free-for-all are just as chilling. If the DEB isn’t the right bill , then it is beholden on those attacking it to suggest an alternative.

    Here’s mine:

    1) My parents run a business that offers free wi-fi to their customers. I know it’s impossible for them to act as copyright police and so, alarmed by the proposed bill, they’ll likely choose to close down their wi-fi hotspots. To avoid that, the law needs to distinguish between domestic and business internet users when it comes to the persistent infringers clause. For domestic users, the 50-strikes and you’re out clause – and the disconnection threat – should stand: it’s a powerful deterrent, and there are plenty of points at which householders can appeal. For businesses and public wi-fi providers, the disconnection threat should be dropped entirely – it’s clearly a disproportionate punishment – but the fine should remain. In both cases, though, the burden should rest on the copyright owner to prove complicity in the infringement. Domestically, this is as simple as proving multiple breaches from the same IP address – there is a duty on the homeowner to lock down their wi-fi and to know what is happening under their roof, especially after receiving multiple notifications. For businesses, though, the copyright owner should face the (almost impossible) task of showing that the business owner is knowingly permitting copyright breaches on their premises. They’ll basically have to send private detectives round and catch the owner in the act – something only worth doing in extreme cases.

    2) The current site-blocking amendment should be dropped entirely. Instead it should be replaced with a virtual carbon copy (quelle irony) of the DMCA’s takedown procedures, but with even more severe punishments for copyright owners who file spurious claims. If an alleged infringer files a counter-notice but the copyright owner decides not to then pursue legal action, the former should be immediately entitled to claim damages against the latter, set at a fixed amount (say £250 – a little under $400) for every day each affected file was offline. In the case of entire sites being blocked, these damages could be enormous. The result: copyright owners will have a costly disincentive against filing spurious claims.

    3) Finally, and most importantly, the bill should be abandoned until the next parliament. Rushing through legislation is almost never a good idea – and it’s not like it’s going to be a vote winner, either for this government or the next one. With the full lobbying force of the creative industries behind a new law, there’s virtually no chance that it won’t be passed in the next twelve months so MPs should take the next few months to revise it, to consult with experts, to explain it to critics and generally to ensure that everything that can be done to make it fair has been done.

    The UK’s creative industries generate £112.5 billion in revenue for the British economy. The Digital Economy Bill should be passed, and it should be passed soon. But more than all of that, it should be passed right.

Digest powered by RSS Digest

  • Look at Data Like a Statistician, Minus the Ph. D [Statistics]

    Nathan Yau is a doctoral candidate in statistics, but the most valuable lessons he's learned in analyzing and working with data don't involve formal math. Here's how he suggests looking at lines, charts, and numbers to find interesting things.

    Photo by net_efekt.

    Yau lays out the skills and mindsets that have served him well in his studies and analysis. As he puts it, he can't shoot from the hip with questions about proper sampling size or rendering formal analysis, but he's learned what to look for when looking at data—something we all do regularly, whether in monthly budgets or spreadsheets at work.

    Two of his suggestions:

    See the Big Picture
    ... It's important not to get too caught up with individual data points or a tiny section in a really big dataset. We saw this in the recent recovery graph. Like some pointed out, if we took a step back and looked at a larger time frame, the Obama/Bush contrast doesn't look so shocking.

    Ask Why
    ... This is the most important thing I've learned: always ask why. When you see a blip in a graph, you should wonder why it's there. If you find some correlation, you should think about whether or not it makes any sense. If it does make sense, then cool, but if not, dig deeper. Numbers are great, but you have to remember that when humans are involved, errors are always a possibility.

    It's not a top 10 list or secret hacks—just smart advice, and worth looking back at when you're vexed by a hidden message beneath all the numbers and lines you see in any data set.


Digest powered by RSS Digest