Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Cell Phones Prevent Alzheimer’s?

Friday, January 8th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I kid you not. Researchers developed a strain of mice prone to develop Alzheimer’s, and then subjected them to electromagnetic radiation equivalent to talking on a cell phone two hours a day for seven to nine months. The exposed mice tended not to develop the disease as their brethren did.

After long-term exposure to¬†electromagnetic waves such as those used in cell phones, mice genetically altered to develop¬†Alzheimer’sperformed as well on memory and thinking skill tests as healthy mice, the researchers wrote in the¬†Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The study reports the mechanism that is at work — the radiation prevented the buildup of a particular protein associated with Alzheimer’s.

Google Ads Preferences

Monday, December 14th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Google makes available to you the profile it uses for deciding what ads to send your way, when a blog or other web site partners with Google to get advertising. Take a look to see what Google thinks might interest you. You can disable subjects individually or opt out of the whole program (in which case you will still see advertisements, just ones that may be less “appropriate” to your interests).

It’s a little creepy, but also funny. I wonder how Google decided I might be interested in retirement financial planning, or libraries and museums?

An Off-topic Post by a Bad Blogger

Saturday, December 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

There is much I should have been blogging about, especially the posting of the TSA manual on the Web. Incredibly, the geniuses who “redacted” it did just what we say not to do in Chapter 3 — they used a black highlighter tool to cover part of the PDF. The redactions were easily reversed.

I apologize for my failure to keep this blog interesting. I am going to get back to it in a week or so once my class ends.

In the meantime, here is a piece I and a Harvard colleague wrote about Harvard’s financial mess and the governance problems that caused it. It appears in this morning’s Boston Globe. No Bits angle at all, but likely of interest to any Harvard buffs out there.

Newspapers and Universities

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Chronicle Review — the longer-format magazine that occasionally accompanies the Chronicle of Higher Education — is this week about the decline of journalism. One of the pieces asks a number of scholars whether the decline of the news media had important implications for universities. Here is a link to the answers — including my own. I decided to take a rather utilitarian tack — that universities will become even more mysterious and mistrusted institutions if we don’t have journalists touting our good works every now and then. There are lots of interesting answers to the question — I agree with my colleague Jill Lepore’s characterization of students, by the way. And she is not the only one worried about the increasing superficiality of thought, and the increasing difficulty in encouraging people to drill down and think deeply (see Ted Gup’s, for example).


Sunday, October 25th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Just finished Logicomix, the delightful history of modern logic told as a “graphic novel.” Full disclosure: author Christos Papadimitriou is an old friend, in fact we wrote a theory of computation textbook together. It’s a story told at many levels, of which the top level is the authors and artists writing the book itself. The principal narrative is, however, Bertrand Russell in his maturity narrating the development of logic as a drama involving people, ideas, and events. It’s a success!

For those in the Boston area who may be interested, Christos will be speaking at the Brattle Theater on Wednesday night (October 28) at 6pm. It will be my pleasure to act as interlocutor at this event, which is sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. Should be fun!

The Information in Your Plumbing

Saturday, October 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

In Chapter 2 of Blown to Bits we spend a lot of time on the way that cheap, distributed sensors have greatly increased the data we produce doing ordinary things. Our cars generate data just by braking and accelerating, and by going through toll booths; our supermarket purchases generate data when the barcoded items are scanned; everybody with a cell phone generates data, whether or not they are talking on the phone. These data trails produce footprints and fingerprints — records of our lives that we may or may not realize we are leaving behind.

Last week I heard a talk that made me realize how limited this mental framework was. Shwetak Patel, a 27-year-old assistant professor at the University of Washington, simply observed that lots of things people always did around their houses in the pre-digital era generate signals, which we are only now in a position to digitize and analyze.

Consider your plumbing, for example. Water comes into your house in one place, and the input is connected to a closed network running through all your faucets and toilets and even your water heater. If you were to bang on a pipe anywhere, it would ring every other pipe in the house.

Every time water flow is started or stopped–every time a valve is opened or closed–a shock wave is generated. When the shock wave is strong enough, for example if you shut a full-flowing faucet off abruptly, you cause a “water hammer” that audibly shakes pipes all through the house. But even small valves closing gently cause a mini-hammer–your automatic dishwasher shutting off, for example.

What Patel figured out is that every kind of valve causes its own distinctive ring. Your toilet is different from your shower, which is different from your lawn sprinkler. Patel figured out that you can listen to the pipe in one place–think of those old Western movies in which the Indians (as they were then called) listened to the rails for an approaching train–and monitor the plumbing activity in the whole house. By gathering data over an extended period, you can figure out how often people go to the bathroom, and which bathrooms they are using.

This is, of course, potentially very useful for monitoring utility usage, and for learning how people live. It is also, needless to say, quite creepy.

That’s just water. Patel can do the same thing with electricity. Your electric wiring is a big antenna. Flip a switch anywhere and it causes a transient in the wiring which produces electromagnetic radiation, which can be detected and analyzed. Oh, so I see you aren’t actually using compact fluorescents in your house.

Same for gas lines. Same even for HVAC systems–get a sensor inside an air duct and you can tell when people enter or leave the room, because they cause pressure changes that result in small air flows.

For different utilities, Patel requires different kinds of sensor installation. For different levels of specificity, he may need to calibrate the house. Other things he can figure out just by getting access to the utility line at any point, even where it enters the house from the outside.

Patel is a remarkably energetic and creative character. H is a winner of the Technology Review TR35 competition for inventors under 35. He has a fascinating history–he earned plumbers and electricians licenses while he was in high school and working for Habitat for Humanity, but wanted to do something more interesting than hammering nails. The intuition he gained there about how utility systems work meshed beautifully with his electrical engineering training in college.

We say in Chapter 8, about electromagnetic radiation, that one person’s noise is another’s signal. Patel’s work illustrates that beautifully. Listen to any of these utilities and you will hear random noise, which has made it hard, for example, to use domestic electric wiring for IP broadband diffusion. Turns out that noise has lots of information within it–you just have to know how to listen to it and what to do with the results.

A Wrong Righted

Friday, September 11th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The undisputed founding father of computer science is Alan Mathison Turing, 1912-1954. He worked as both a mathematician and an engineer, proving the fundamental theorem about computationally unsolvable problems and, during World War II, building early large-scale computing devices, which were used to crack the German Enigma Code.

Turing was a homosexual, and homosexuality was illegal in England at the time. In 1952 he was the subject of a criminal prosecution for homosexuality, and lost his security clearance and endured other humiliations, including hormone treatments to “cure” him. The prosecution effectively ended his career, and he died soon thereafter, of what is generally acknowledged to be a suicide. Alan Turing: The Enigma is an excellent biography.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has now issued a formal apology:¬†”So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” (Full text of Brown’s statement here.)


Know Your Readers

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

That was the advice of a friend who forwarded to me a recommendation he had received from Amazon. These recommendation systems, drawing on vast databases of information about individuals’ purchase histories, are usually pretty reasonable in their suggestions. I would love to understand this one, though.

Dear Customer,

We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased or rated¬†Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion by Hal Abelson have also purchased¬†Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head by W. Bill Czolgosz. For this reason, you might like to know that¬†Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head is now available.¬† You can order yours for just $12.99 by following the link below.

Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head
W. Bill Czolgosz

Price: $12.99
Other Versions and Languages
Kindle Edition (Kindle Book)
Add to Cart

Product Description
The dead rise. The world dies. Mankind falls and enters Death’s halls. Over 90 poems of carnage, hopelessness and despair mixed with oodles of the living dead await you. Featuring poems by W. Bill Czolgosz, Paul A. Freeman, Keith Gouveia, J.H. Hobson, Rich Ristow, Lester Smith, Steve Vernon, Zed Zefram, Zombie Zak and many others, Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes will not only melt your brain . . . it’ll tear out your jugular!

RIP Catalogs in Harvard Magazine

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Harvard Magazine has reprinted my comments on the death of the printed course catalog at Harvard in the July-August issue.

Facebook Hurts Your Grades … Not.

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A couple of weeks ago there was minor epidemic of news about a report out of Ohio State University claiming that students who used Facebook get lower grades. Even the earliest reporting of this story drew skeptical comments (here is one from April 15 in the Ohio State U’s student newspaper). OK, so students would always be skeptical about anti-student news; but on April 21, the Wall Street Journal expressed its skepticism too. No matter; it was the story a lot of people wanted to hear, and it spread faster than the Swine Flu. Another reason to fear and hate the Internet.

Now Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern U and the Berkman Center, working together with two colleagues, has re-done the study with a large database of students and found … no relation at all between Facebook use and grades. Or maybe a small POSITIVE correlation.

Bet this story won’t go viral.