I see what you did there

A pretty astonishing story. When Beijing Normal University set up a research base in the capital of Greenland, it forgot to mention to its local partners that the facility would double as a satellite ground station with possible military uses. Just an oversight, I’m sure:

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October.

It would be a shame if something happened to that facility. What if chronic power outages or some mysterious, unfixable technical glitch put it out of commission, perhaps indefinitely? That would really be terrible. Just saying.

On a related note (report from last December):

China’s first overseas land satellite receiving ground station was put into trial operation on Thursday.

The China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station is above the Arctic circle, half an hour’s drive from Kiruna, a major mining town in Sweden.

 

All of creation

This is quite cool:

The universe is so vast it’s almost impossible to picture what it might look like crammed into one field of view.

But musician Pablo Carlos Budassi managed to do it by combining logarithmic maps of the universe from Princeton and images from NASA. He created the image below that shows the observable universe in one disc.

Our sun and solar system are at the very center of the image, followed by the outer ring of our Milky Way galaxy, the Perseus arm of the Milky Way, a ring of other nearby galaxies like Andromeda, the rest of the cosmic web, cosmic microwave background radiation leftover from the big bang, and finally a ring of plasma also generated by the big bang.

Parallax view

This is cool:

We’re putting the far side of the galaxy on the map. The most precise measurement yet of an object on the far side of the galaxy’s centre is paving the way for a definitive map of the other side of the Milky Way.

It’s difficult to observe anything on that side of the galaxy because of the dense, frenetic swarm of dust and gas at its centre. Thomas Dame at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts and his colleagues got around this by looking at a jet of radio waves that can outshine any emissions coming from that mess of stars.

“It’s a very bright source, indicative of a flamboyant region of star formation, and these regions are almost always located in the spiral arms of the galaxy,” says Dame. He and his team pinned down the source’s location to the Scutum-Centaurus arm of the galaxy, probably one of the Milky Way’s two major arms.

To do this, they used parallax measurements, which take into account differences in measurements from two points in space. […]

“The idea that you could be doing this for more objects on the far side of the galaxy is really exciting,” says Robert Benjamin at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. “How can you talk about the structure of our galaxy when you only have half of it?”

Dame says with this technique we could have an accurate and complete map of the entire Milky Way within 10 years.

Peak smart

Does this count as a “mega-trend”?

Technology may be getting smarter, but humans are getting dumber, scientists have warned.

Evidence suggests that the IQs of people in the UK, Denmark and Australia have declined in the last decade.

Opinion is divided as to whether the trend is long-term, but some researchers believe that humans have already reached intellectual peak.

An IQ test used to determine whether Danish men are fit to serve in the military has revealed scores have fallen by 1.5 points since 1998.

And standard tests issued in the UK and Australia echo the results, according to journalist Bob Holmes, writing in New Scientist. […]

Michael Woodley, of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, claims people’s reactions are slower than in Victorian times, and has linked it to a decline in our genetic potential.

It has previously been claimed that quick-witted people have fast reactions and Dr Woodley’s study showed people’s reaction times have slowed over the century – the equivalent to one IQ point per decade.

Jan te Nijenhuis, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, says Westerners have lost an average of 14 IQ points since the Victoria Era.

When you consider the large-scale achievements of Western societies in times past, such as for example the building of the cathedrals, the construction of the Empire State Building in less than 13 months during the Great Depression, and the moon landing (which was watched, live, by 600 million people around the world in 1969), it’s almost laughable to imagine the US even attempting, let alone successfully pulling off an effort of comparable difficulty in 2017, when adjusting for today’s far superior level of technology.

Or maybe even not adjusting for today’s far superior level of technology. After all, to take one absolute measure of achievement, no human has left low Earth orbit since 1972.

  • “That’s because it’s too costly / too dangerous / pointless / no political will” etc.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that we have not done so in almost half a century. That is functionally the same as saying that we can’t. And 45 years is a long enough time that, based on our previously demonstrated levels of competence, we should already have people strutting around on Mars by now. If we were capable of doing this, we would have done it, because it is simply too awesome not to. And we (the US, at least) haven’t had the excuse of a huge war, economic depression or other national cataclysm that would have made such a project impossible or even impractical.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the drive to explore new frontiers and push the boundaries of human achievement. Either that, or the drive is still there but we’ve simply become too dumb to organize collectively for hard projects like space exploration.

Either possibility suggests that our civilizational competence has declined (by a lot) over the past five decades. If so, that could be a function of the decline in average intelligence that some researchers are seeing.

This is encouraging

Networked totalitarianism

Comment by author and strategist John Robb:

Facebook just declared war against “disruptive” information. In addition to hundreds of new human censors, they are training AI censors capable of identifying and deleting ‘unacceptable’ information found in the discussions of all two billion members in real time. This development highlights what the real danger posed by a socially networked world actually is.

The REAL danger facing a world interconnected by social networking isn’t disruption. As we have seen on numerous occasions, the danger posed by disruptive information and events is fleeting. Disruption, although potentially painful in the short term, doesn’t last, nor is it truly damaging over the long term. In fact, the true danger posed by an internetworked world is just the opposite of disruption.

This danger is an all encompassing online orthodoxy. A sameness of thought and approach enforced by hundreds of millions of socially internetworked adherents. A global orthodoxy that ruthless narrows public thought down to a single, barren, ideological framework. A ruling network that prevents dissent and locks us into stagnation and inevitable failure as it runs afoul of reality and human nature.

It will be fun to see whether the hive mind created by social networking proves to be a greater threat to human liberty than a king on a throne, or a dictator with a secret police force. It clearly has the potential to be.

If so, there is one simple and obvious way to defeat the system that was not available to the rebels and dissidents of the past, and that is to unplug. Say no. Refuse to engage with the system. That is easier said than done, though, as most people are increasingly addicted to their gadgets and increasingly comfortable offloading their mental activity to the network. And even if you disconnect from the network, most others will not.

Hypothetically, a resistance movement could arise that would seek to overthrow the network by dissuading or physically preventing people from plugging into it. We would expect this battle to manifest in the real world, with tangible efforts to destroy the machinery of the network and desecrate its symbols. iPhones dumped into Boston Harbor by the truckload. Internet servers smashed with sledgehammers. Data centers firebombed.

More likely, though, any type of resistance to the hive mind would be swallowed up by the network itself, taking the form of a pitched battle between different networked tribes. Hive mind vs. hive mind, super-augmented by swarms of bots. Participants would fight for mind share, and only indirectly for territory or physical assets. Weaponized memes, hacking attacks, and information-warfare concepts like reflexive control would take the place of bombs and bullets. A future conflict may be fought entirely online. Of course, it could also spill over into the real world, using drones and robots, which… let’s just say it wouldn’t be great.

Totalitarianism: What you thought you were getting vs. what you’re actually getting

The End of History fails to arrive in Spain

It seems we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the End of History:

Spain’s King Felipe intervened dramatically Tuesday in the crisis over Catalan leaders’ bid for independence, accusing them of threatening the country’s stability and urging the state to defend “constitutional order.”

The 49-year-old king abandoned his previously measured tone over tensions with Catalonia as the standoff dragged the country into its deepest political crisis in decades.

He spoke after hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied in fury at violence by police against voters during a banned referendum on independence for their region on Sunday.

Catalan regional leaders held the vote in defiance of the national government which brands it illegal — as did Felipe on Tuesday.

“With their irresponsible conduct they could put at risk the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain,” he said of the Catalan leadership.

“They have placed themselves totally outside the law and democracy,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order.”

[…]

Pictures of police beating unarmed Catalan voters with batons and dragging some by the hair during Sunday’s ballots drew international criticism.

Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont said nearly 900 people had received medical attention on Sunday, though local authorities confirmed a total of 92 injured. Four were hospitalised, two in serious condition.

The national government said more than 400 police officers were hurt.

A king intervenes in a standoff between separatists and a nominally democratic government that is trying, and failing, to bring them to heel… in Western Europe. Not quite what universal liberal democracy was supposed to look like.

Speaking of which, I somehow doubt this is what the inventors of the World Wide Web had in mind:

The world’s first internet war has begun, in Catalonia, as the people and government use it to organize an independence referendum on Sunday and Spanish intelligence attacks, freezing telecommunications links, occupying telecoms buildings, censors 100s of sites, protocols etc.

Spanish police raided the offices of the .cat domain registry in Barcelona, seizing all computers

The .cat domain was used for sharing information about last week’s Catalan independence referendum

More.

The industrial revolution and its consequences

Provocative article (with quite a title) in the Chicago Tribune:

The introduction of the new iPhone X — which features wireless charging, facial recognition and a price tag of $999 — appears to be a minor event in the advance of technology. But it’s an excellent illustration of something that has long gone unrecognized: The Unabomber had a point.

Not about blowing people up in an effort to advance his social goals. Ted Kaczynski’s campaign to kill and maim chosen victims with explosives was horrific in the extreme and beyond forgiveness. But his 35,000-word manifesto, published in 1995, provided a glimpse of the future we inhabit, and his foresight is a bit unsettling.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” it begins. Among the ills he attributes to advances in technology are that they promise to improve our lives but end up imposing burdens we would not have chosen.

Does technology serve humanity, or the other way around? It’s getting harder to tell.

The problem is hardly a new one. In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari argues that the agricultural revolution that took place 10,000 years ago was “history’s biggest fraud.”

In the preceding 2.5 million years, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers they worked less, “spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease” than afterward.

Farming boosted the population but chained humans to the land and demanded ceaseless drudgery to plant, tend, harvest and process food — while making us more vulnerable to famine, disease and war. People who had evolved over eons for one mode of life were pushed into a different mode at odds with many of their natural instincts.

Talk about a Luddite. Kaczynski just wanted to roll back the industrial revolution. This guy thinks the domestication of plants was a mistake.

He kind of has a point, though.

Never go full Ted

North Korean satellites

I’m sure there’s an excellent reason why North Korean satellites are allowed to orbit directly over US territory:

In February and March of 2015, former senior national security officials of the Reagan and Clinton administrations warned that North Korea should be regarded as capable of delivering by satellite a small nuclear warhead, specially designed to make a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States. According to the Congressional EMP Commission, a single warhead delivered by North Korean satellite could blackout the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for over a year—killing 9 of 10 Americans by starvation and societal collapse.

Two North Korean satellites, the KMS-3 and KMS-4, presently orbit over the U.S. on trajectories consistent with surprise EMP attack.

Of course, the idea of North Korea attempting an EMP attack on the US is wildly implausible and borderline insane. Unfortunately, North Korea is now, in effect, threatening to do just that:

The North said in its statement Sunday that its H-bomb “is a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals.”

More background on North Korea’s satellites from a rocket scientist who was there in 2012:

In my view, the US needs to consider whether we can ever risk letting an absolutely unknown payload from North Korea ever fly across the United States again, and how we can be confident that the next satellite launch is carrying a non-hazardous cargo. For our once-in-a-lifetime visit in 2012, the North Koreans promised to prove their peaceful intent, and failed. We still need that promise to be fulfilled.

Somebody we can trust needs to be watching whatever the North Koreans mount on their next satellite rocket. Or we have to be ready to act based on valid suspicions and on the potentially all-too-terrible cost of relying entirely on hoping for the best from a madman.

Now may be a good time to give this a read:

And prepare.

Biggest online manhunt ever?

Your writing style is your fingerprint:

The ‘creator’ of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, is the world’s most elusive billionaire. Very few people outside of the Department of Homeland Security know Satoshi’s real name. In fact, DHS will not publicly confirm that even THEY know the billionaire’s identity. Satoshi has taken great care to keep his identity secret employing the latest encryption and obfuscation methods in his communications. Despite these efforts (according to my source at the DHS) Satoshi Nakamoto gave investigators the only tool they needed to find him — his own words.

Using stylometry one is able to compare texts to determine authorship of a particular work. Throughout the years Satoshi wrote thousands of posts and emails and most of which are publicly available. According to my source, the NSA was able to the use the ‘writer invariant’ method of stylometry to compare Satoshi’s ‘known’ writings with trillions of writing samples from people across the globe. […]

The NSA then took bulk emails and texts collected from their mass surveillance efforts. First through PRISM (a court-approved front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts) and then through MUSCULAR (where the NSA copies the data flows across fiber optic cables that carry information among the data centers of Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and Facebook) the NSA was able to place trillions of writings from more than a billion people in the same plane as Satoshi’s writings to find his true identity. The effort took less than a month and resulted in positive match.

Creepy if true.

They’re watching

Related: a fascinating essay on the elusive computer scientist that really needs to be adapted for the screen.

5-second product pickup

This is amazing but also slightly disturbing:

Walmart is building giant self-service kiosks that retrieve customers’ online orders in its stores.

The kiosks, which Walmart calls pickup towers, are in about 20 stores today. Walmart is planning to roll them out to more than 100 locations over the next couple of months.

We recently tested one of the towers at a Walmart store in Midlothian, Virginia, and we were shocked by how easy and quick it was to use. […]

When we arrived at the store, we found the pickup tower a few steps from the entrance. Its sheer size made it easy to spot — it’s staggeringly large, standing more than 16 feet tall and 8 feet wide. […]

When we approached the machine, we were prompted to scan a barcode or enter an order number. We chose to scan the barcode that was included in our email from Walmart.

Within five seconds of scanning the barcode, a previously hidden compartment above the screen lit up, revealing a conveyer belt and a cardboard box that was seemingly produced out of thin air.

Then a glass door retracted, giving us access to the box.