Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cyberspace Anonymity: Good or Bad?

If you have been reading this blog for more than a few weeks, you may have noticed that I recently pulled off my mask of anonymity and posted my full name and location on it. That was a choice I made, and most choices have moral implications, if you look far enough. The internet offers abundant opportunities to those who wish to remain anonymous for whatever reason. Since the way it is engineered has contributed to this state of affairs, we are still in the realm of engineering ethics when we consider the implications of cyberspace anonymity.

In the last few days, I have been corresponding with a person halfway around the world, in Australia, about a laptop computer problem. He (I assume it's a he, although I might be wrong) and I have never met and will in all likelihood never meet in this life. But he's had the kindness to take note of my plea for help on a user's forum, and for the last three or four days we've each been posting a remark a day, me asking questions, him giving advice. I notice he usually posts around four in the afternoon his time, which is just a bit before I'll get on around six in the morning in Texas. So although the sun set decades ago on the British Empire, the sun never sets on this spontaneous two-person computer consulting organization, at least as long as it lasts. So far, I've found this to be a good and helpful interchange.

One of the issues he's helping me with is computer viruses. They are another product of the anonymity the Internet provides. As I've remarked elsewhere, many computer hackers don't view the theft of software (or the theft by virus and worm vandalism of other people's time and resources) in the same light that they'd view the act of walking into a convenience store and heisting a loaf of bread. One reason for that is you're much more likely to get caught with bread under your coat than you are to be caught with illegal software, mainly because transactions over the Internet are usually anonymous unless you go to the trouble to advertise who you are. If by some magic, the writers of viruses, worms, and all the other plague carriers of computerdom were brought into the same room with their victims, you'd need a plenty big room, for one thing. Some of the perpetrators might be shamed into confessing, but others might just brazen it out like juvenile delinquents everywhere, and deny it all. At the very least, though, the victims would have the perverse satisfaction of seeing the person who messed up their computer. If this kind of encounter happened on a regular basis, the number of virus-writers would probably decline, but not die out entirely. Unfortunately, I don't have that particular magic trick in my bag.

What you think about the anonymity of cyberspace depends on what you think about humanity. The (relatively few) hard-core materialists among us cannot make a principled distinction between the silicon-and-aluminum machines on which the meat machines communicate, and the meat machines themselves. It's all bits anyway, and so whether one meat machine "knows" who another meat machine is, doesn't really matter except for routine pragmatic reasons, which are the only kind of reasons there are. Those of us who see something unique and distinct about humanity also see something unique and distinct about one person getting to know another, and even about names themselves. In the Hebrew Bible, the knowledge of a person's name conveyed an almost magical power. At the burning bush, Moses asked God, ". . . when I come unto the children of Israel. . . and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." The fact that God told Moses His Name was the sign of a special relationship. And so it should be between people as well.

It doesn't particularly bother me that I don't know Mr. (or Ms.) Australia's name. Long before computers came along, people in cities got used to being served by employees whose names they didn't know. That may not be a good thing in itself, but if it's a moral wrong not to call a salesperson by name, it's one millions commit every day. Normal life for centuries has brought with it various degrees of interaction, from the most casual one-time encounter to the most exalted lifelong friendships and marriages. A life in which each of us knew the most intimate details of the lives of all our acquaintances would be like living on a small desert island with other castaways. We have unfortunately been exposed to the real-life consequences of that kind of life on reality-show TV, and it's obviously got its problems. On the other hand, a life lived with no marriage partner, no close friends, and no one who calls you by your first name would fall short of what most people consider a reasonably fulfilled existence.

Should we throw up our hands and say that cyberspace anonymity is neutral? Absolutely not. It depends on how it's used. If anonymity encourages otherwise shy people to risk more in the way of human encounters, then it may be a benefit. If a criminal uses it the same way he'd use a mask, then it's wrong. Anonymous criticism, hate mail, letters, and email are likewise wrong, or at least cowardly, although there may be extenuating circumstances, such as when whistleblowers fearing for their jobs expose corruption and wrongdoing anonymously on hotlines. And I include most spam in that category.

We can hide behind the masks we don online because we're having fun, or helping each other, or considering a more serious relationship, or trying to make a buck, or plotting to kill. If the Internet had been set up to be totally transparent—everyone knowing the identity of everyone else—it would be a very different place, and probably closer to that global village that Marshall McLuhan talked about. But probably our interactions on it would be very different too. And I might not have gotten any help for my computer problem—at least, not from Australia.

Sources: The Canadian social theorist and media critic Marshall McLuhan did indeed coin the phrase "global village," according to his son Eric, who writes about its origins at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/mcluhan-studies/v1_iss2/1_2art2.htm.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Global Warming or Global Shaking? A Tale of Two Theories

On Dec. 26, 2004, the most deadly tsunami in recorded history struck the Indian Ocean, killing about 280,000 people. If there had been a warning system in place along the affected coastlines to move people to higher ground, many of those who died in the disaster might be alive today. Fortunately, the technology to detect tsunamis in deep water and relay the information to the proper authorities exists today. After the terrible lesson of 2004, many governments moved to improve their tsunami-warning capabilities, and this effort is already proving fruitful. But most people think earthquakes on land, which can be just as deadly as tsunamis, are inherently unpredictable. What if that isn't true? What if it turns out that we can predict earthquakes as reliably as tomorrow's weather—not perfectly, but well enough to give warnings about truly major earthquakes? Wouldn't that be worth a little time and attention?

One of the people who think so is Friedemann Freund, long associated with the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. Freund is a mineralogist who has never been afraid to go against the prevailing climate of opinion, even as a child growing up in post-World-War II Germany. His interest in how rocks behave under conditions of extreme temperature and pressure that exist deep below the earth's surface led him to the discovery that their electrical conductivity changes in unexpected ways. Freund believes his research is a key to understanding why attempts to predict earthquakes using electromagnetic measurements have failed to live up to early expectations. (For more details on this type of earthquake prediction, see the entry in this blog "Earthquake Prediction: Ready for Prime Time?" for Apr. 13, 2006.) When Freund's information about the way electric currents can pass through rocks is added to the current state-of-the-art theories, he believes it will make way for a major advance in the technology and science of predicting earthquakes.

Freund's hopes may be realized, but leaving aside the technical questions of whether he is right, let's look at the degree of attention he and other earthquake-prediction scientists have received from the public, the politicians, and the media. Let's compare it to another scientific issue with global implications: global warming.

One rough way to compare general awareness of topics is to see how many results a given phrase returns on Google. The phrase "earthquake prediction" turns up about a million; "global warming" turns up 45 million. While all sorts of things influence these numbers, a difference that large means that a lot more people are thinking and writing about global warming than about earthquake prediction.

Now why is that? One reason has to do with the connection many scientists are making between the behavior of human beings—especially wealthy American human beings that drive gas-guzzling vehicles—and climate changes. If we just hadn't burned all that fossil fuel, they are saying, we might not have to put up with hotter summers, stormier winters, and coastline property values going down (or up, depending on how close you are to the coast). And any great disaster for which we believe we are culpable even a tiny bit will get our attention more than something we can have no influence over. But that doesn't mean we should ignore other things that we might be able to do something about too.

Next, consider the quality of answers to two questions: (1) Has anybody died from global warming yet? (2) Has anybody died from earthquakes and tsunamis we failed to predict yet? Answers to (1) will be all over the map, depending on whether you attribute this famine or that flood to global warming or to other causes. Compared to that answer, the answer to (2) is like the difference between the sky on a foggy day and a diamond in brilliant sunlight. Yes, many thousands have died in earthquakes and tsunamis—deaths that might have been averted if we had possessed the means to predict these events. And with a fraction of the effort (and publicity) spent so far on global warming, the science of earthquake prediction could be much farther along than it is.

Part of engineering ethics, at least the way I view it, is to decide what technical matters deserve attention—what to do, as opposed to simply how to do it well, whatever it is. Professional inertia, which is a tendency of professions to circle the wagons whenever a cherished idea is threatened by an outsider, has slowed recognition of Freund's work and the work of others in earthquake prediction. I'm not saying the outsiders are right. But they deserve a much wider hearing, and encouragement in terms of funding and programs, than they've been getting so far. Even if spending money to look into earthquake prediction turns out to have been a bad bet, it is a wager society ought to make. And personally, I bet they are more right than wrong.

Sources: I thank Alberto Enriquez, the author of a recent IEEE Spectrum article on Freund's research, for drawing my attention to it. His article can be found at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/feb07/4886 (free registration required for viewing). A nine-page thesis explaining some of Freund's recent ideas can be found at a website whose URL is so long I have to split it in half. You will have to copy and paste it into one line for it to work. Here are the pieces (no space between the two halves):

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Non-Lethal Weapons, Part II: Taser, Anyone?

The taser is a device used mainly by law enforcement authorities up to now. It delivers a painful but allegedly non-lethal electrical charge that effectively disables an aggressor without permanent injury in the vast majority of cases. Invented in 1993, hundreds of thousands of tasers have been sold and used by police worldwide, and now Taser International is trying to enter the consumer market in a big way. In April, you will be able to buy a $300 unit called the C2, styled in a pink-and-black housing that makes it look more like a lady's shaver than a weapon.

An Austin American-Statesman report of Feb. 4, 2007 on the introduction of this latest taser model raises the question of safety. Is carrying around a high-voltage generator in your handbag really any better than packing a rod, as the saying goes? Even if the user doesn't harm himself or herself, are these devices really safe in both a technical and societal sense, or are they a step down the road to a police state where torture is routinely carried out by ordinary citizens?

Amnesty International seems to think tasers are a bad idea all around, and wants a moratorium on their sale. Not surprisingly, Taser's co-founder and CEO, Tom Smith, thinks a moratorium is a bad idea, since his company seems to be the main if not sole supplier of non-lethal electrical-shock devices for use on humans. What facts should guide one's decisions about these things?

Medically speaking, the taser people seem to be standing on pretty firm ground. Without going into a lot of details about amps, volts, watts, joules (not jewels, although it's pronounced the same way) and so on, I will simply say that the taser is carefully designed to deliver enough electrical energy to cause loss of voluntary control of the main skeletal muscles, but not enough to stop your heart or cause significant burns or other injuries typically associated with electrical shock. If you can't control your leg muscles, you fall down, which is the posture that police officers desire to see a recalcitrant subject in.

Taser International has posted a disquieting video showing the CEO and other high-ups receiving taser shocks. The grimaces of agony and cries of anguish are not faked, but all of them lived to tell about it. When I did a brief web search for taser injuries, one of the first articles that came up was about a series of lawsuits filed against Taser International, not by criminals (who don't usually have the wherewithal to sue anyway), but by police departments whose members claimed they sustained heart damage and other injuries while demonstrating the taser during training sessions. That was a couple of years ago, and the company now has four-page warning statements on their website describing all the things to watch out for, from sprained ankles to heart attacks in people with pre-existing heart conditions.

For the sake of argument, say the taser is as safe as its maker claims, and the people who get tasered suffer no permanent harm in nearly all cases. Do we still want Joe and Jane Public walking around with a C2 model, even if it is equipped with identification confetti that sprays out so that any use of a taser by the wrong person can be traced?

I once knew a guy who was a truck driver by profession, plenty big enough to take care of himself in a barroom brawl. For a long time he carried a gun, but after a while he married a young Christian woman and decided to quit carrying it. I asked him why. He said he didn't like the way just having the gun on him changed his attitude toward people and situations. He didn't go into detail, but what he may have meant is that he had those first thoughts that must always come before someone actually uses a weapon: what if this happens? should I pull it out then? does this guy deserve to be shot? And I guess he just got tired of having those kinds of thoughts.

If tasers get wildly popular, you can count on more people misusing them, because despite all the training brochures and videos in the world, if a consumer buys a thing and throws the training material away, there's nothing to stop him. Fortunately, the consequences of misusing tasers are less severe than the misuse of handguns. Wouldn't it be nice if we could replace all handguns with tasers? Unfortunately, we'd get right back into the arms race the minute somebody went out and got a handgun. So I think any hopes of getting criminals to use tasers instead of guns are fruitless, especially since they have the anti-crime confetti feature.

From a historical point of view, tasers are an interesting step backward in the grand arms race that has been going on since the first caveman hit another caveman with a rock—or since Cain murdered Abel, if you please. It is an effort to find a kinder, gentler way to subdue your fellow man (or woman). I find it rather charming that the acronym "taser" is supposed to stand for "Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle." Tom Swift was the inventor hero of the eponymous series of adventure stories for boys that were popular in the early 1900s. In Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (1911), Tom never actually deploys his weapon, which shoots ball-lightning-like glowing bombs, at another person. He hies himself off to Africa in an airship and shoots elephants instead. Inventor Tom Smith must have had some familiarity with the series, which has attracted a kind of cult following among engineers and inventors over the years.

Tom Swift's world was a very black-and-white place, both in the racial sense and in the moral sense. In Tom Swift's world, the only people with tasers would be the good guys, who could always subdue the bad guys, save the girl, and return home in triumph to a hero's welcome. Let's hope that everybody who uses one lives up to that ideal—but let's also plan on what to do if they don't.

(Correction added 2/18/2007: A more careful re-reading of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle reveals that Tom did indeed use his weapon against people, namely a tribe of entirely fictional three-foot-high natives covered with red hair. At first, he "regulated the charge" (p. 166) so as to stun, not kill, just like the modern taser, but toward the end of the book desperation overcame moderation and he blasted away at full power, bowling over hordes of the "red imps.")

Sources: The article "New Tasers Alarm Safety Advocates" by Joshunda Sanders appeared in the Austin American-Statesman print edition of Feb. 4, 2007, on the front page. Taser International's website is at www.taser.com. The article describing the lawsuits against Taser International appeared in August 2005 in the Arizona Republic and is found at http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0820taser20.html. Medical information about typical taser injuries can be found in an article by Sir (first name, maybe?) Scott Savage at http://www.ncchc.org/pubs/CC/tasers.html. And Wikipedia has a nice, though apparently controversial, article on the Tom Swift series.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Non-Lethal Weapons, Part I: Ray Gun or Ray Howitzer?

First, some housekeeping items. When I began this blog nearly a year ago, I hid behind a screen of anonymity because I was afraid of negative repercussions that might arise from incautious words I might write. Recently, eminent engineering ethics expert Steve Unger at Columbia University wrote me that he is thinking of starting a blog, and wanted to know why I didn't put my real name on mine. (He knows who I am because my emails all have a tag line with the blog's URL in it.) I thought about it and couldn't give him a good reason, so as of today my profile and the header show my real name. As always, comments are welcome. If you have sent me a comment and I haven't replied to you, it's because the blog machinery doesn't inform me of your email address. If you would like me to be able to contact you, send an email to kdstephan@txstate.edu at the same time you add a comment to this blog, and I'll be able to respond.

Now for the first-ever two-part series in this blog: non-lethal weapons. I thank George Michael Sherry of Fort Worth, Texas for bringing my attention to an Associated Press article that was carried on MSNBC on Jan. 25, 2007. According to this report, the ray gun of science-fiction legend has arrived. It takes the form of a truck that carries a kind of radar-antenna thing about fifteen feet high. Even if you're as far away as five hundred yards, the thing's beam can make you feel like you're on fire. No actual fire results, because the total amount of power involved is limited. A video clip shows a civilian—possibly a reporter—standing in a field at Moody Air Force Base outside Valdosta, Georgia. All of a sudden he jumps like a snake bit him, and starts to laugh, aware of how foolish he looks.

As a microwave engineer, I viewed these proceedings with decidedly mixed emotions. On the one hand, my pure-engineer side rejoiced to see some familiar old technology being used in a novel and possibly helpful way. The energy used—94-GHz millimeter waves—is something I have known about and done research with for years, although at a lower power level than what the military is using in the alleged ray gun. They have taken a high-power source—probably a vacuum tube of some kind—and focused the energy in a narrow beam that probably covers a few dozen yards' worth of people at a distance of 500 yards. Full disclosure requires me to say that about twenty years ago, I received some research funds from Raytheon Corporation, which built the unit used in these tests. The technology to do this has been around for years, if not decades, but perhaps the will to try this or the funding was lacking until now.

Before we get to the ethical issues, my pure-engineer side has some questions, though. I thought a ray gun was supposed to fit in your pocket. A more apt term for this thing is "ray howitzer," a howitzer being a piece of field artillery larger than a single man can conveniently carry. Not only does this gizmo require a large truck to haul it around (and probably a multi-kilowatt generator buzzing away somewhere), but because of fundamental physical laws, there is very little chance that they'll ever be able to make it much smaller than it is now. If they tried, the beam would spread out to where you'd be as likely to shoot yourself as anybody else nearby. And then there's the cost. The article didn't mention how many tax dollars the project used up, but unless vacuum-tube millimeter-wave technology has had some dramatic breakthroughs lately (and I haven't heard of any), you can bet that even in production-quantity runs this ray gun would set you back many hundreds of thousands a piece, if not more. And while a spokesperson for the military refused to comment on whether the rays would penetrate glass, I can say that without fear of contradiction, it depends. What I can say for sure is that even a thin sheet of metal such as aluminum foil will block the rays completely. While you might look silly walking around in an aluminum suit, you'd have no worries about being zapped by the millimeter-wave ray howitzer.

Now for the ethical questions. The issue of whether non-lethal weapons should be used at all is an interesting one, but there is not space here to give it justice. My main question in this area is, does the use of this device truly have no long-term health effects? Over the years there have been several studies that link exposure to high-power microwaves with the growth of cataracts in the eye. The prevalence of convenient and effective cataract surgery these days doesn't mean that we should quit worrying about giving people cataracts. It's a legitimate question whether exposure to just one "zap" from the ray howitzer could cause enough eye damage to lead to cataracts. That is a technical question for the appropriate experts, but I raise it here simply because it may not have been asked yet.

All things considered, I don't believe we have a lot to fear from people with ray guns roaming the streets and towns of America. I will be surprised if Raytheon or anybody else can make this technology cheaply enough for it to pose a threat to water cannons, tear gas, or other popular means of dispersing angry crowds. If my experience as a lecturer on microwave engineering is any guide, you could inspire a set of rioters with the same intense longing to be somewhere else that the ray howitzer inspires, by trying to teach them the Fourier transform that relates the size of the machine's dish to the size of the beam. And the lecturer would come a lot cheaper.

Sources: The ray gun article appeared on the MSNBC website at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16794717/wid/11915829?GT1=8921. Information on the relation between cataracts and microwaves can be found at places such as the Communications Workers of America website (http://www.cwa-union.org/issues/osh/articles/page.jsp?itemID=27339127) and an index of research by professor of history Nicholas Steneck on the hazards of microwave radiation (http://myweb.cableone.net/mtilton/steneck.html). It appears that "normal" exposure to microwaves and radio-frequency radiation has few if any reproducible clinical effects, although many experts disagree on the conclusions that should be drawn from the abundance of research.