Monday, March 25, 2013

NASA’s Technical Reports Server Shuts Down

For most of its existence, the U. S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could be termed the fishbowl agency.  Unlike the Department of Defense or nuclear-related branches of the Department of Energy, virtually everything NASA did, built, or planned has been publicly available to anybody who asked.  One reason you see so many NASA-created photos of space and the Earth is that the agency lets anyone use its photos for free as long as credit is given, and they have put their huge photo library online.  Less well known, but perhaps more important, is the vast accumulation of technical information—papers, reports, and scientific data—that NASA has also given the public free access to.  Until, that is, last week.

In a move that annoyed the research community, NASA director Major General Charles Bolden took down the entire NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS), citing concerns that some material subject to U. S. export control laws may be on it.  This occurred a few days after a Chinese national named Bo Jiang was arrested by the FBI after lying about the fact that he had a laptop, hard drive, and SIM card on his person before trying to board a one-way trip to China.  Mr. Bo had been a contractor working at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia.  The FBI learned that he might be taking sensitive NASA information out of the country through some whistleblowers at the agency who got in touch with the office of Virginia’s Rep. Frank R. Wolf, who notified the FBI.

Now there may not have been anything illegal on Bo Jiang’s laptop, but we will have to wait to find out.  We will also have to wait to be able to use the NTRS service until such time as Director Bolden thinks it is safe.  If he is taking the U. S. export laws seriously, that may be a while.

Based on my own limited experience, my impression of the U. S. export laws is similar to my impression of the Transportation Security Administration, the folks who make you take off your shoes before you board an aircraft.  Both cause varying degrees of inconvenience to large numbers of people, while having an uncertain effect on the actual security of the country.  For example, did you know that Geiger counters, the little tubes that have been around since the 1920s, which detect atomic particles and gamma rays, are subject to U. S. export control laws?  If you go online and try to buy one from a U. S. hobby shop, you are notified that they’re subject to export control laws and you better not try to buy one if you’re not from here.  I suppose one would need a few Geiger counters to build a nuclear weapon in one’s basement, but the list doesn’t stop there—a little thing like some plutonium would be necessary too, and you can’t buy that online (not that I’ve looked—I don’t want the FBI showing up on my doorstep).  These kinds of restrictions make it harder for U. S. companies to profit from export business, and by the same token, they give an advantage to foreign manufacturers who rush in to fill the vacuum left by our export restrictions.  This is perverse, to say the least.

Perhaps Director Bolden is taking a more entrepreneurial view of NASA’s intellectual property than the attitude that prevailed in the past, which was basically one of wanting private entities to use NASA’s smarts, because NASA could use such good news at its next appropriation hearing before Congress as yet another reason to keep funding the agency.  There was a time when everything from jet engines to Tang (the now-forgotten orange-flavored breakfast drink) was claimed by NASA as at least partly due to their innovative thinking. 

But now that the center of gravity of space travel is moving in a private direction, it may be time for NASA to act more like a private organization.  The intellectual property that private firms develop is closely guarded, and rightly so, because the competitive advantage it can bring can make the difference between success and failure.  China is clearly one of our international competitors, at least in fields that we haven’t nearly abandoned (such as consumer-product manufacturing).  So it probably makes sense to be aware of what is going on with regard to sensitive information at NASA going to foreign nationals, both through legitimate channels like the NTRS and illegitimate ones like laptops with possibly stolen data on them.

This change of attitude will be a strain, however.  I’m sure that parts of NASA have always had security restrictions, and those parts won’t have a problem with maintaining them.  But other large portions of the agency—those devoted to scientific rather than engineering research, for example—have always shared information as a fundamental part of their mission.  The problem is that it’s not always easy to tell the two types of research apart, even for historians of science who take months or years to think about the question.  A discovery in fundamental science today may turn into the hot product of tomorrow, but the only way to find out which is which is to wait and see.

In the meantime, it would be nice if whoever is in charge of deciding what goes on the U. S. export control list would be a little more restrained in their anonymous diktats.  One discouraging trend that is evident in many areas of life is the encrusting creep of regulations issued by faceless bureaucrats, regulations that cause people who are just trying to live their lives and get some work done to drop what they’re doing and perform a dance to satisfy a government bureaucracy.  Unfortunately, it is in the nature of bureaucracies to enlarge their turf in this way, so I am not optimistic that the situation will improve any time soon.

Let’s also hope that whatever offending material is found on NASA’s technical database can be purged so they can turn the service back on, and let the taxpayers have access once again to the information they have paid for.  The attitude that NASA really belongs to the people is reinforced by their historic freedom with which they have shared information, and it is becoming rarer among government agencies.  But it is a good quality that I hope will continue into the future, whatever that brings for NASA and the world.

Sources:  The article “Database is shut down by NASA for a review” by Mark Mazzetti appeared in the online edition of the New York Times on Mar. 22, 2013 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article “Charles Bolden.”  Whenever it comes back online, you can find the NASA Technical Report Server at  I thank Jon Alan Schmidt for pointing out an erroneous reference to the Transportation Security Administration in an earlier version of this blog.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sociometric Badges: Big Advance or Big Brother?

The custom, or really requirement, of wearing an identification badge at work is part of the accepted routine for millions of workers worldwide.  But recently, psychology researchers have teamed up with engineers to develop something called a “sociometric badge.”  As reported in the December 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum, the developers claim to be able to measure all sorts of remarkable things with these badges, ranging from the truth about how an organization really functions (as opposed to what the organization chart says) all the way up to worker happiness.  Well, maybe not happiness in the broad philosophical sense, but one particular work-related aspect of it called “flow”:  that state of mind sought by high achievers everywhere in which you are fully engaged in what you’re doing, and worries about the rest of the world seem to fall away. 

How do these badges work?  The Hitachi Business Microscope was one of the first ones to be developed, and it’s quite impressive.  Each employee to be studied is issued an card-shaped sensor on a lanyard to be worn around the neck.  Inside the card are a variety of sensors:  accelerometers to measure relative movement, infrared transmitters and receivers to detect when the card is near other cards, a microphone to pick up conversations, a wireless interface, and a flash memory, along with a lithium battery to run the thing.  During the day, it senses movements, conversations, and proximity to others, and logs all these things in a format that is downloaded at night to a central data-gathering location where, after a suitable amount of data has accumulated, researchers can consolidate the information in various ways.

In early experiments, users were also asked to keep their own diaries of daily activities.  Using the sociometric-badge data, the researchers identified certain times in which they said the users were experiencing “flow” or a similar pleasant immersion in productive tasks.  The correlation to what the subjects were actually doing, as recorded in their own personal diaries, was quite good.  In another study, two organizations that were thrown together by a corporate merger were examined to see how well the merger was going.  Network diagrams based on the sociometric data retrieved by the sensors showed that a month after the merger, the supposedly unified organization was still functioning like two independent outfits:  hardly anyone from Organization A was interacting with Organization B and vice-versa.  When the managers were shown this problem, they “took steps” (unspecified in the article) to fix it, and the success of their actions was also reflected in later data.

It’s understandable that working for a private company involves the giving up of certain rights and privileges that one would be reluctant to cede to the government, for example.  Companies have a right to snoop into one’s email or phone conversations that use company-owned facilities.  But it seems that a new line has been crossed with the sociometric badge.

For example, if anyone tried to do such an experiment at a university, the researchers would first have to get approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board, which is charged with the task of protecting the rights of human subjects in experiments.  If the researchers in the corporate world are publishing papers on their work, which they appear to be doing, they are performing research on human subjects, but nothing in the article says anything about permission being asked or granted for the experiments.  Presumably, wearing the badge was a condition of employment.

Why would anyone have qualms about wearing a sociometric badge?  Well, put it in old-fashioned terms, and imagine it was being done before the electronics was available to do this sort of thing unobtrusively. What if you got to work one day and found a private detective taking pictures of you every minute and writing down everything you said and the names of everyone you spoke with all day?  Most people would be creeped out by such intrusiveness, yet that is only a little more extreme than the kind of data the sociometric badge collects.  It may not be possible to reconstruct entire conversations or your exact location at all times from the badge data, but determined persons with ulterior motives could extract something close to that level of detail if they tried.

So far, no journalist to my knowledge has requested any sociometric-badge data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  But if this research is as effective as its proponents claim, sooner or later it will make its way into the public-service sector, where FOIA requests must be honored.  A rather cynical old professor I knew once told me that you should never write anything down that you would not want to show up on the front page of the New York Times.  If sociometric-badge data is ever subject to an FOIA request, public officials could have their every move for a given day show up in the newspapers, or whatever will pass for newspapers in the future.  This may be a disquieting prospect for some.

The branch of psychology used in this research is called “positive psychology,” meaning it studies the more appealing aspects of our psyches:  happiness, success, productivity, and so on, rather than the grimmer sides of our nature observed by abnormal psychology.  While that is all very well, even the definition of happiness itself is still a matter of dispute in philosophy, so the fact that some researchers are only trying to make people happier should not give them blanket permission to do anything they want.  Issues of privacy and freedom of association at least need to be addressed before the sociometric badge becomes more popular in both the corporate and the public sectors.  So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Sources:  “Sensing Happiness” by K. Yano, S. Lyubomirsky, and J. Chancellor, appeared in IEEE Spectrum for December 2012 on pp. 32-37. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Apple, Google, and the Mystery of Music

Back in the dark ages of music reproduction, when state-of-the-art was a plastic box called a cassette tape, yours truly worked for a few summers between college semesters at an audiovisual repair shop.  Most of my time there, I spent in the back room trying to fix recalcitrant tape recorders and players, but once in a while we were short-handed and I actually had to deal with a customer.  One guy I remember in particular.  He had brought in a strange-looking cassette player shaped and colored more or less like a volleyball, and its guts were not cooperating with my attempts to fix it.  One day he stopped in and demanded to see the guy who was actually working on his unit.  I came out to the front counter and tried to explain the problem to him.  He listened patiently, and then all he said was, “Man, I gotta have my music.”

Multiply him by the seven billion or so people on this planet, and you can realize some of the consequences of the fact that music is a universal feature of human culture, and the scale of money to be made by whoever provides music to these masses.  Before mechanical sound reproduction was possible, this was by necessity a retail operation.  Either you made music yourself, which is still the main way to hear music in many parts of the Global South, or you supported a few specialists called musicians, who could entertain as many people at once as could hear the sounds they made—a few thousand at a time at most.  Then came the phonograph, radio, magnetic recording, digital audio, the iPod, and most recently, according to, Google and Apple’s attempts to dominate the global supply of streaming music to smartphones. 

Wired reporter Matt Honan admits that music is now a commodity, like gasoline or pork bellies.  The important thing about a commodity is the bulk price that  the distributors pay to the suppliers, which Apple reportedly offered to set at six cents per 100 songs streamed.  If Apple prevailed, that would mean for every song streamed to an individual listener, the entity formerly known as the record label would receive six ten-thousandths of a dollar.  Just a few years ago, when 45-RPM discs were still being sold, royalties might have amounted to as much as a tenth of the cost of a record, say maybe sixty cents.  Of course, you could listen to a record over and over again, but the same is often true of streaming audio.  The point here is that the cash return to the label for each listen has diminished almost to the vanishing point. 

It is not clear that Apple’s low bid will win out, but something close to it probably will.  And in the nature of digital distribution, we will probably end up with one major worldwide supplier of music to the masses, just as Google is the major supplier of search-engine technology.  Is this a bad thing?

It depends on what you think music is for.  Many people I know, especially younger ones, but even including my wife (who turns 57 next Tuesday), view music as a sort of background accessory to their lives, like certain styles of clothing.  The music they listen (or listened) to in their 20s and 30s becomes a part of them, and they select it to accompany or even induce certain moods of relaxation, pleasure, and so on.  For many people, like the gentleman I waited on at the repair shop, life without music is unimaginable, and it forms a continuous undertone to their lives at work and home.  If this is all that music means to you, then it doesn’t matter that much who supplies it, just as the name of your electric utility company probably doesn’t matter to you as long as the price is reasonable and the delivery is reliable.  That’s what dealers in commodities do:  deliver the goods reliably at a reasonable price.

But if you believe music is the most direct path to one’s emotions, in a manner of speaking a direct line to the soul, and can represent the abstraction called beauty, which is one of the “three roads to God” (the other two being truth and goodness)—well, then, the matter becomes a little more serious.  While it is unlikely that Google, Apple, or whoever ends up in charge will discriminate against particular styles of music if such discrimination reduces the bottom line, we can expect censorship to become an issue, especially in countries or regions where restrictive regimes hold power.  In the past, revolutionaries and freedom fighters have used music to great advantage.  In the classic World War II film Casablanca, no one can forget the stirring cafe scene in which a group of German soldiers singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” are drowned out by the French patriots singing “La Marseillaise.”  Say Google becomes the music supplier of choice in China, and the government decides that anything with religious or political overtones is not allowed?  Google and Yahoo and other high-tech firms have already kowtowed to the demands of governments for censorship with regard to search-engine results, and why should songs be any different?

Fortunately, anyone with a pair of lungs and vocal cords can make some kind of music or other.  And even now, in secret house churches, in African villages, and anywhere two or more people decide to sing together, the mysterious thing called music is doing its work in putting human beings in touch with the transcendent.  And we don’t need Apple's or Google’s help with that.

Sources:  The story “Why There Are So Many Streaming-Music Rumors Right Now” appeared on Mar. 8, 2013 at  My thoughts on music drew inspiration from a talk (downloaded from iTunes!) by Peter Kreeft entitled “Beauty,” which is available at  And the name of the 19th-century patriotic song that the Germans sing in Casablanca is disclosed at

Monday, March 04, 2013

Obama’s Brain Project: A Hall of Mirrors?

One of the famous line drawings of the artist M. C. Escher portrays a realistically drawn hand holding a pencil.  The line drawn by the pen turns out to be the cuff of a shirt sleeve, from which emerges a second hand. . . which grows out of the paper somehow and holds a pencil, whose line is the cuff of a shirt sleeve, from which emerges the first hand.  Escher’s “Drawing Hands” came to mind when I read of a planned initiative by the Obama administration to promote a decade-long project to map the human brain.

Officially, the project is still under wraps until the President announces his budget priorities later this month.  But according to a New York Times report by John Markoff, plans include increased federal funding for neurological research directed at mapping increasingly complex brains, ranging from those of a fruit fly up to the world’s smallest mammal, a type of shrew.  But the ultimate goal is to learn how essentially every neuron in the human brain is connected, and how the whole thing works:  a wiring diagram of the brain, if you will.  Hopes are that such knowledge could lead to new therapies for presently incurable brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Inevitably, this project has been compared to the Human Genome Project, which was completed about a decade ago at a cost of under $4 billion.  Some estimates say that the information gained from that project has returned up to $140 for every dollar spent.  Aside from the purely economic results, the mapping of the human genome was a landmark scientific achievement in its own right, which has led to further questions and discoveries in an already burgeoning field.

Does the human-brain mapping project hold the same amount of promise, either economically or scientifically?  The first question that should be asked is, “Can it work?”  And some scientists are already voicing doubts.

Markoff quotes neuroscientist Donald G. Stein as saying, “I believe the scientific paradigm underlying this mapping project is, at best, out of date and at worst, simply wrong.”  Apparently, the old analogies of the brain as a massive kind of telephone switchboard, or even a “wet computer,” fail to capture essential aspects of an organism which can develop new neurons in response to external stimuli, and has recently proved to be much more plastic than earlier theories supposed.  To the extent that the project imposes an outdated brain model on researchers, it will not succeed.  But every researcher knows that what you say you are going to do in order to get research money, is not necessarily the thing you actually end up doing, so this concern is probably not as great as you might think.

What is of greater concern now is the question of basic feasibility.  When Dr. Rafael Yuste of Columbia University was asked at a September 2011 conference about what he would really like to be able to do with the brain, he replied, “I want to be able to record from every neuron in the brain at the same time.”  Simply storing the data that would result from such an instrument is a brain-boggling proposition.  One estimate is that you would need the data-storage equivalent of about 600 million hard drives the size of the one on my personal computer (500 gigabytes) to store all the neurological activity that goes on in only one brain for a year.  The next time you say “nothing’s on your mind,” think about that.

Of course, data storage has been getting more efficient for decades, and it will probably continue to do so for a while.  But storing the data is nowhere near as hard as obtaining it in the first place.  Right now, the only way to monitor individual brain neurons is to connect wires to them, which requires opening the skull.  There are various means to monitor the brain non-invasively, but at present they have a fairly poor resolution, on the order of a millimeter at best.  And there are thousands of neurons in each cubic millimeter of brain.  Futuristic plans to send molecule-size data recorders into the brain and record the results on DNA are still purely drawing-board notions, and it is not clear they will ever work.

When the Human Genome Project began, we knew that DNA sequencing was possible—it was just very slow and tedious.  Rapid advances in technology enabled the project to finish ahead of schedule.  It is by no means clear that massive monitoring of individual brain neurons is even theoretically possible.  And unmentioned so far is the question brought up by the Escher drawing:  can the brain really understand itself?  In particular, what would happen if Dr. Yuste gets his wish and one day he sits down at a computer monitor that shows him the output of his own brain in some meaningful way.  If you’ve ever pointed a TV camera at a monitor showing the camera’s own field of view, you have seen some weird patterns show up.  It’s not pleasant to contemplate what it might mean for your own brain to watch itself in action.

As with any great leap in scientific knowledge these days, the rationale for it is that it may lead to practical benefits such as cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.  While we can’t discount these possibilities, neither can we discount the notion that once it’s possible to exhaustively monitor the activity of the human brain, it may be possible to read thoughts in a way that would amount to the ultimate invasion of privacy.  At the very least, this possibility raises concerns that should be taken seriously.  So far, everyone whose brain has been monitored has given consent to the process, we hope.  But the molecule-size brain monitors could be delivered without the patient’s knowledge or consent. 

So far, this kind of thing is in the realm of science fiction rather than fact.  But before it becomes fact, let’s hope that we have a full public discussion of the potential downsides as well as the benefits of a map of the human brain, assuming such a thing is even possible.

Sources:  John Markoff’s article “Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain,” appeared in the online edition of the New York Times on Feb. 17, 2013, at  He followed it with an analysis piece on the same subject on Feb. 24 at  I relied on both of these pieces for this article.  The M. C. Escher work “Drawing Hands” can be viewed at