Archive for January 3rd, 2009

Remember Peter Schiff complaining about the Federal Reserve in the previous blogs. Well he’s here now debating with people from the Federal Reserve.

Remember to watch all the five videos!


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One of the classic speculations of astronomy and biology is the uniqueness or likelihood of intelligent life in the universe. Dr. Frank Drake who is now Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at University of California proposed, in 1960, a mathematical framework to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. The equation, now known as the Drake Equation.

What’s fascinating about the equation are the kinds of variables Drake chose as contributors to the existence of a civilization. In this video, astronomer Carl Sagan describes the equation’s components and its implications to the existence of intelligent life in the galaxy:

Come up with your own estimate of life using the Drake Equation using this interactive version from Nova.

How accurate is the Drake Equation? That’s the problem. No one can really say at this point–although it does provide a plausible framework. Most of the variables are just simply guesses. Criticisms of the Drake Equation in wikipedia:

Criticism of the Drake equation follows mostly from the observation that several terms in the equation are largely or entirely based on conjecture. Thus the equation cannot be used to draw firm conclusions of any kind. As T.J. Watson states:

The Drake equation consists of a large number of probabilities multiplied together. Since each factor is guaranteed to be somewhere between 0 and 1, the result is also guaranteed to be a reasonable-looking number between 0 and 1. Unfortunately, all the probabilities are completely unknown, making the result worse than useless.

Likewise, in a 2003 lecture at Caltech, Michael Crichton, a science fiction author, stated:

The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. […] As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless…

One reply to such criticism is that experiments by SETI scientists do not attempt to address the Drake equation for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations anywhere in the universe, but are focused on specific, testable hypotheses (i.e., “do extraterrestrial civilizations communicating in the radio spectrum exist near sun-like stars within 50 light years of the Earth?”).

Another reply to such criticism is that even though the Drake equation currently involves speculation about unmeasured parameters, it stimulates dialog on these topics. Then the focus becomes how to proceed experimentally.

The Drake Equation is simply another one of those questions that have to wait for more advanced instruments, theories, and discoveries in order to shed more insight. Meanwhile we can only guess.

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Net Neutrality is a concept that entered the popular consciousness recently especially with the recent U.S. Congressional hearings about legislation relating to internet regulation. The wiki entry for Net Neutrality:

Network neutrality (equivalently net neutrality, Internet neutrality) is a principle proposed for residential broadband networks and potentially for all networks. A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on content, sites, or platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed, as well as one where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams.

The interesting angle to this debate is how the internet is being treated as an avenue for not just economic behaviour but moral behaviour as well. During the congressional hearing on net neutrality, Congressman Ron Paul had very interesting insights to share about the moral hazard of stepping into internet regulation:

In a conference about individual rights conducted by the Ayn Rand Center, Dr. Yaron Brook shares his own thoughts on the topic which parallel Ron Paul’s:

Blogger apathetic lemming also has some interesting research and views on the subject here which you should check out for a more wholistic appreciation of the subject.

 I’m not urging you to call your representatives and support this bill, or saying that you should tell them to block it. I haven’t made up my own mind about this.

But I’m dubious about this well-intentioned effort to save us from our Internet Service Providers.

For starters, one of the biggest proponents of the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008” is Google. I like Google, as a search engine, and I’ve heard that they provide excellent customer service.

However, Google’s record on freedom of speech and censorship isn’t all that unblemished. Remember Google’s accommodation of the Chinese leaders’ requirements, back in 2006?

The whole question regarding Net Neutrality is essentially a question of government interference on private individual rights, and especially how government intervention can influence more than just one aspect of an individual’s rights. The quality of the internet has thus far depended on the current freedom its users enjoy.

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In this conference conducted by the Ayn Rand Center, Dr. Yaron Brook responds to a query regarding The Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States. The salient points of Dr. Brook’s talk relate to the establishment and the consequent actions of the Federal Reserve beginning in 1914 which ultimately culminated into the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting depression. This talk is very timely now that the United States and Europe are entering a contracting phase in their economies in the wake of the crash of subprime mortgages and the bursting of the housing bubble and stock market crashes.

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Touch-screen smartphones are now the rage these days. To get a taste, just check out this round-up from PCMag featuring the new iPhone and its competitors.

It’s a touch (pun intended) of deja vu reading this present day rage against a talk I saw on TED a year ago, a presentation by Jeff Han on the possibilities of a multi-touch interface which is as far from the present day point and click as the mouse was from a keyboard.

Check out Han’s talk here for reinspiration.

This evolution of interface brings me back to the classic question on the QWERTY keyboard which we have come to accept as a foundation of our present lives. Most people using computers now are no longer familiar with the history of QWERTY–which has its roots in a mechanical limitation of typewriters which necessitated the unique and bizarre arrangement of letters.

A short history of QWERTY:

In 1714 Henry Mill took out the first patent (number 385) for a typewriter in England. Most of the 100+ early attempts at typewriters were in ABC order, and some to enable the blind to write. Then Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA, invented a typewriter in September 1867. As with previous attempts the keys were in an ABCDEFG layout, and the typists soon got too fast and jammed the keys. The key levers hit the platen from underneath and then fell back down under gravity. He didn’t think to put return springs on to fix the problem.

Instead he solved this by asking his brother in law to devise a different layout of the keys. Publicly he said it was to put the most commonly used letters far apart on the keyboard to reduce the chances of the levers jamming. The result was Qwerty (the Qwerty layout).

Unfortunately, the utility of the arrangement has long since been rendered obsolete since keyboards have not been mechanical for decades. And glaringly, this is one area of technology where tradition supercedes innovation.

Which is why I am happy about touchscreen–finally an INNOVATION that fundamentally changes everything we know, in addition to making our lives more convenient and efficient which is what technology is all about. What the trackball and mouse failed to do, touchscreen and multi-point might.

Or not. As the article above says:

Qwerty’s history is about big money, mass production, a weapons company, monopoly, vested interests, poor design and a total disregard for the best interests of beginners. Qwerty was not designed to improve typing, but to slow typists down for a primitive typewriter that didn’t have return springs.

Like paper tape readers and card punches, Qwerty was created by older technology and is being replaced by better technology. Qwerty’s decline began with the humble mouse, and new technologies will make it obsolete in the short term. Millions now use voice and pen input systems. New technologies such as text messaging, touch-screen systems and PDA’s have prepared for the future with alphabetic layouts now.

If you already use Qwerty, that industry has already taken your time and money learning their layout. There is no point spending more and you should stick with it for the duration, which hopefully won’t be long.

Star Trek Voice recognition is still far away, but meantime, I’ll be poking screens fervently!

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