Month: August 2003

A Fair and Balanced Look at Hydrogen Fuel

(Happy Fair and Balanced Friday everyone!)

A few days ago I blogged about the economics of hydrogen cars. As a follow-up, I’ve recently come across a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute on hydrogen power: Twenty Hydrogen Myths. A summary of the report’s conclusions can be found here.

The gist of the RMI report is that hydrogen fuel is extremely efficient; a hydrogen fuel-cell car is 2-3 times more efficient than a gasoline car and 1.5 times more efficient than a hybrid gas-electric car (page 11). However, hydrogen is also difficult to transport because of its low energy-to-volume ratio, so their transition strategy (page 13, published in detail here) is to distribute energy in a different form, most likely natural gas, and then generate hydrogen local to where it’s needed. Building complexes would all have their own natural-gas-to-hydrogen converters, and the hydrogen would then be used to run fuel-cells to generate electricity. Excess hydrogen would be used to refuel hydrogen-powered cars during off-peak hours. These cars would initially be in company fleets, but as the infrastructure develops RMI sees the model expanding to sell fuel to cars in the neighborhood. Ultimately, natural gas will be supplanted by renewable energies such as wind and solar as these technologies become more cost-effective.

I don’t have the expertise to judge the arguments made in the report, but on their face they sound compelling. Most of all I’m pleased with RMI’s overall message: you don’t need to choose between environmentally friendly business practices and the bottom line. Rather than argue that corporate fat-cats need to give up their profits so we can have cleaner air, RMI is creating road maps that show how businesses can improve the environment by acting in their own economic self-interest. Assuming these road maps stand the test of the market, that sounds a lot more effective (and valuable to society) than raging against the machine or trying to pass ham-handed government regulation, especially in today’s political environment.


Kaltix and personalized search

There are some interesting rumors floating around about Kaltix, a stealth start-up out of the Stanford WebBase Project. This is the same group that created the PageRank algorithm that was later spun out as a little start-up called Google. As you might expect with a company in stealth mode we’re still long on speculation and short on facts, but it looks like their main technology is a faster way to compute PageRank, the algorithm used by Google to rank hits from a search based on the Web’s link structure.

This is interesting because it would allow Google (or any other search engine) to quickly recalculate personalized indexes for each and every user. After seeding a personal index with my bookmarks file, Google would know that when I for “Jaguar” I’m probably interested in the latest version of Apple’s OS, not the car or the cat. The CNET article has a good overview, but Jeffrey Heer’s blog has a nice perspective as a researcher who happens to be housemates with one of the Kaltix founders.

There are a lot of question-marks still, and I’m not yet convinced that Kaltix’s technology is the crown jewels that Heer or the CNET article claim it is. Speedy indexing is necessary for large-scale personalized search, but you still need to create a profile from something. The real question will be whether a search engine can generate a personal profile that helps disambiguate the searches people make in actual use. Add to this the need to keep personal information like browser history from being transmitted to outside companies and you have a tall order. I’m not saying these problems can’t be solved, but as far as I know they haven’t been solved yet. I expect Kaltix will get bought by one of the big search companies, but it will still be several years before we see personalized search running on any large (non-intranet) scale.


Identity Theft and the Need for a New Common Sense

A couple stories have come up the last two days that highlight how the way the law and business determines identity isn’t keeping up with technology. One story is about identity theft and the other about computer security violations, but both have a common thread: technology has made it so our common-sense assumptions about how to tell someone’s identity no longer work.

The first is a lengthy Washington Post article about identity theft. The driving story is about Michael Berry, whose identity was stolen by an ex-con who proceeded to rack up debt and eventually commit murder all while living under Berry’s name. Around this driving story the article gives a good analysis of just how incredibly easy and common this kind of identity theft is today.

It used to be that identifying someone was a long-term and high-touch operation. You’d get paychecks from a local business, deposit checks at the local bank branch, and write checks to the local grocery store. Over time all these entities would get to know you and your identity would become firmly entrenched in the system. Now that society is more mobile that system doesn’t work, and we’re finding that the replacement system of asking for social security numbers or mother’s maiden name doesn’t work too well either. Currently banks have to eat any monetary losses that come from identity-theft fraud, but do not currently have to take responsibility for damage caused to a person’s credit rating or reputation (as a recently upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court). That means that, as the law stands now, the economic incentives encourage more convenience and less security than would be the case if banks had to take the total cost of identity theft into account.

The second story is from yesterday’s New York Times, who reported that a British man was exonerated of child pornography charges after his computer was found to have been infected by nearly a dozen Trojan-horse programs. Mr. Green, who has lost custody of his daughter and spent nine days in prison and three months in a “bail hostel” due to charges, has all along claimed that his computer was infected and that it even dialed into the Internet when no one was home.

In this case the question is whether Green is responsible for the material on his own computer. Not long ago if a crime was committed in a particular house then the perpetrator could only be one of a handful of people. For these data crimes, the person actually downloading porn onto Green’s computer could have been literally anyone in the world. Similar arguments have been made about open Wi-Fi access points and “zombie” computers that are used as launching pads for attacks on other sites on the Net. As the Times article points out, there are two issues here. One is that bad guys could use such security problems as a defense, the other is that it really is a valid defense:

“The scary thing is not that the defense might work,” said Mark Rasch, a former federal computer crime prosecutor. “The scary thing is that the defense might be right,” and that hijacked computers could be turned to an evil purpose without an owner’s knowledge or consent.

The general problem is that our old common sense ideas of identity no longer hold, or can’t be applied in our hyper-convenient and mobile society. I’m not necessarily in control of my own networked computer. I’m not the only person who knows the last four digits of my SSN. And the person handling my application has almost certainly never seen me before, and that’s no cause for alarm. Perhaps technology will come to the rescue in the form of biometrics that can prevent identity theft while still preventing governmental abuses. Perhaps regulation will come to the rescue in terms of systems to challenge faulty information, and by insuring that those who are responsible for security have the incentive to maintain it. Probably a combination of these will be required, but in the mean time I expect the problem to get worse before it gets better.


Guided Voting

Eugene Volokh has an interesting post about guided voting over at the Volokh Conspiracy (also discussed at Edward Felten’s Freedom to Tinker).

Guided voting already exists in basic form. I’m knowledgeable about a few political issues, but when it comes to local candidates or ballot initiatives outside my area of expertise I rely on party affiliation or endorsements from friends or organizations I trust to “tell” me how to vote.

Prof. Volokh’s point is that, like it or not, Internet voting will lead to a much greater role for guided voting. Today’s ballots have a candidate’s party affiliation printed on the ballot, but if I want to know how, say, the National Organization of Women feels about a candidate I need to do my homework in advance and bring a cheat sheet. Volokh paints a future where I could go to a trusted third-party site, say, and check off the organizations I would like to guide my vote. The website would then produce a suggested ballot that aggregates all the recommendations of the organizations I picked, possibly weighing organizations differently in case they conflict on a particular issue. Then with a single keystroke my suggested ballot could be filed. The advantage of such a system, so the argument goes, is that the influence currently held by our two main political parties would be diluted and the political process would become more diverse.

While I like the idea in principle, I think there are two improvements that could be made to Prof. Volokh’s scenario:

First, there is no reason to have a third-party gatekeeper such as More general and egalitarian would be for election boards to publish a standard XML ballot and then any interested party could publish their own itemized recommendations. I would be able to subscribe to recommendations from,, or even just like I currently subscribe to RSS feeds to read several blogs at once. Of course, a site like could still offer to host RSS or similar recommendation feeds for anyone who doesn’t have their own website.

Second, I am quite frightened by the concept of one-click voting. Behavioral psychologists have repeatedly shown that people will tend to do what an interface makes easy to do (see The Adaptive Decision Maker for a nice analysis). This is why there are heated debates about things like motor-voter registration and whether voting booths should allow a single lever to cast all votes for a single party, policies that would be no-brainers if changing the convenience of voting didn’t also change who votes and for what. Given that any change we make will affect how people act, I want the system to encourage thoughtful individual contributions to our democracy, not a constituency of sheep.

This is not to say there should be no voting guides at all, but rather that people should still be forced to actually see and touch every ballot measure, even if it is only to find and check the their favorite party nominee. Each ballot measure and candidate would be accompanied by labels representing endorsements by each guide the voter has chosen, possibly with links from the endorsement to a short argument explaining the group’s reasoning. Rather than follow an automatically aggregated recommendation, voters would judge for themselves who to follow on each individual issue. Voters might even choose guides from organizations with whom they explicitly disagree, either to vote against their measures or to see opposing viewpoints. This system would not be that much more inconvenient than the one-click voting Prof. Volokh suggests, but would insure individual voter involvement while still giving the main advantages of voting guides.


Newman Joins Gubernatorial Race

(a exclusive)

Sacramento — Today political luminaries such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gary Coleman and Larry Flint have been joined by none other than Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman. Declaring his candidacy at an afternoon taping of the Jerry Springer show, Newman blasted Governor Gray Davis and “all those other guys who have experience in politics.” Newman said he would be running as an Independent. “None of the parties wanted me,” Newman explained to reporters. “Even the Greens wouldn’t take me, in spite of being just as electable as Nader was.”

Considered one of the darkest horses in an election overrun by dark-horse candidates, Newman feels he still has one major advantage over his opposition. “I’m especially appealing to stupid people,” Newman explained. “Stupid people like me because I can’t speak good English. That and I have a kinda boyish smile that puts people at ease.” Given that Lyndon LaRouche is already tied up in his presidential race, political analysts agree Newman is a shoe-in for the stupid vote.

Even so, Newman’s campaign will have an up-hill battle against the huge name-recognition of many of the opposing candidates, a group that includes movie stars, washed-up TV celebrities and professional publicity hounds looking for some cheap exposure. But Newman shrugs off suggestions that his chances are slim. “Only a small percentage of Californians bother to vote, and those that do will be spread out over about 200 candidates. So I’m figuringing I’ll only need two or three votes to win, tops. And I’ve already got two votes lined up!” Newman declined to reveal the name of his second supporter.

In spite of his shortcomings, Newman’s politics do appeal with voters on several core issues. In particular, Newman is a proponent of what he calls a “radical pro-choice” position. “I believe that life begins at 40,” Newman stated during a recent fund-raiser. Campaign strategists are quick to point out that this position endears Newman to both the pro-choice and pro-death-penalty camps, both powerful interests in California. “I like it — it’s like compassionate conservatism with a California twist!” commented one San Francisco resident.

On other issues Newman is less forthcoming, but he did hint that if he is elected we would see a return to traditional California methods for handling the state’s woes. When asked to comment on how he would handle California’s unprecedented deficit, much of which will need to be handled in next year’s budget, Newman simply flashed his trademark grin and said “What, me worry?”


Howard Dean, Blogs, and the Fireside Chat

Mark Glaser at Online Journalism Review has an interesting look at Howard Dean’s Blog For America campaign blog. Glaser’s main point: Dean’s blog is building support and a sense of connection to his campaign, even though almost all the entries are from his campaign staff rather than Dean himself. As Dan Gillmor puts it, the official Dean blog is a campaign document, not a candidate document.

The article raises the question of how blogs (and by extension, the Web) is best used in political campaign. For Dean, is a tool for organizing grassroots support. It lets supporters know what they can do to help, and more importantly it keeps them informed about the bigger picture of how the campaign is moving. Dick Morris even goes so far as to declare grass-roots Internet organization as the new replacement for television ads. But as Glaser points out, you don’t get the feeling of being in Dean’s head like you would if he were writing his own daily entries. In fact, you get a better sense of Dean’s thought process from the posts he made as a guest blogger at Lawrence Lessig’s site than from his own blog.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with how Dean is using his blog, and his success so far has shown (yet again) just how powerful the Net can be for grass-roots organization. But I can also see why people would wish for more personal contact through his blog as well. Like email, blogs are an informal and even intimate medium, better suited to throwing out ideas that are from the heart, or at least from the hip, than to well-rehearsed campaign speeches. It gives everyday voters a seat on the campaign bus, where they can discuss the issues in detail and watch as positions become fully formed. One of the problems with politics, especially around campaign season, is that everything is so well crafted that you can never hear the doubts and alternatives that had to be considered in crafting the final message. This was brought home to me after 9/11 when, for a period of about three months, it seemed like the curtains had been lifted and politicians were all thinking out loud.

The next question in my mind is how this sort of medium can be used once a candidate is elected. Dean has commented that he might have a White House blog if he’s elected, and of course already the White House publishes Press Secretary briefings on the Net. Perhaps the White House blog could become the 21st century’s fireside chat?


Subpoena Targets Organizing on the Net

I expect the idea seemed simple in the RIAA’s boardroom. First, declare jihad against music sharers everywhere. Then make it known that you would be sending out subpoenas and filing lawsuits against anyone and everyone who copies. “It doesn’t matter who they are” said Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA. No doubt, they must have thought, the 60 million Americans out there who currently share music will get the message and the rest of the country will thank the record companies for getting tough on crime.

Only now the spin-doctoring is getting away from them. First, the Associated Press used information in the subpoenas to locate and interview some of the targets before even the RIAA had received their names. Far from being the poster-children for underworld crime the RIAA would have trotted before the cameras, those interviewed were college students, parents of file-sharers, and even a grandfather who uses file-sharing networks to download hard-to-find recordings of European artists.

Now comes a new hard lesson for the RIAA about life in the Internet age: these hapless individuals are starting to use the Net to organize. First was, a site started in April by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, US Internet Industry Association and other organizations to offer resources to those who wish to defend themselves against the recent torrent of subpoenas. They also host a service where you can enter the handle you use on peer-to-peer networks and see if you might soon be the target for a subpoena. And now a new site called is offering every subpoena recipient their own blog, either signed or anonymous, through which they can let their own story come out. The site, started by volunteers that include MIT Media Lab researchers and programmers who previously worked on the site, is bound to give us the exact perspective the RIAA doesn’t want us to see: just how much those 28% of Americans who share music online look just like the other 72% of us.


Rethinking Hydrogen Cars

The July 18th issue of Science Magazine has an interesting article that gives a critical eye to the idea that hydrogen-powered automobiles is the best way to attack our environmental problems. (The article is also currently cached here for those without a subscription to Science.) The article makes two main points:

  1. The hydrogen-fuel infrastructure will be expensive (around $5000 per car).
  2. The bang-for-the-buck environmental improvement from replacing gas cars with fuel-cell cars won’t be as good as simply improving the fuel efficiency of existing cars on the road (especially ancient “high emitters”). They also identify fuel-burning power plants as a more cost-effective target for cutting emissions than the already-optimized gas-powered automobile. “When emission mitigation opportunities across the economy are ordered by their cost (to form a supply curve), dep reductions in automobile emissions are not inthe cheapest 30%… Hydrogen cars should be seen as one of several long-run options, but they make no sense any time soon” concludes the report. The report also notes that even in the area of transportation, hydrogen-powered heavy freight vehicles such as ships, trains and large trucks would be better first targets for conversion than the automobile.

Fuel Cell Today suggests that some of their numbers may be exagerated, especially when it comes to the cost of they hydrogen-fuel infrastructure needed for fuelcell-powered cars. In particular, they point out that the huge financial commitment auto makers have made to fuelcell technology is a good indication that they believe it will be economically viable. They also note that many of the alternatives raised in the Science article, while perhaps better targets from an energy-efficiency standpoint, are not possible in the current political climate.

Even given this criticism, the general point seems to be well-taken. As Marianne Mintz, author of one of the reports cited in the Science article, says to Fuel Cell Today, “They’re basically trying to make the point that there are other options that deserve a fair share of attention in the near term. I don’t think that anybody would argue with that.”


  1. Rethinking Hydrogen Cars (Science Magazine, 18 July 2003)
  2. Rethinking Hydrogen Cars (Science Magazine, 18 July 2003, Cached copy that does not need subscription)
  3. Fuel cell cost study gets mixed reaction (Fuel Cell Technology, 28 July 2003)

Transhumanism and the problem of value

The Village Voice has a nice summary of the Transvision 2003 USA Conference, sponsored by the World Transhumanist Association. Founded in 1998, the organization anticipates the day when technology will have the ability to halt aging and alter “limitations on human and artificial intelligence, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.” As the name implies, they look forward to the day when technology allows us to move beyond what we now consider “human,” becoming first transitional humans and finally “posthuman.” They also anticipate several bumps in the road, both in terms of real dangers from the technology itself and a backlash against what some might see as an unnatural or downright immoral use of technology to “play God.” Thus this conference, which brings together Transhumanists, professional bioethicists, anti-technology activists, and critical social theorists of science and technology.

I think these guys are pointing in the right direction, but they’re pointing way, way far out down the road. For example, here is their view on what a posthuman can become:

As a posthuman you would be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as we are to other primates. Your body would be resistant to disease and immune to aging, giving you unlimited youth and vigor. You would have control over your own desires, moods, and mental states, giving you the option of never feeling tired, bored, or irritated about petty things; you could instead choose to experience intense pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, focused serenity, or some other state of consciousness that currently human brains may not even be able to access.

Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads [see “What is uploading?”], or they could be the result of making many partial but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, mood drugs, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.

I tend to be a techno-optimist when it comes to my own fields of intelligence augmentation and wearable computing, as well as those I know less about such as genetic engineering and psychoactive drugs. Many years from now (sadly, probably a generation or two after I am already dead) I expect some of the things the Transhumanists predict will come to pass. However, there are a few fundamental issues that we will have to face along this road before we ever get to the point on the horizon that they look towards.

First, we will hit a crisis of values. Biology can make us stronger, healthier and longer-lived. Artificial intelligence can make us better able to solve problems and reach goals we set for ourselves. Psychology and psychiatry can help us better understand and change of our moods, emotions and motivations. But none of these sciences can tell us whether being long-lived is good or bad, whether the goals we choose to achieve are the “right” goals, or whether the (presumably happy and contented) moods we choose to feel are in any way more appropriate than how we feel today. These questions can only be answered by liberal arts such as religion, ethics and philosophy, not science, not logic, not pure reason. (Being rationalists, I suspect the Transhumanists would be upset by that assertion, but no matter. Others with a different set of philosophical tools will come to answer these issues.)

Second, long before technology brings us the first transhuman it will by necessity bring us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. These findings will likely have wide-reaching repercussions in how society operates. For example, we may discover that our personality, intelligence, and our very choices are determined solely by the chemistry of our brain, leaving no room for an atomic, immutable soul or indeed any identity that continues throughout time. Such issues are already being taken on by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. They are also seeping into practical questions over the use of Prozac, the acceptability of the insanity defense plea, the regulation of and treatment for addictive drugs, and the concept of justice and “reform” of criminals. If the Transhumanists are right, these battles will be nothing compared to the turmoil over issues of identity, free will and responsibility that are yet to come.

Finally, we will have to accept that transhumans may be very unlike humans now, not only in ability but in morals and values. The Transhumanists believe “progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values.” What happens when I change myself so much that my deepest values themselves change? And what if, in my new transhuman state, I decide that intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and the true purpose of life is to sit around doped-up on happy drugs all day? Would you, inferior normal human that you are, decide that perhaps given my choices I’m not so superior after all? The question of value is paramount in deciding what even qualifies as transhuman or posthuman. It is, I suspect, something of a Göedel statement for the Transhumanist philosophy.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— George Bernard Shaw

1000 down, 39999000 to go…

The RIAA has been feeling their oats after their victory against Verizon back in April, where the ISP was forced to reveal the names of customers who had been engaging in illegal file-swapping. Since then the RIAA has issued at least 911 subpoenas and expect to file at least several hundred lawsuits in the next few weeks in what can only be described as a “shock and awe” fight for the mindeshare of the average American.

However, more recent demands for user information have been rebuked. Last week MIT and Boston College both challenged subpoenas for user identification on their networks on two points. First, the demands that come under the DMCA are in conflict with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits colleges from giving personal information without first informing the student. Second, they charge that the RIAA should have filed its subpoenas in Massachusetts instead of Washington, DC. And now Pacific Bell Internet Services is challenging more than 200 subpoenas on the same grounds: that they violate their user’s privacy and that they should have been filed in California, not Washington, DC.

The RIAA is correct in claiming that these challenges are only on procedural grounds, though already the RIAA’s shotgun approach has drawn the ire of Senator Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Another point I haven’t seen brought up in the news is that this “procedural challenge” could force the RIAA to change the venue in which its subpoenas are filed away from the court where their original Verizon case was won. (I’ll leave the analysis about whether that matters to someone with the necessary legal knowledge.)

Of course, the real battle is still for the hearts and minds of the American public. The RIAA could care less about the hundreds of college students and little-old-ladies they’re trying to sue for millions of dollars each, what’s important is the millions of Americans who think that sharing music is OK. And on that front they have more bad news: a recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 67 percent of Internet users who download music say they don’t care about whether the music is copyrighted. If you accept the Ipsos/Reid finding that one quarter of Americans have downloaded music, that comes down to about 40 million Americans who have downloaded music and don’t care. And that, my friends, is a lot of subpoenas.