Monday, January 26, 2015

High Time for Satellite Tracking of All International Flights

This coming March 8 will mark one year since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from radar en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing somewhere over the Indian Ocean.  The wreckage has never been found, although communications experts used some almost accidental satellite-transponder data to estimate the last known location of the plane.  At the time, I recall thinking that if I was an airline and owned a number of high-value mobile assets known as airliners, I would want some way of knowing where each one was every minute or so, anywhere in the world.   After all, the technology for tracking the much cheaper assets called semi-trailer trucks has been around for years.  The little white domes on truck cabs report minute-by-minute locations to a data center where operators can pay a monthly fee to any one of a number of firms to keep tabs on shipments, and truck drivers too, for that matter.  But there is no international requirement for airlines to do the same.

Last week, the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) waded in with a recommendation for all passenger airliners to be equipped with improved location technology.  The board admitted it was motivated partly by Flight 370's disappearance, and called both for improvements in in-flight tracking and in "black-box" technology. 

The in-flight tracking part seems to be pretty straightforward technologically.  It would operate more or less the same way as the truck-tracking system.  Every minute or so, a GPS receiver on the plane would send its location to a satellite in view, and the satellite would relay that information to a data center, where it would be logged and made available in the event of an incident of interest.  The only slightly tricky part would be identifying which satellite to use.  But there are already geostationary satellites in orbit such as Inmarsat which provide virtually world-wide coverage, and the missing bits of Earth near the poles could be made up for by linking to numerous low-earth-orbit satellites in polar orbits. 

The technology is not nearly so much a hurdle as the cost and the peculiar structure of international aviation regulations.  The NTSB's recommendations went to the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration, and if the FAA adopts them they will be obligatory for all U. S. airlines—but nobody else.  Because the U. S. operates only a fraction of international flights over large bodies of water where the technology would be most useful, the idea will not succeed without international cooperation, and that means the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

The ICAO is a United Nations body in charge of international standards for, well, civil aviation, as you might expect.  As such, its rulings have no force of law in individual countries unless the countries' own aviation regulations require that its carriers follow ICAO rules as well, which most do.  It was a 2008 ICAO ruling, for example, that required all air traffic controllers and flight crew members involved in international flights to be proficient in English.  I'm rather surprised that it took until 2008, but after all, everything takes a while at the UN.

The question is whether and when the ICAO might follow the NTSB's lead if the NTSB prevails with the FAA to make international-flight GPS tracking mandatory.  Enough alphabet soup for you?  The whole process—from tragic accident to technical recommendations to changes in laws and regulations—is typical of how safety technology develops in coordination with regulations requiring its use.  And the regulatory part is particularly tricky when it involves spending money.  The requirement that pilots speak English can be met by changing hiring practices, but GPS tracking will involve both up-front and ongoing expenses for new hardware—which itself needs to be standardized somehow—and rental fees to the commercial firms that operate the satellite transponders used to convey the location data.  Fortunately, we are not talking about large bandwidths here—the equivalent of a single cellphone text message every minute or so would be sufficient.  But coordinating all this will take some doing, and coordination of any kind at the level of the ICAO is a challenging and slow-moving process at best.  If they took till only seven years ago to agree on a common language for radio communications from international flights, the ICAO isn't going to churn out new GPS-location rules overnight, you can be sure. 

The other part of the NTSB recommendations concerns the nature of the onboard flight data recorders.  Now that video cameras and recording equipment are so inexpensive, the NTSB says we should have cockpit video as well as audio recorders, and that controls for the entire system should be inaccessible from the cockpit.  (There is some suspicion that the radar-transponder system of Flight 370, which works only within range of ground-based tracking radars, was intentionally disabled by the pilot.)  Also, the NTSB floated the idea (so to speak) that the flight recorders should be housed in buoyant housings and ejected upon impact so that they can remain on the surface, where their radio signals could be more easily received than the limited-range and limited-time sonar emissions that the units currently send out underwater. 

All these are good ideas, and if the FAA adopts them they will make an already safe U. S. air-travel system even safer, or at least increase the likelihood of finding any flights that go down in deep water.  And the information from such accidents is always valuable in preventing the next one, whether it was caused by mechanical failure, human error, or evil intent.

Nevertheless, I am not going to be holding my breath until the ICAO follows suit.  You would think that the international carriers themselves would have adopted something similar to the truck-tracking systems years ago, but there may be a mentality in place that makes such a system seem unnecessary because of the vanishingly small number of incidents in which it would turn out to be useful.  But once GPS tracking for international flights is in place, I bet folks find other uses for it, for things like fuel-economy efforts and even weather tracking.  But first, the ICAO has to get in gear, so stay tuned.

Sources:  The article "NTSB:  Planes Should Have Technologies So They Can Be Found" by Joan Lowy of the Associate Press was carried by numerous outlets, including ABC News on Jan. 22 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Inmarsat, and the ICAO.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Passing of Google Glass

Most people who are even slightly technology-aware have heard of Google Glass, the wearable head-mounted display device that Google introduced almost two years ago amid a blizzard of publicity.  Priced at $1500, Google Glass was never intended to be a mass-market product.  As of tomorrow, Google Glasses will become collector's items, because the company announced last week that the product will no longer be available.  According to Will Oremus at, the press release announcing the news tried to put a positive spin on the situation with phrases like "moving even more from concept to reality."  So the idea of a wearable camera/monitor isn't dead—just the particular embodiment of it in Google Glass.

I could have told them this was coming, because about a month ago, I finally got to try out a pair.  A student of mine had borrowed some from a friend of his in Austin, and was walking around campus letting all and sundry try them on.  I wear ordinary glasses, so the fit was somewhat of a problem.  But I managed to see the little display, and then the battery ran down, so my experience was very limited.  Nevertheless, it was enough for the Stephan Kiss of Technological Death to take place. 

More times than I can count, I have tried out a new technology just before it's about to disappear.  We bought a VHS player right after DVDs came out.  We got a DVD player about the time BluRay came out.  I bought a cellphone with a color screen about the time the iPhone came out.  Well, you get the idea.  In any market, there are early adopters, then the great mass of people who buy a thing after the early adopters have worked the bugs out, and then late adopters like me who come along after everybody else has dropped a product for the next hot item. 

Why wasn't Google Glass more successful?  From a late-adopter point of view, I can tell you one reason:  it didn't promise to do anything for me that was worth $1500 of my money.  From the start, I got the sense that a lot of the people buying them were doing it for the same reason that they bought Rolex watches.  A Rolex doesn't keep time any better than a Timex.  But a Rolex tells other people you are the kind of person who can afford a Rolex.  So Google Glass became a fashion brand for the folks who just couldn't wait to show up at the office wearing another expensive personal item.  I'm a little surprised that nobody came up with an imitation knockoff Google Glass that looked the same as the real thing but wasn't functional, priced at $99.99.  Only it would have been embarrassing for people to come up to you and ask to try them out, and you'd have to tell them sorry, the battery just ran down.

Probably the most useful feature of Google Glass was also the most controversial:  the little camera that could record your environment without anyone knowing for sure whether you're recording or not.  Spy cameras have been around for some time, but if they're designed and placed right, nobody knows about them except for the operator.  You see a Google Glass on someone and right away, you knew they could be recording you.  It was a little bit like walking around with a 35-mm camera in front of your face all the time.  No wonder some people got annoyed.  Nevertheless, Oremus reports that the most serious business customers of the technology used the camera feature to capture things like pictures of sides of beef for FDA inspectors, and whether Dr. Whozis left any forceps inside his last gall-bladder-surgery patient.  So it's likely that face-mounted cameras in some form will show up in places where the product or service is pricey enough to justify the expense of whatever comes after Google Glass.

No one can currently beat Google at what they do best, but designing hardware for personal use is very different from the massive Internet-based data crunching that got Google where it is today.  Technology geeks in particular tend to be blind to some issues that the general public care about deeply.  When Henry Ford first marketed his Model T, he later recalled that he said in 1909, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."  And for many years, Ford beat his competition on price and performance with all-black cars.  But as automobiles became more of a commodity, other makers found that they could attract customers away from Ford by offering a variety of paint colors, and Ford eventually had to follow suit. 

Engineer and author Henry Petroski likes to say that failure is often more instructive than success.  By failure, he usually means things like collapsing bridges, but the failure of a new technology to meet its sales target is still a failure, though of a different and less hazardous kind than the failure of a bridge or a building.  In a free market, market failures are inevitable, and it's not like everybody at Google is now out on the street because they can't sell any more glasses.  In general, wearable technology seems to be the wave of the future in some form, and it's just a question of what form it will take. 

I think Google took on a major challenge by messing around with a person's face.  The face, and particularly the eyes, are where we look first when we meet another person.  We have had a few hundred years to get used to the idea of people wearing ordinary glasses.  They started out as expensive specialty items too.  A graphic on the Fashionisto website says that in the U. S. of the 1700s, a pair of eyeglasses could set you back about $200, which is like about $6,000 today.  So regardless of who comes up with the next version of Google Glass technology, they face an uphill battle in getting us used to the idea of having some active technology in the line of sight between soul and soul. 

Sources:  The article "Google Glass Is Finally Dead.  Ish." by Will Oremus appeared on Slate's website at .  The Fashionisto spectacle graphic can be found at  I referred to the Wikipedia articles on Google Glass, and the Henry Ford quote can be found at 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Incompetent Engineers: Marilynne Robinson and the Global Economy

Marilynne Robinson is a historically-minded writer of fiction and essays.  In one essay entitled "Family" she decries the damage wrought by the fact that the "marketplace gods," as she calls them, are now in ultimate charge of the global economy.  The result, she says, is a return of Social Darwinism—the nineteenth-century idea that prosperity and success are rewards for the intelligent, the industrious, and the able, and poverty and failure are equally just rewards for the stupid, the lazy, and the incompetent.  The Social Darwinism of the 1800s led straight to eugenics, which acquired a bad reputation after the Nazi regime embraced it during World War II.  But in the ruthless international competition that currently prevails, she sees a return to the bad old days when a small, fantastically wealthy elite ruled over millions of industrial workers enslaved in unremitting toil.

So far, so conventional.  But toward the end of the essay, she takes an unexpected turn:
"Maybe the great drag on us all is not the welfare mother but the incompetent engineer . . . . When our great auto industry nearly collapsed, an elite of designers and marketing experts were surely to blame.  But the thousands thrown out of work by their errors were seen as the real problem." 

Robinson is good at questioning unspoken assumptions that most of us are so used to, we don't even realize they are there.  The assumption she challenges in this essay is that global competition is inevitable, and every industrialized nation must organize its institutions, including its educational system, governmental policies, and even its cultures and family structures, to succeed in the constant worldwide race to produce the most goods and services at the lowest prices.  And rather than simply deploring the way things are, she suggests that the problem may lie in a place we haven't looked—within the very elites we usually assume are the answer to the problem.

Robinson is right that the U. S. auto industry went through a steep decline in the 1980s.  The main reason for that decline was surging competition by Japanese automakers, who adapted many techniques developed in the U. S. for lean manufacturing and outran their former teachers.  To the extent that U. S. automotive engineers and managers got lazy and let things slide, she is absolutely right.  It took another decade for U. S. automakers to learn the hard lessons that Japanese competition taught them, but by 2000 the global shares of auto sales by U. S. and Japanese makers were about even.  Now that many Japanese firms have U. S. factories, the problem is not so clean-cut, but that specific incident has been taken care of. 

Both Japan and the U. S. now have China to worry about instead.  The effect of the globalized economy on the U. S. is an erosion of time available for family and family life.  Instead of one person in a family earning a living wage that suffices for a spouse and children, Robinson cites the many workers today who "patch together a living out of two or three part-time jobs, or work overtime as an employer's hedge against new hiring." 

What if Robinson's "incompetent engineers" had been competent, and had beaten the Japanese at their own game sooner?  Because the largest single expense in manufacturing tends to be labor, if the U. S. makers had quickly adopted the productivity-raising automation technologies that were such a large factor in making Japan more competitive, probably the U. S. workers who eventually lost manufacturing jobs later would have simply lost them sooner.  Clearly, what Robinson is calling for is not just competence in a narrow technical sense, but a larger vision of what purposes engineers serve, and what forms of life are encouraged or discouraged by engineering activities.

What would have to change for society to become less dominated by the ruthlessness of international competition and more hospitable to things Robinson says she misses:  "humor, pleasure, and charm; courage, dignity, and graciousness; loyalty, respect, and good faith"? 

Engineers tend to think in terms of systems, and when asked a question about a large system, the engineering answer tends to be framed in the same terms of system-wide changes.  Some would look toward legal and regulatory solutions:  protective tariffs, restrictions on immigration, widespread unionization, and other changes historically associated with left-wing politics.  But people are not machines, and the kind of scientific approach that models cows as spheres for the purpose of analysis, and models entire populations as a bunch of numbers in a database somewhere, is the kind of thinking that has gotten us into this situation in the first place.

Besides the direct influence of elites through the powers they hold, elites also teach by example.  Civic, industry, and government leaders of earlier eras attempted to maintain public appearances that were consistent with good character and citizenship—things like charm, courage, dignity, graciousness, loyalty, and good faith.  They sometimes failed to show these traits of character in private, or occasionally in public, but the journalists of the day recognized the need to preserve the illusion of rectitude in many cases and refrained from plastering every famous citizen's misdeeds all over the countryside.  Scandals were reported, but they were rare enough to be scandalous.  By contrast, scandalous behavior in everything from sexual morality to profiteering appears to be the norm for many public figures today, at least judging by media coverage.

I don't know clearly how to express what I'm asking for.  Perhaps the essence of it is a reform of character starting with the individual, and a recognition that all the regulatory changes in the world will not reform an individual who has no example of good character and rectitude to look up to and to consider imitating.  If we want an economy in which family breadwinners are paid a living wage for a work schedule that leaves enough time to families to be families, and not just strangers sharing the same living quarters, we all have to value that way of life—have to value it more than just that additional dollar we use to buy that additional consumer item.  All of us, high and low, rich and poor, engineers and janitors, will have to undergo a radical change.  And then we will have to re-learn the democratic process of moving our society toward the vision laid out by people who see it better than most of us do—people like Marilynne Robinson. 

Sources:  Marilynne Robinson's book of essays and speeches The Death of Adam was published in 2005 by Picador.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the automotive industry.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Will 2015 Be The Year Commercial Drones Take Off?

If you had been in Boulder City, Nevada last December 19, you would have found Governor Brian Sandoval, a U. S. senator, U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, and representatives of a company that manufactures the Magpie, an unmanned aircraft, all gathered to watch the first official test flight at one of six new test facilities the FAA has established to explore how "unmanned aircraft systems" (UASs for short) can safely use the same airspace that is now occupied by manned aircraft.  A video of the test flight shows a man holding what looks like a large model plane.  At a signal, he heaves it into the air.  It flies about twenty feet and nose-dives into the gravel, bending its nose propeller and eliciting a groan from the crowd.

It wasn't exactly an auspicious start to a program that the FAA has undertaken to fast-track new regulations that will accommodate the increasing pressure on the agency to allow legal commercial use of UASs, commonly called drones, far beyond what present regulations permit.  But at least nobody was hurt, except maybe in the pride department.  As I noted in this space over a year ago, experimental drones can be deadly—a large one went amok in South Korea in 2013 and killed an engineer. 

What we are seeing in commercial drone development is a pattern that has played out repeatedly in one form or another whenever a potentially profitable technology outpaces the ability of a regulatory agency to adapt to it.  True to its generally good reputation among government agencies, the FAA is trying to catch up to the rapid advances in commercial drone technology.  But if history is any guide, we are in for some stirring times first.

Something similar happened when advances in radio technology during World War I led to the explosion of radio broadcasting stations in the early 1920s.  The creaky regulatory mechanism of the time stated that the Department of Commerce, which was charged with the task of regulating the new medium, could not deny licenses to any qualified applicant.  As a result, the airwaves got so crowded that in some locations radios were practically unusable.  Congress eventually acted, first by establishing the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, and then following it with the Federal Communications Commission in 1934, under whose ministrations we still operate today. 

Fortunately, the FAA is already up and running, so the situation is not as wild-westish as it could be.  The main issue facing the agency is not lack of regulatory authority—it has plenty of that—but the question of how to allow drones into the air in a way that both allows innovative commercial uses and preserves the exemplary safety record of U. S. air flights that has been achieved in recent years.  The experimental test sites the FAA has set up (besides Nevada, there are locations in Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia) can play a critical role in both uncovering unknown potential problems and in finding practical solutions to them.

Just as radio benefited from wartime technology advances, commercial drones benefit from the longer history and huge development effort that has gone into military drones.  In addition, advances in high-density batteries, software, and navigational aids such as GPS systems make it technically possible for drones to travel long distances autonomously.  However, the FAA is still uncomfortable with that.

The way things stand now, there are three classifications of drone regulations.  The only one that doesn't require the operator to obtain special permission is the hobby and recreational class, which has applied to operators of model aircraft for decades.  If you are a researcher, drone developer, or someone who has other good reasons to do not-for-pay work with drones, you can apply for a "civil UAS" permit.  Law enforcement agencies and other public organizations can obtain Certificates of Waiver or Authorization to conduct operations relating to their work.  But before the likes of Jeff Bezos can start delivering Amazon orders via drone, the rules—and maybe the technology too—will have to change. 

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but the start of a new year is a good time for making predictions, and if the following pans out, you heard it here first.  Let it be understood at the outset that I think the following would be a bad idea.  But that doesn't mean that somebody won't try it.  In 1982, a guy with more bravado than sense named Larry Walters tied a few dozen helium balloons to a lawn chair and floated over Long Beach until his balloons got tangled in a power line and he made it safely back to the ground.  I don't know what the payload capability of current small quadcopter-like drones is, but at some point, somebody will have the idea of ganging a bunch of them together to lift the weight of a small person.  This would be more of a stunt than a practical way of transporting people, but if the machines get cheap and powerful enough, it will happen. 

Of course, the FAA would disapprove of such a thing, and rightly so.  But if we do start seeing small packages being delivered by drones, it will happen only if the FAA and industrial interests figure out how to have all that air traffic moving safely and keeping out of the way of buildings, power lines, and giraffes, for that matter.  And if that infrastructure problem is solved, and battery technology advances to the point that you could safely build a helicopter-like backpack that was totally under software control, maybe we could see the day when people could literally fly to work.  Unless it rains, of course.

Sources:  The FAA's overall UAS website is, and their site stating the rules for hobby and recreational model-airplane flying is  I referred to a report on the Nevada test flight of Magpie carried by Gizmodo at  The six FAA UAS test locations are given at  Business Insider was the source of the commercial drone market estimate at  My blog "Drones, Air Safety, and the FAA" appeared on Nov. 4, 2013.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Red-Light Cameras: Proceed With Caution

The Latin phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" means "Who will guard the guards themselves?" It may have originated with the Roman poet Juvenal, who flourished around the first century A. D., but the problem it highlights is much older than that.  Those who are charged with enforcing a law always experience a temptation to abuse the power that enforcement confers.  The case in point here is the use—and abuse—of so-called red-light cameras that photograph alleged runners of red lights and produce traffic citations that are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle in question.

By the 1990s, the technology making these devices practical was sufficiently advanced that cities began installing them.  According to an article in a recent issue of National Review, over 500 cities in about half the states in the U. S. now use them.  Although the professed reason for adopting red-light cameras is to reduce the number of red-light runners, studies have shown that the evidence for lowering accident rates at intersections with red-light cameras is mixed.  Traffic engineers have noted a perverse counter-incentive at intersections where drivers know a red-light camera is installed.  Some drivers get so jumpy at seeing a yellow light at a camera-equipped intersection that they jam on their brakes prematurely and get rear-ended by a less paranoid driver behind them. 

What is not in dispute is that the red-light cameras are real moneymakers, both for the municipalities that install them and for the companies that often install and operate them for the government free of charge, taking a portion of the fine proceeds as payment.  The city of Newark, New Jersey gets $4 million per year in revenue from red-light cameras, while Chicago averages about $50 million a year.  Chicago's city government does not have a reputation for being squeaky-clean, so it is not surprising that earlier this month a man named Martin O'Malley was convicted of giving a $2 million bribe to a city transportation official.  The money came from Redflex Traffic Systems, which up to last year operated the city's red-light cameras. 

Redflex also offers a related service to school-bus systems:  a stop-arm violation camera.  In most states, it is illegal to pass a stopped school bus while its red flashing lights are on and the stop-arm is extended, but many people do it anyway.  Redflex will install video cameras and wireless downloading and evaluation systems free of charge on every school bus in exchange for a percentage of the fines assessed for violations.  This type of system has also proved popular and has been installed on school buses across the country, including right here in San Marcos, Texas. 

The red-light and stop-arm cameras can be viewed simply as technological aids to conventional means of law enforcement.  But they differ from other security-camera systems such as those that catch convenience-store robbers in one significant respect:  the absence of a police officer at the scene.  If a live patrolman pulls you over for speeding, there is a human-to-human interaction, and technically you can haul the officer into court and subject him to cross-examination at trial.  The fact that most people don't bother doesn't change the principle.  But when there is nothing but photographic evidence for a violation, there is nobody to subpoena, and correcting mistaken identifications and other errors can become a more complex matter. 

Besides the potential for error, there is the temptation to shorten the duration of yellow lights to increase revenue.  City governments in Florida and Illinois have been caught quietly lowering the duration of yellow signals below the federal guideline of three seconds at red-light-camera-equipped intersections, and in Florida things got so bad that the state legislature passed a law prohibiting the practice. 

Beyond the immediate temptation to abuse the system in government's favor at the expense of private citizens, there is the larger question of whether it is a good thing to use technology in a way that incentivizes governments to enforce laws, not mainly because enforcement benefits society as a whole, but because it generates revenue for the government. 

We have just experienced the Christmas season.  According to the Gospels, Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, to fill out some government tax form.  In ancient Rome and its colonies, taxes were collected by private contractors called publicans.  The deal was that publicans would bid for the right to collect a specified amount of taxes in a given region.  If you won the bid, it was up to you to collect at least the amount of taxes you were assigned, and anything you collected over your expenses and what Rome needed was yours to keep.  The potential for abuse in such a system is obvious, which may be why Jesus in later life used the hated figure of a publican in a parable as an example of someone who would have plenty of sins to ask forgiveness for. 

Firms such as Redflex are not exactly in the position of the publicans of ancient Rome, but the system under which they operate is edging toward a publican-like tendency of open-ended revenue collection that profits both the firm and the government it works for, at the expense of the public at large.  The abuses of the publican system came to an end with the Roman republic itself.  I am not recommending such a radical fix here.  But we can take the advice and examples of Juvenal and Jesus to give a hard look at technological systems that create perverse revenue incentives that reward abuse on the part of governments and firms that provide the technology.

Sources:  John J. Miller's article "The Red-Light District" appeared in the Dec. 31, 2014 print edition of National Review, pp. 24-26.  I also referred to an article on stop-arm cameras posted by a Fox News TV station in Washington, DC at, and to the Wikipedia articles on Juvenal and "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Sony Hack And Sony's Response: Caution or Cowardice?

On November 22 of this year, employees at Sony Pictures Entertainment were greeted by images of skulls on their computer screens, and experienced other problems that severely compromised the company's IT systems.  A message accompanying the hack warned that "secrets" would soon be disclosed to the world.  The firm was in the last stages of preparing for release on Christmas Day a film called "The Interview," which includes an unflattering portrayal of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.  Back in June, after the film's planned release was announced, North Korea called it an "act of terrorism" and threatened consequences if the film was released as planned. 

A group calling itself "Guardians of Peace" claimed responsibility for the hacks, and expanded their efforts by revealing reams of private emails and video files of both released and unreleased films, all stolen from Sony through sophisticated hack attacks.  When the Guardians issued threats to movie theaters that dared to show "The Interview," major theater chains began telling Sony that they would not run the film.  Faced with this situation, last week Sony announced that they were cancelling the release altogether. Sony executives received a message from the Guardians on Dec. 18 congratulating them on their "very wise" decision to cancel the release.  The FBI has confirmed that the attack originated from North Korea, which has denied that it has anything to do with it.

The situation is this:  Sony made a movie poking fun at Kim Jong Un, and Kim Jong Un retaliated with probably the most serious cyberattack on a non-governmental entity in history.  And he got more or less what he wanted—Sony cancelled the film's release.

I have not yet seen any estimates of the monetary damage Sony has sustained in this attack, but it clearly amounts to many millions of dollars, both in potential revenue lost from the film's cancellation and in the illegal downloading of other intellectual property of Sony's made possible by the massive cybertheft operation.  I have also not seen anyone comment on the Japan-Korea angle of this attack.  From 1910 to 1945, what was then the united country of Korea was essentially a Japanese colony, and forced conscription and other abuses soured the relationship between the two countries.  Sony is a Japanese firm, and so there may be a settling of decades-old grudges mixed into this situation, in which the U. S. assets of Sony are simply a means to an end.

Whatever North Korea's motivation was, the fact remains that they succeeded not only in a transnational cyberattack of unprecedented size, but also in blackmailing Sony to cancel the release of a major film.  Was this a prudent and "very wise" measure on Sony's part, or an act of cowardice?   

I say it's neither.  What this situation says to me is that the United States government has failed in this instance to carry out its constitutional obligation to "provide for the common defense."

If North Korea had managed to shoot a missile across the Pacific and blow up Sony headquarters in Culver City, everyone would recognize that as a clear act of war in which a state's boundary was violated and assets destroyed by the concerted action of a foreign country. But cyberattacks are so new, and their heritage so different from conventional acts of war, that we have trouble recognizing them for what they are. 

As far as Sony is concerned, the firm has sustained serious damage at the hand of a foreign power.  One of the essential functions of modern states is to provide security for its residents against attacks by foreign powers.  The U. S. government clearly dropped the ball in the case of the Sony hack.  In the absence of any assured forthcoming protection against similar attacks in the future, I understand why Sony pulled the picture, and why theater chains refused to show the film.  Fears of physical attacks on individual theaters were probably exaggerated, but now that most movies are digitally projected and shipped around as bits rather than celluloid, theaters are potentially as vulnerable as Sony to cyberattacks as well.

Now that the gangster regime of North Korea has shown it can attack U. S. assets with impunity, it is time to admit that the U. S. military, or something like it, needs to have a cyber-corps to defend U. S. citizens and corporations against cyberattack.  At present the situation is rather like the following.

Suppose the U. S. military did a good job of protecting the country against attacks by land and sea up to, say, 1910.  But then, private firms began flying airplanes, and, wonder of wonders, someone figured out how to drop bombs from an airplane.  Suppose the U. S. government had said in response to this innovation, "Look, we'll fight foreign attackers if they cross our borders on land or by sea, but as for attacks from airplanes, you're on your own.  Everybody has to have their own private AD (air defense) department, and if you're attacked by air successfully, well, we may be able to tell you where the planes came from, but you just weren't paying enough attention to your air defense and we're sorry.  And the President will badmouth you in a news conference if you cave to the attacker's demands."

Fortunately, this fictional history of private air defense didn't happen.  The Wright Brothers flew their first flights on U. S. soil, and America arguably led the world in air defense and attack, which was a major reason why we won World War II and defeated the international thug and blackmailer Hitler.

But something like the above wacko private-AD scenario is going on right now with regard to cyberattacks on U. S. firms by foreign countries.  The U. S. government is into a lot of things that it probably has no business being involved in, but if there is one thing almost everyone except the deepest-dyed libertarians can agree on, it's the fact that defending the nation against attacks by foreign powers is one of the federal government's main responsibilities. 

We have just seen a demonstration that at least one foreign power can attack and blackmail a major U. S. firm with impunity.  Perhaps Sony was low-hanging fruit in terms of cyber security.  At least one report mentioned the possibility that the attackers had some inside information, but spies have been around ever since warfare has been around, and there are ways of dealing with them too.  The fact remains that North Korea has revealed a serious vulnerability in our national defense, one that needs to be addressed with a serious rethinking of what cybersecurity of a nation really means, and what we are willing to give up in order to have it. 

Unless we want to get used to the idea that cyber-blackmail by foreign powers is going to become a way of life in America, we need to wake up to the reality that cyber assets are just as valuable as brick-and-mortar assets.  And a government that protects one and not the other is simply not doing its job.

Sources:  I relied on two recent reports of the Sony hack and its consequences, one from CNN on Dec. 19 at and another from the BBC at  The Wikipedia article "History of Japan-Korea relations" has some information on the complex backstory of Japan's dealings with Korea and Koreans. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mass Media and Self-Promotion: Stephan's Law

One of the recurring themes in engineering ethics is that power and privilege entail responsibility.  Those in positions of influence over millions of users of a technology should recognize the responsibilities that go along with such influence.  This is especially true of individuals and organizations that control mass media such as newspapers, radio, TV, cable systems, and entities such as Google and Facebook. 

In this connection, I would like to bring to your attention a principle of human nature that I have observed in action on many occasions over the years.  To my (admittedly limited) knowledge, no one has taken the trouble to state this principle succinctly, so I'm going to favor you with such a statement.  And because every good principle needs a name, I will modestly term it Stephan's Law.  It is this:

"Every mass medium eventually advertises its controlling organization."

I will now describe the latest instance in which I observed this principle in action.

At the end of every fall semester, I attend the winter graduation ceremonies of Texas State University for the School of Engineering graduates.  This takes place in a nice indoor coliseum where the basketball games are played, in which a few years ago they installed one of those giant LED TV screens colloquially called Jumbotrons.  This one is mounted on a large blank wall behind the stage, and in past years has been used to show closeups of the speakers and graduates as they cross the stage to receive their diplomas.  In the last couple of years, the video has also been live-streamed to the Internet.  So it's fair to say that when you have a crowd attending graduation, and they watch the Jumbotron, it's a mass medium, because everybody in the coliseum sees more or less the same thing, as well as the Internet viewers.  So far so good.

Up to the graduation I attended last Friday, you saw nothing on the Jumbotron that you couldn't have seen elsewhere in the coliseum:  the band playing, the president speaking, graduates graduating.  But yesterday, something new was added.  Just after the provost introduced himself and the platform guests, he asked us all to give our attention to what followed. 

All of a sudden I flashed back on a Lone Ranger video we watched the other night that was made in 1949—the very early days of U. S. television.  The way that program segued to an ad was to switch from the Lone Ranger shooting at some bad guy, to a peaceful scene of a field of wheat while the narrator intoned a phrase that went something like "And now we ask for your interest and attention."  Why a wheat field?  Turns out that the sponsor of the Lone Ranger program was General Mills.  Wheat—Wheaties—General Mills—get it?  Anyway, you can tell that the producers weren't quite sure how people would take television ads, so they soft-pedaled them and gave the viewers some time to readjust their psychologies away from the Old West before hitting them with the sales pitch.

Sure enough, as I watched the Jumbotron, the provost disappeared and we all watched a three-minute ad for Texas State University.  It was nicely done—a female chorus sang a bouncy holiday tune in the background, we saw familiar landmarks on campus, both still and live action, and it wound up innocuously with best holiday wishes for all.  But here was a new mass medium, and although it had taken a few years, it eventually complied with Stephan's Law—it ended up advertising its controlling organization. 

The first time I noticed an example of this law was when the old National Educational Television (NET) transformed into the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the late 1960s.  Back then, there was a sort of unwritten rule observed by educators that the classroom was no place for overt advertising.  So for the first few years of its existence, NET carried no ads of any kind, even for itself, at least none that I recall.  But once educational TV stations realized that they could take some of that valuable air time and run pledge drives for themselves, well, the horse was out of the barn, and now self-promotion is a routine part of the business of PBS.

Note that Stephan's Law makes no moral judgment.  As far as that goes, I do it myself—after all, now and then I have links to my own blogs.  Morality comes into play only when you take other considerations into account.  For example, does the medium present itself as strictly neutral and unbiased?  It's hard to be that way when you're telling people about how great you are.  So in that case, there's the danger of hypocrisy.  And while the amount of time that an external advertising sponsor can buy in a given medium is limited by the sponsor's resources, the organization that operates the medium has no natural limit to its own self-advertisement efforts.  Something close to that limit is approached by a particular cable news channel we watch, Time Warner Cable News.  Although the channel carries ads from external sponsors as well, I think about half of the non-content time on it is devoted to self-promotion.  Of course, I don't have to watch that channel if I don't want to.  But if I choose to, I'm going to see a whole lot of ads for Time Warner Cable in its various guises.

If I knew more of the writings of a communication studies guru like Marshall McLuhan, I would probably find that Stephan's Law was discovered centuries ago after Gutenberg put an ad in his Bible for upcoming new editions, or something along those lines.  (Note to incunabula specialists:  I have no idea whether Gutenberg self-advertised or not, but it wouldn't surprise me.)  But in my state of happy ignorance, I present this principle to you free of charge, and challenge you to watch for the next example of it that comes to your attention.  The more media there are, the more chances there are for Stephan's Law to be verified, and in this media-saturated culture, it's hard to go for very long without seeing an example of it in action.

Sources:  I looked for an example on YouTube of the Lone Ranger-General Mills segue, but for reasons that may have to do with copyright, it doesn't show up there.  However, some DVD collections of old Lone Ranger TV episodes have it, which is where I saw it. The word "Jumbotron" is actually a registered trademark of Sony Corporation, according to Wikipedia, but since Sony quit making those devices in 2003 the word has passed into the language to mean any large electronic display board.