Monday, April 25, 2022

A Musk-Owned Twitter: Threat or Promise?


After buying nine percent of outstanding Twitter shares recently, Elon Musk has announced his intention to buy Twitter and take it private.  The financial details are still in flux, but two numbers tell the story:  Musk is the world's richest man (estimated net worth north of $200 billion) and the largest money numbers Wikipedia associates with Twitter (assets and equity) are less than one-tenth of that.  So no matter what the SEC, shareholders, and even Twitter's board says or does, it's very likely that if Musk wants to buy Twitter, he'll be able to do it.


Then what?


On the face of it, why a serial entrepreneur and latter-day Tom Swift like Musk would want to buy a not-very-profitable social media company is not clear.  On Wikipedia's list of the ten most-followed tweeters (I don't use it myself, so excuse the linguistic infelicities if I don't use quite the right words in discussing Twitter), Musk is No. 8, just ahead of Narendra Modi (India's prime minister) and just behind Lady Gaga.  No. 1 is Barack Obama, who more than two years after stepping down from the presidency still has a twitter-hold on 136 million followers.  No. 2 is Justin Bieber, who Wikipedia dryly lists as "musician."  Musk is the only businessman in the top ten, but he's not just a businessman.  He's also an instinctive showman who has somehow managed to retain a teenage boy's "hold my beer and watch this" attitude while transforming whole industries—aerospace and automobiles, in particular. 


It's not in Musk's nature to lay out his plans in any coherent news-release way.  But my sense is that he thinks Twitter does too much censorship and suspension of accounts, and maybe also doesn't exploit their position as the globe's largest short-message service of its kind as effectively as they could.  Surprisingly for a company with over 200 million active users (and many more who receive tweets), they lost money in 2021.  So Musk's interest in the firm may be purely financial, and he may think he can just run it better.  If he buys it, he will have the opportunity to find out.


Twitter is a novel phenomenon in the history of communications.  Sociologists, political scientists, and historians are still sorting out its manifold effects on society, and many of the intellectual class worry that Musk's takeover bid will make things worse.  They fear that Musk, who has shown libertarian tendencies in the past, will reduce Twitter's efforts to monitor and control its content, as it famously did when it permanently blocked President Trump on January 8, 2021, thus ending what was perhaps the most-watched Twitter account ever. 


What is the worst-case scenario for a Musk takeover of Twitter, at least short of him shutting the whole thing down and dissolving the company (which Twitter has done to smaller rivals in the past)?  The greatest fear seems to be that Twitter will turn into some sort of common-carrier technology that literally anyone can use for anything—pornography, incitement to riot, murder threats, you name it. 


Twitter already allows pornographic messages but insists on labeling them as such.  So that wouldn't be much of a change.  I can imagine some changes in Twitter's policies that would make the free-for-all prospect less threatening.  I don't know what legal boilerplate one has to agree to in order to use Twitter (and probably nobody but a few lawyers understands it all anyway), but if there was some clause to the effect that Twitter will fully cooperate with any law-enforcement officials in the investigation of illegal doings using Twitter, that would allow the organization to point its fingers at wrongdoers, or at least their accounts.  Tracking down bad guys on the Internet is always hard, but to pretend that Twitter is the main security threat to Internet users is to ignore all the other cybercrime that goes on without it.


My point is that right now, Twitter seems to be pretty free, and if Musk made it totally free it would be a rather small and incremental change.  And on the plus side, allowing completely free speech on Twitter would comport better with the First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, although technically, as a private company Twitter can (and still could) censor anything and everything it wants to. 


Money is power, and we see here a fabulously rich and therefore powerful man attempting to control another center of power, or at least conduit of power, which Twitter as a prominent social-media outlet represents.  But what little I know about Musk tells me that his intentions, while they may have a touch of silliness now and then, are basically benign. 


There is a growing trend on the part of some to view certain ideas and discourse as so threatening that it should be suppressed, whether by Twitter censors or some other means.  Those of us raised long enough ago that freedom of speech was presented to us as grade-schoolers in a positive and un-ironic way tend to believe that such freedom is one of the bedrock foundations of U. S. democracy.  And if we start going down the path of censorship—whether it's called that or "stopping disinformation" or "countering fake news"—the consequence will be less freedom and a move toward tyranny. 


The technology of the Internet and social media have given rise to something that we as societies are still trying to figure out:  a way of reaching millions or billions of people that is potentially uncontrolled by any central authority.  This is a truly new thing in the world.  Some regimes have decided that Twitter is so bad in its current form that they won't allow it at all.  Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are on that list, and Nigeria banned it for a year after it deleted tweets from the Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. 


That list suggests to me that whatever Twitter is doing, the good may well outweigh the bad.  In trying to buy Twitter, I think Musk is only trying to make it better.  And I for one am willing to see what he means by better.


Sources:  NPR carried a report on Musk's plans to buy Twitter at  I also referred to a brief piece on the New Yorker website at and the Wikipedia article on Twitter.  For those who do not recognize the reference to Tom Swift, he was a fictional young inventor featured in dozens of novels published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the early 1900s aimed primarily at teenage boys. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Is the Internet Making Us Too Literate?


Writing in the Spring 2022 issue of The New Atlantis, British author Kit Wilson wonders if the Internet is endangering our mental health by metaphorically burying us in words. 


In support of this conclusion, he cites some statistics.  For example, a report that the prestigious management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. published in 2012 stated that the average time Americans spent reading or writing each day was between one and two hours from 1900 all the way up to 1990.  But when the Internet came along and was joined by text messaging, that number rose to around four to five hours a day—almost a third of a person's disposable free time (that is, when you're not doing something like eating or going to the bathroom—and I'm sure some people read while doing those things too). 


He also found a journalist who claims that your average person browsing the Internet as part of their daily routine may expose themselves to as many as 490,000 words a day, which approaches the length of Tolstoy's War and Peace (600,000 words, according to Wikipedia's "List of Longest Novels.") 


But nobody reads the Internet like you would read War and Peace, and therein lies the problem.


Have we exploited digital technology's amazing ability to multiply words practically without end to flood cyberspace with an ocean of words that threaten to drown us? 


My title is something of a conundrum.  Being unable to read is what illiteracy means, but what is the measure of reading too much?  We have all known the so-called bookworm type who seems to prefer the library to the clubroom or the bar.  That isn't the problem here, because there were bookworms before the Internet. 


For his part, Wilson seems to be concerned that as we deal with the world more and more as it is mediated to us in the form of words, we will lose track of what reality is really like and begin to treat it as an abstraction that words adequately describe.  The overarching theme of this issue of The New Atlantis is expressed by the somewhat grim cover title "Reality:  A Post-Mortem." 


I think it's a little premature to write reality's obituary just yet, but I have to admit a general sense of creepiness remains with me after reading it. 


The problem we face was captured neatly by C. S. Lewis in his 1946 sci-fi novel That Hideous Strength, which involves a young sociologist named Mark Studdock who gradually becomes embroiled in some sinister doings as a part of his new job with the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N. I. C. E.).  Mark was already in a bad way with regard to reality even before he took on his new job.  As Lewis points out:  " . . . his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.  Statistics about agricultural laborers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow."


So the tendency has been with us longer than the Internet to take the written word more seriously than the reality that it attempts (always incompletely) to describe.  As Lewis shows later in the novel, this habit allows wicked people to do heinous things with the stroke of a pen—after all, the only direct contact a manager might have with the consequences of his order to liquidate thousands of people will be the alteration in some columns of population figures. 


Having access to more words than ever isn't all bad.  When evil is exposed to the light, it can lead to good people fighting it more effectively.  The Internet makes keeping secrets much harder, especially if they are secrets about evil things done in public. 


I may not be the best person to write about this problem, because whether out of old habits or laziness or something else, I think I am on the low end of Wilson's estimates of how much time people spend reading stuff on the Internet.  While I will admit to the occasional lapse of falling down a rabbit hole out of random curiosity, I try to be in charge whenever I'm browsing and attempt to keep my destination in mind.  If you know what you want before you go into the store, you'll probably spend less time (and money) there, and the same thing is true of the Internet.


If there's a specific problem caused by the superabundance of words on the Internet, it consists in what it's done to our reading habits.  Back when it took a person half a bottle of ink and an hour to write a three-page letter, the recipient felt obliged at least to read every word, and maybe some parts over more than once.


But now that words are so cheap and easily multiplied, we just zip through paragraphs like kids hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn—who needs all this grass?  Get to the good part.  But what if the good part won't emerge unless you read the whole thing?


If you've done me the good turn to read every word I've written down to this point, you have my thanks and appreciation.  But you are probably the exception.  Nobody can pay that kind of close attention to 490,000 words a day, nor should they.  The best we can do is to be a lot more selective about the stuff we look for, and favor sites that are well-curated (the term used to be "edited") which allow in only material that is truly worth our attention.  Because attention is what we bring to the table, or the screen, and because it's so limited, we should treat it as the valuable commodity that it is, for our own good and for the good of society as well.


Sources:  Kit Wilson's article "Reading Ourselves to Death" appears on pp. 73-79 of the Spring 2022 issue of The New Atlantis.


Monday, April 11, 2022

Will Solid-State Batteries Bail Out Electric Vehicles?


Last week, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a recall for electric-vehicle batteries made by LG Energy Solution of South Korea.  Fires have been caused by some of these batteries, which are used in Mercedes, Hyundai, and General Motors products, among others. 


The problem is that rare manufacturing defects can cause overheating and fires.  An Associated Press article describing the recall notes that recalls made voluntarily by individual manufacturers for these batteries date back to February of 2020.  In November of that year, GM began recalling over 140,000 Chevrolet Bolt EVs to replace possibly defective LG batteries, and LG paid GM $2 billion in compensation. 


The insurance industry obviously has a stake in this matter, and a small survey conducted by its Highway Loss Data Institute showed that the rate of fires for electric cars is about the same as it is for gasoline-burners:  0.2 per 1,000 insured vehicle years.


If the best you can say about electric car fires is that they're no worse than fires in gas-powered ones, that's faint praise. 


The underlying problem in electric-car battery fires is the technology.  You may not be aware that the liquid or gel electrolyte in the type of lithium battery used in electric vehicles cannot be exposed to air without catching fire.  This is one reason that manufacturing such a battery is so tricky.  Back when photographic film was the only way to take pictures, manufacturers figured out how to make hundreds of square yards of sensitive film every day in total darkness.  But it wasn't easy, and the fact that film never got as cheap as, say, toilet paper, had an incalculable effect on the entire industry.


Unless the electric-car business manages to break free of liquid-electrolyte batteries, it may find itself stuck in a similar rut.  Except for the battery, an electric car is markedly cheaper to make than a fossil-fuel one.  The electronics and the motors are much simpler than the corresponding parts of a gas-powered car.  But right now, the cheapest electrics on the market are many thousands of dollars more costly than an average gas model because of the darned battery, and so the vision of replacing most of our gas-guzzlers with electrics remains just that:  a vision.


On the technological horizon is a development that could change all that:  the solid-state battery.  Michael Faraday himself (1791-1867) discovered that solid materials such as silver sulfide could act as electrolytes, which means that ions can move about through them under the influence of electric fields.  But up to now, truly solid electrolytes (as opposed to the liquid or gel-like products used in most batteries today) have resisted commercialization for a number of reasons.


A significant milestone in the development of solid-state batteries happened when John Goodenough, who was one of the original developers of current lithium-battery technology, announced in 2017 that he had made a solid-state battery with a glass electrolyte.  According to some sources, solid-state batteries could have up to 2.5 times the energy density of current lithium batteries, although it is not clear whether this is a volume or mass energy density.  Either way, it would mean that for the same size or weight battery, a car using a solid-state battery might have a longer driving range than a gasoline car with a typical gas tank. 


No one knows yet how to make solid-state batteries cheaply.  Thin-film technologies such as vacuum deposition are sometimes used, and while there is concern that such technologies may be difficult to scale, vacuum deposition in other manufacturing areas has been applied to rolls of plastic and other large-scale manufactured goods.  So it's more a question of investment and effort than fundamental technological obstacles, I suspect.


Several automakers, notably Volkswagen and Toyota, are investing heavily in solid-state battery technology.  But they have the obstacle shared by all automakers that any product engineered for automotive use has to be a lot more durable and reliable than anything used in the military or even aerospace fields.  Do you thinkmilitary tank drivers go ten thousand miles without needing any service, or astronauts think they'll be able to ride their rockets for ten thousand launches without having any problems?  Yet we start a car several times a day for years and expect nothing to go wrong. 


It's that kind of standard that every electric-vehicle battery is expected to meet, and the wonder is that they have come this far.  Pardon an old technologist for making a statement that is more intuitive than fact-based, but when I look at a typical EV battery that consists of several thousand individually-manufactured, hermetically sealed, and electrically insulated cells, I see a technology that is fundamentally immature.  Digital computers remained the expensive province of a few wealthy institutions until manufacturers learned to take the many thousands of largely similar components and integrate them onto a chip.  I suspect that electric cars will also remain in the realm of the wealthy until solid-state batteries bring the core cost down to the point that people will want to buy them, not because they're afraid of global warming or want something to match their Patek Phillipe watch, but because they're cheaper and easier to run than gas-powered ones. 


In the meantime, we're going to have to put up with recalls like the ones for the LG batteries that catch fire on rare occasions, because it seems to be the nature of liquid-electrolyte lithium cells to do that once in a while.  The best manufacturers can do is to watch their processes and inspections rigorously and hope that a better technology will come along that will let them make batteries more like people make computer chips these days, rather than like photographic film was once made, under difficult and unique conditions that are hard to maintain for long.


Sources:  I referred to an article on the NHTSA recall carried by the Apr. 6, 2022 Austin American-Statesman and other outlets of the AP, such as ABC News at  I also referred to articles on solid-state batteries at, and the Wikipedia article "Solid-state battery."

Monday, April 04, 2022

How Secure are Decommissioned Communications Satellites?


These days, the vast majority of communications signals are carried over fiber-optic cables that gird the globe and form the backbone of the Internet.  But for certain purposes such as broadcasting, geostationary satellites are still important simply because they can access huge geographic areas much more cheaply than wired or fiber networks, and are sometimes the only way to access rural and remote areas. 


Like any other hardware, communications satellites have a limited lifetime, and after they are replaced by newer ones, the old satellites are eventually moved into "graveyard" orbits and later burn up in the atmosphere.  But in their retirement-home phase while they are still in place but not being actively used, they are vulnerable to being hacked, as a security researcher named Karl Koscher recently showed and Wired reported.  In contrast to ground-based digital networks, communications satellites are largely analog and can be hacked with relative ease.


The first communications satellite, Telstar 1, was launched in 1962, long before the Internet was even a gleam in Vinton Cerf's eye.  But it embodied the essential features of today's comm satellites:  a microwave receiver, some sort of signal processing that changes the frequency band to a different transmitting frequency, and an amplifier that sends out a boosted version of the weak signal received from a ground station.  Depending on the application, the transmitted signal can cover thousands of square miles where anyone with, for example, a DirecTV dish can get them.


While Koscher worked with the owners of a decommissioned satellite to perform his hacking, that wasn't strictly necessary.  He borrowed the transmitter and dish of an earth station set up for this sort of thing and aimed the appropriate signals at the dormant satellite, which was a Canadian unit launched in 2005 and at the end of its fifteen-year design life.  In doing so, he successfully demonstrated that he could broadcast to a good part of the North American continent using facilities that are within reach of a determined amateur hacker.


Someone with less benign intentions than Koscher could simply overpower a legitimate signal from a satellite's owner and essentially take over the satellite's receiver.  Whether the transmitted signal could be received by the customers would depend on how the signal is digitally encoded, but such encoding can also be hacked as well. 


On your list of things to worry about, this issue probably doesn't deserve a very high ranking.  Back when satellites were the only means of broadband connections between continents, they were a much more critical part of our communications infrastructure.  Now that most people, at least in North America, get their data from the Internet without need of a satellite link, because most Internet traffic is carred via undersea fiber-optic cables, the fact that old satellites can be hacked is not that threatening.  Still, the possibility exists that newer satellites could also be taken over with sufficiently powerful earth-station signals, and this would cause problems beyond simple bemusement. 


Unlike Internet hackers, who can hide in obscure basements in inaccessible countries and evade detection for months or years, a satellite ground station is not an easy thing to hide.  There is one such installation a few miles south of where I live in San Marcos, Texas, and although I've never driven by it to see how close I can get, the large (10-meter or so) dishes are easily visible from I-35 between here and San Antonio.  So if a satellite hacker began making a habit of pirating, it would not be that difficult to figure out where he was transmitting from, depending on the satellite's own characteristics and the amount of power needed.


But we are far from being done with our dependence on communications satellites.  Elon Musk is launching Starlink, a planned array of over 4,000 low-orbit satellites designed to provide Internet service for underserved nations, and eventually the entire world.  Such satellites are much harder to hack in a meaningful way, because they move fast and the loss of one or two out of several thousand is probably only a minor inconvenience to the network.  Any hacking to be done with Starlink will probably be at a higher level, resembling Internet hacking on the fiber network, which is basically independent of the hardware used for conveying the information.


Perhaps there is a lesson here about the nature of ethical lapses with regard to communications technologies.  Any technology that conveys meaningful information from one human to another human, regardless of what time or space intervenes, is a communications technology.  Other things being equal, enabling human-to-human communications (which is the only kind we use technology for so far) is better than not enabling it.  Of course, any communications medium can be used for evil purposes, but generally speaking, communications systems can make one of the best claims at being ethically neutral of any technology you can name. 


But those systems which by their nature enable one person simultaneously to communicate one way with thousands or millions of others are in a special ethical category.  This was implicitly recognized in the pre-Internet days by the extensive regulatory regimes that broadcasters worked under in many countries.  But with the advent of the Internet, the broadcaster-versus-private-communicator distinction broke down, and outfits such as Facebook found there was money to be made in intentionally blurring that distinction. 


Broadcast satellites are one of the few remaining technologies in which that distinction is still distinct.  But the fiber-optic Internet has made them somewhat of a niche issue in the wider scope of communications-technology ethics, and I don't worry much about facing a rash of takeovers of old comm satellites in the future, simply because there are lots easier ways to do nefarious things using communications systems that aren't tied to satellites at all. 


Nevertheless,Koscher's feat is a warning for future satellite operators to take extra precautions so that a hacker can't even take over the satellite except to block it from operating, which will always be possible.  But there isn't much illegitimate money to be made from that, and so Koscher's demonstration may be the last of its kind.


Sources:   Wired carried Lily Hay Newman's article "Researchers Used a Decommissioned Satellite to Broadcast Hacker TV" on Mar. 30, 2022 at