Tag Archives: New Scientist

Would the “cop in my pocket” accept a bribe from News International?

Morgan Freeman in The Dark KnightThis week’s New Scientist features an article entitled Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket (kerching). In it, a rather breathless Nic Fleming waxes lyrically about how, thanks to our smartphones, “we are all set to gain unprecedented crime-fighting abilities.”

Sadly, however, it is not through being able to download mad martial arts skillz via our phones Matrix-style but by using the sensors on our phones to create a near-universal level of surveillance. The residents of Boston, for example, will soon be using their phones to record potholes in the road (thus rendering the Liberal Democrats entirely obsolete). Soon we’ll be able to use our phones to spot GPS jamming and the cameras in the front of our cars to track down stolen cars. If only manufacturers would include gas detectors in our phones, soon we’ll be able to get early warning of sarin gas attacks without having to do a thing.

The civil liberty implications of all this are waved away. We are reassured that software will be developed to guarantee privacy of the individual, with a particular system called “AnonySense” being cited, although it is not at all clear how all the examples illustrated in the article could be used anonymously, nor are the rights of the spied upon (as opposed to the spy) even considered.

But it is not Big Brother that ought to concern us here. What I don’t understand is how this article can be published, weeks after the hacking scandal erupted, without even considering the scope for massive abuse.

Imagine making such universal surveillance just a bung away from use by the tabloid newspapers. How could you even go into hiding from them if every single camera mounted on every single car in the country was just a mouse-click away from a corrupt police officer? This isn’t even theoretical now; we now know that police officers are perfectly willing to offer these services to journalists, safe in the knowledge that both their superiors and the journalists’ will be quite happy to look the other way and claim they didn’t know it was going on. We can delude ourselves that it won’t happen again, but you can bet that it will just as soon as the dust settles sufficiently enough for people to start thinking they can get away with it.

So while it is terribly exciting to think of our phones working like the ones at the end of the film The Dark Knight, the real question is what we can do to stop it from happening, not how it might save us from future attacks by Aum Shinrikyo.

Is time travel the new porn?

The Daily Mail’s Science Editor Michael Hanlon has a pop at the trend in physics towards ever more outlandish theories in the New Scientist this week:

Fun yes, but is it harmless? Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all. Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam’s razor – the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.

The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either. There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It’s hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn’t the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines? Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?

Coming from a Daily Mail man, this sounds like fightin’ talk (to be fair to him, I haven’t read anything by Hanlon that I would characterise as scare-mongering anti-science, but as the Science Editor you’d have thought he’d have some say in the sillier stories that do follow this trend in his paper). He has a point though. New Scientist’s cover story this week is about a scientific theory that the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN could be made into the world’s first time machine. When you get into the detail though, it turns out that this whole theory depends on “dark energy” of which we know very little, being used to “stretch” open the mouth of the resulting wormhole in space-time to allow us to communicate – let alone walk – through it. That’s a whole heap of speculation.

It sells copies of the New Scientist, but somehow I doubt we are on the brink of a major new discovery of this kind any time soon. And if we were it will probably not be anything like the future we imagined. Just as we have been denied the jetpacks we were promised, this new time travel technology will probably end up so boringly mundane that we don’t even notice when they start churning it out. Instead of people in jumpsuits from 10,000 years in the future coming back to murder their ancestors, my guess is the first time we see this technology being used is when some bozo introduces the mobile phone that allows you to text yourself messages in the past to make sure you remember to pick up the milk on the way home.

Like picture messaging, no-one will see the point of it at first, but then suddenly everyone will be at it. Within weeks, the lottery will become utterly pointless as the jackpot is won on a weekly basis by 60 million people and thus pays out 5p each. On the other hand, the stock exchange will become even more chaotic as people tip themselves off on a massive scale, only to discover that if everyone’s at it such information becomes utterly redundant. Eventually a member of Parliament hits upon a wheeze to claim their additional costs allowance an infinite number of times and the universe will implode in a puff of contradiction and self-important venality.

How annoying will that be? Even if it doesn’t happen, I can just imagine my future self texting me lies just to screw me over. Bastard.

Wot I lernt in New Scientist #2633

Issue 2633I get New Scientist every week but every so often I get out of the habit of reading. Unread issues start to pile up and I get guilty that all that knowledge is going to waste.

So, partly as a way of getting me in the habit of reading it again, partly as an aide memoire and partly as a way of encouraging people to read about science, I’m starting this weekly summary of what I’ve read.

This week:

  • Two studies suggest that life originally evolved thanks to quantum mechanics. Hmmm… sounds a bit mystical to me.
  • 2.37 trillion litres of water could have been saved in the US alone if people didn’t divorce. Try solving that one.
  • The health risks associated with egg donation for theraputic cloning research are unethical and unnecessary according to Jennifer Swift.
  • Solar power is on the verge of becoming economical. If only we adopted a tariff system like Germany’s to encourage supply…
  • Thanks to new research, the discredited example of evolution in action in which it was shown that pepper moths evolved darker colouration as a result of the industrial revolution could be reclaimed for science.
  • An interview with Pakistani scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy about democracy, Pakistan’s decision to go nuclear and how Musharraf has got higher education funding wrong. Physics departments where the head is unable to solve A-level phyisics problems? Sheesh!
  • Chris Mooney reviews Andrew Szasz’s Shopping Our Way to Safety which critiques the idea that consumerism can solve problems such as climate change.
  • A.C. Grayling kicks off his new column by attacking the notion that science “rests on faith“.
  • In Feedback an amusing story about how Rush Lumbaugh was hoaxed into promoting climate change denial research which turned out to be less than meets the eye…

… and lots more! Get your own copy!

Abortion – only liberalism has the answer

The New Scientist has an interesting article this week all about abortion, which seems to be back in the news in a big way today. You can’t read it all online unless you have a subscription, but the nub of it is:

Tellingly, the number of abortions fell almost exclusively in rich countries where terminating a pregnancy is both legal and safe. In poorer countries, where access to abortion is often restricted or illegal, there has been very little progress in reducing the number of abortions, says Shah.

In such countries, women are prepared to endanger their lives to terminate a pregnancy (see “By any means available”). In Africa, for example, where access to safe, legal abortions is almost non-existent, there were 29 abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age in 2003. In Europe, where abortion is widely available and legal (with the exception of Poland and Ireland), the rate was almost identical, at 28.

Even in eastern Europe, abortion rates have halved from 90 abortions per 1000 women in 1995*, to 44 per 1000 in 2003 – thanks almost entirely to the wider availability of effective contraceptives. “We now have a very powerful body of data from multiple countries showing a connection between the rise in contraception availability and a decline in abortions,” says Camp.

Bottom line: making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it, it just makes it more dangerous. If you want to reduce the abortion rate, encourage greater use of contraception. But of course the religious right don’t like that.

And if you want to reduce the number of late abortions, scrap the two referrals rule. But again, the religious right don’t like that either.

Ultimately, if your concern is reducing harm, this really is a no-brainer. If your agenda is ideological purity on the other hand…

* If you refer back to the original text, you will see that it says 2005, which makes no sense. However the study it is referring to compares the 1995 situation with 2003, so the meaning is clear.