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Google and Your Privacy

Google logoGoogle’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. At least that’s what it says when you click on About Google at the bottom of the Google page. As a corporation, Google is singular in having as it’s motto “Don’t be evil” — that’s actually what they said in the prospectus for their 2004  IPO, the Initial Public Offering of stock to the public.

And in Google’s 10-point philosophy, under the heading Our philosophy, point number 6 says: You can make money without doing evil. Google is a business. The revenue we generate is derived from offering search technology to companies and from the sale of advertising displayed on our site and on other sites across the web. (And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You can look up what Google has to say, but if we repeat it, you’ll get bored and move on, and we’re trying to make a point of our own, so please keep reading.)

Over the past several weeks, visitors to the Google search page have repeatedly been informed, “We’re changing our privacy policy and terms. This stuff matters.” Visitors are given a chance to click on Dismiss, or Learn more. If you click Learn more, Google will tell you, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read. Our new policy covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google.”

Who could object to that, right? And if you read the entire policy, which Google put there so you could read it, you’ll learn more details. From Google’s business point of view, the policy is certainly good because Google will have all the information about you in one place.  But for people who use Google, it’s not so good.  Because when you gather small bits of information about a person from a lot of different sources, and  put them into one big heap of information in one place all about that person, you know a lot more about that person than when the information is scattered. Yes, bringing all the scattered bits together does make a difference. It’s a lot easier to put a jigsaw puzzle together if you have all the pieces in one place.

Look at it this way, US intelligence agencies had sufficient information in different places about terrorists, but the agencies failed in their mission because the information was scattered and they “didn’t connect the dots.” Google’s new privacy policy allows them connect the dots about you.

If you’d really like to Learn more about privacy and Google, you might look at Knowledge @ Wharton, the research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Google’s new privacy policy is scheduled to go into effect on March 1st, but on the other side of the Atlantic the European Union authorities have asked Google to give them more time to investigate the effects of such a change. That’s a Good Idea.

Forget 1984, Think 2015

Security cameraYou’re probably aware that as you drive through the city certain cameras, often mounted overhead at cross streets, record your car’s plate number and, in many instances, they record your face as well. And as you or park in a parking garage or enter a shop, security cameras continue to photograph you. And maybe you’re aware that if you walk with your cell phone on, your location is being pinpointed to within fifteen feet.

Maybe, like most people, you do feel a little uncomfortable about being kept under watch, but you shrug it off because you’re just one individual in a city of thousands or millions and they can’t keep track of every single one of us all the time. I mean, sure, they have the technology to listen to our phone conversations and the technology to photograph us as we move around, but how can they store that ocean of information? Besides, the cost of storing so much data would break the bank.

And you’re right. At least for three more years. But you do remember George Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother. Back in 1984, it cost about $85,000 to store a gigabyte of data. Today it costs about five cents. That means it costs about 17 cents to store all the phone calls made by an individual over the course of a year. But the cost of storage is falling and by 2015 it will cost under 2 cents.

Cameras produce photos and photos have lots of pixels and that means a security camera generates a mountain of data. On the other hand, your phone, GPS and Wi-Fi connection give away your location but that information requires comparatively few ones and zeros. The data identifying the location of each of a million people every five minutes, 24 hours a day for a year, can be stored in 1,000 gigabytes. That would cost around $50 today.

It costs more to store all those pixels from all those cameras, but governments can afford it. In China,  a government “safety” project will use around 500,000 video cameras to keep watch in the city of Chongqing which has a population of 12 million — that’s one video camera for every 24 people.  Right now, it’s expensive to store that much high-quality video and they’ll have to use lower quality images. But in a few years, say by 2020, they’ll be able to store a year’s worth of high-quality video movies of every one of those 12 million people for about 25 cents per person.

These numbers come from a very interesting report produced by John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and in the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. He is also professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. You may want to read the full report ; you’ll find it well documented. Professor Villasenor’s report is phrased in terms of how much it would cost a repressive regime, such as that in Iran, to keep a close watch on each of its citizens. Fortunately, we live in an open society where such issues as government surveillance and individual privacy are vigorously debated. Or, maybe we should say, ought to be vigorously debated.

Atomic Theory In 50 B.C.

De Rerum Natura 1675Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011, and at the same time brought popular attention to another book, the two-thousand-year-old On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.  Greenblatt’s book is an engaging account of Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of one of the few surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ philosophical poem, and that discovery,  at least in  Greenblatt’s view, altered the course of intellectual history in Europe and “made the world modern.”

To the contemporary reader, the most astonishing thing about Lucretius’ philosophy is that it is based on an atomic theory of physics. Certainly it’s a marvel that a Roman poet writing around 50 B.C.  should understand the natural physical world as being the result of atomic interactions, but Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, himself an inheritor of the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, all of them believers that the basic unit of the material world was the atom —  meaning “un-cutable” in Greek.

Whereas our contemporary atomic theory is based on experimental evidence, the Greek and Roman philosophers arrived at their theories entirely through reason and speculation.  Seeing the world as composed of complex structures built up by aggregates of simpler elements (look around you; you’ll see the same)  those thinkers worked down to a theoretical solitary building block  and down below that to nothingness.  That’s where Lucretius begins: there’s the void and atoms falling endlessly through it, occasionally swerving to hit other atoms, and over time those atoms hook together to build up the material world we live in. Furthermore, says Lucretius, the void is so large and atoms so numerous that other worlds have also arisen, many other worlds, in addition to our own.

And that is all there is to life, to this world, to the cosmos, to anything. Lucretius’s materialistic vision was intended, he wrote, to rescue people from belief in the intervention of gods and the fear of death. Gods exist in De Rerum Natura, but they exist off at some distance, rather diaphanous beings, with no interest in the world they didn’t create and the humans who inhabit it. As for death, don’t fear an after life, says Lucretius; you are only your constituent atoms and death merely frees those atoms to regroup, perhaps, in some other form. Not everyone will find freedom from fear or any comfort  in Lucretius.

De Rerum Natura is a long, long poem of some 7,400 lines. Even though it’s apparently unfinished, Lucretius gets around to explaining everything from how sound manages to get through walls to how it is that adolescent boys have wet dreams. Nothing is beyond his interest, from the grandest, such as the evolutions of human society, to the smallest, the infinitesimal wearing down of a statue by the touch of innumerable hands.  Lucretius himself comes through the lines as a man interested in just about everything, a man who apparently loved the things of this world and loved writing about them. The work is, after all, a vivid digressive poem about this world.

Teachers of Latin and their more advanced students are well aware of Lucretius’s book – six books as Lucretius assembles it — and they’re also aware that much of it is difficult Latin. If you had Latin in high school only, you’ll find Lucretius somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible. Say Catullus is easy and Ovid is easy, admit Quintillian is not easy and Horace is hard. If so, Lucretius is hard. Happily, there are translations.

Unhappily, translations of Latin poems aren’t wonderful. Yes, Arthur Golding’s translation in 1567 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is admired and is probably the best translation of that work, even after four centuries, but we nowadays read it not to get a sense of Ovid but to relish the wonderful rush and verve of the brash translator’s Renaissance English, a marvelous vulgate.

The Nature of Things by Lucretius, trans by A.E. StallingsThe most recent translation of Lucretius’s hexameters is by A. E. Stallings and she, like Golding, uses “fourteeners” — lines of fourteen syllables, usually seven iambics — linked in couplets. Indeed, her translation gives De Rerum Natura a certain liveliness and bounce – and possibly a classicist finds the same spirited animation in the original.  None of us here at Critical Pages can read Latin like a classicist, but maybe you guessed that already.  We favor the Loeb edition  of De Rerum Natura  published by Harvard University Press with the Latin on the left-hand page and the plain English on the right. But we admire A. (Alicia) E. Stallings translation. She’s a remarkable poet all on her own, as her many prizes attest.

[The original posting of this article had a number of typographical and spelling errors for which we apologize.]

Women and Sex Addiction

Carnes, Patrick - sex addictioni

Dr. Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.

If you crave relief from politics and would like something  completely different, you might be interested in learning a little about sex addiction in women. We learned a lot from an interview in Canada’s National Post. Apparently, women are taking to sex in a big, big way.  In fact, according to Dr. Patrick Carnes, “We are seeing the biggest change in human sexuality maybe in the history of our species.”

 Wow! The biggest in the history of our species! Now that’s impressive. Dr. Carnes, Ph.D.,  ought to know what he’s talking about, because he’s a psychologist. He’s a specialist in sexual addiction and the executive director of the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioral Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Certainly the Internet has made pornography available and private, which maybe one of the greatest changes in pornography in the history of the human species. So it shouldn’t surprise us that, as Dr. Carnes says, “We’re seeing women getting into pornography in a way we’ve never seen before.” But sex addiction goes beyond mere fantasy. “Women are engaging in affairs, they’re engaging in sado-masochistic behavior,” he said. They are? Again?

If you’re beginning to think that sexual addiction must be an epidemic, you’re right. For sure, Dr. Carnes thinks it is. “We’re now at a place where we have an epidemic. Two thirds of our kids are watching pornography while they’re doing their homework.” Good grief!Two thirds! Is that possible? 

The image below is taken from Nymphs and Satyrs, painted by William-Adolphe Bougereau and exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1873. You’d never guess from this painting that the following year saw the first exhibit of Impressionist painters. There’s not much available to illustrate a post about women and sex addiction, so this will have to do.Bouguereau, William Adolphe 1825-1905 Nymphs and Satyr_(1873)


New Year’s Day & Calendars

New Year's postcard from 1910

The illustration above is a postcard from 1910. Often the Old Year is represented by a thin old man with a long beard, an hour glass  in his hand and a scythe over his shoulder, and the New Year appears as a baby or a toddler wearing no more than a banner inscribed with the numerals of the new year.  In those illustrations the Old Year looks a lot like Death himself, especially with that scythe. So the picture above is a refreshing change, even if it is from 1910.  The Old Year doesn’t look decrepit. In fact he seems to be a rather randy old guy gazing fondly at Miss New Year who is certainly no baby or toddler. He doesn’t realize that he’s out, he’s finished, he’s over with.  And, of course, young Miss New Year doesn’t know how fast she’s going to age over the next 365 days.

Here we are at the start of a new year. So this post is about calendars, and it’s gong to be a rather rambling story. And a bit longer than most posts. Deciding what day to choose as the start of a new year is up to us, of course. We can choose whatever day we want. But it’s really very, very useful if everyone agrees on whatever day is chosen, because that way we all know what day we’re talking about when we say we’ll meet on the 15th.  Of course, people being as they are, not everyone agrees on which day is the first, or which day is the first of the spring season or whose calendar is most sanctified.

On the other hand, the length of a year isn’t decided by us. We don’t get to choose the time it takes the earth to make a trip around the sun. For virtually all of human history no one knew that the earth was circling the sun, but people did notice that in addition to it’s daily trip from one side of the sky to the other, the sun made a much slower trip back and forth across that daily horizon-to-horizon path — or as we think of it, a slow trip north and south. And that slow journey brought summer as the sun approached overhead and the days grew longer, and winter came as the sun withdrew from overhead and the days grew shorter. That was a year, and for most of human history a year was the longest stretch of time the heavens gave us.

Another way our early ancestors marked time was by the moon, the twenty-eight days it takes to complete a cycle of waxing and waning. The moon is a most convenient clock. You can see that it’s grown or diminished every night and, depending on which way the crescent points, you can tell if it’s waxing or waning. And twenty-eight days is a length of time much easier to work and plan with than 365 days. The fact that women tend to have a menstrual cycle of 28 days made lunar cycles even more important. We at Critical Pages don’t have any theories about the similar periodicity of lunar cycles and menstrual cycles, or the nature of women.

(By the way, the Latin word for month is mensis, and the Latin for monthly is menstrualis. More cool facts with which to impress your friends who never studied Latin.) But to get back to the moon and solar calendar — there’s a little math problem here: the 28 days that make up a lunar month don’t fit neatly into the 365 days that compose a solar year. Thirteen lunar months gives us 364 days. (more…)

Talking with Kepler 22-b

Kepler 22-bProbably you’ve heard the exciting news that NASA has discovered an earth-like planet circling a sun-like star “This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.  Earth’s twin? With people like us — our twins — a parallel universe! Wow!

Well, no. But the Kepler program will run out of money if it doesn’t get a fresh infusion of funds, and now seemed like a good time to talk about finding an earth-like planet.

The planet pictured above is the one NASA has discovered. Or maybe not. The planet is too far away to be seen, in the ordinary sense of that word,  by even the most powerful telescopes. NASA postulates its existence by circumstantial evidence.  For example, if something repeatedly dims the the light from a star, you can assume that whatever is dimming the light is going around and around that star, like a planet. And if you figure out how rapidly the planet is circling the star and at what distance, you can make a good guess at how much radiant heat is falling on the planet. So you can build up, piecemeal, a picture of the planet. Then you tell an artist what you know, or what you guess,  and the artist can paint a picture like this one.

NASA’s online announcement says, “The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.” We don’t mean to be churlish, but apparently  the circumstantial evidence isn’t even strong enough for us to play 20-Questions and figure out if this things is solid, liquid or gas.

Now SETI, (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is back on line again with it’s ATA (Alien Telescope Array), listening for electronic signals from an alien intelligence. And they plan to turn their attention to Kepler-22b. That planet is 600 light years distant from us so an electromagnetic wave that reaches us now would have been sent from Kepler-22b in 1411.  We didn’t know about electricity back then, though Chaucer did write a book on the astrolabe a few years earlier.  If we send a signal today to those advanced aliens, it will reach them in 2611, our time.  (With any luck, we will have solved our illegal aliens problem by then and be ready for the extra-terrestrial aliens.)  That’s a lag of 1200 years between saying “We’re here!”  and getting a “And we’re over here!” reply.  And 1200 years ago it was 811 on this planet.  Maybe we should  wait for a scientific breakthrough that will permit us to juggle space and time so we can visit Kepler-22b on our vacation.  That’s got a better chance of happening and makes more sense than a conversation with a 1200 year time lag.


Galileo and Pendulums

Mathematical equations can be beautiful, or they can be ugly and messy. When we find a simple, elegant equation, we can rightly say it’s beautiful. Most people are familiar with the simple and elegant equation on the left. E=MC etcIt’s sometimes called Einstein’s equation and it expresses with admirable mathematical succinctness the relationship between energy, matter and the speed of light — a deep and astonishing fact of nature expressed in three letters.

Not so many people are acquainted with the equation on the right. It’s a humble formula, having nothing to do with the speed of light, atomic power plants, or thermonuclear bombs. Pendulum equationIt’s about pendulums. This equation expresses the relationship between the time it takes a pendulum to swing back and forth, the length of pendulum and the acceleration of a falling body due to gravity. The equation is associated with Galileo, and to some it’s as beautiful as the one about mass and energy.

According to one of Galileo’s students, Galileo was attending a religious service in Pisa when he noticed that a breeze caused very slight, very slow back-and-forth motion of a chandelier suspended in the great cathedral. Galileo’s mind was not focused on the sacred service being performed that day; instead he kept looking at the slow and gentle motion of the chandelier and he noticed that even though the breeze stopped and the back-and-forth distance traveled by the pendulum shrank, yet the time it took the chandelier to make the back-and-forth trip seemed to remain constant. There were no clocks back in 1582 — he’d invent one later – so he timed the swinging of the chandelier by the regular beating of the pulse in his wrist. He was right; no matter the distance traveled, the time it took was always the same.

Galileo by DomenicoLater, Galileo experimented with pendulums and discovered that the remarkably regular period of the pendulum (the uniform time it took to make a full back-and-forth sweep) was proportional to the square root of the length of the pendulum. The pendulum bob (the weight at the end of the pendulum) had no effect on the length of time or its regularity. The only things that mattered were the pendulum’s length and, of course, gravity that caused the pendulum to swing once it was released.

If you want to express time in, say, seconds, and you know that it’s the result of a mix of length and gravity, you have to compose an equation such that the units of length get removed and only seconds remain. If the acceleration of gravity is expressed as, say, centimeters per second per second, and the pendulum’s length is expressed in centimeters, then by dividing the pendulum’s length by the acceleration of gravity you get rid of the centimeters and are left with seconds per seconds. And if you take the square root of that, you re left simply with seconds. So the relationship between the  time T and the length l and gravity g looks like the proportional formula below. Pendulum equation proportionalThe two times pi, as in the  in the equation at the top right, turns the proportional expression into a true equation — but that involves a mathematical maneuver that Galileo didn’t get around to. The simplicity of the equation, with or without the 2pi constant, is striking, as is the curious fact that the swing of a pendulum is constant, even as the length covered by that swing becomes less and less. The recognition of that fact resulted in the invention of the pendulum clock, a timepiece that endured as the best method of marking time from Galileo’s era into the 20th century.

(By the way, the portrait of Galileo is by the artist known as Domenico, the son of the more famous Tintoretto. Galileo was himself the son of the famous musician Vincenzo Galilei, a performer, composer and theorist of music. From his father, Galileo learned  the mathematics of musical harmony and with that as a start it’s not surprising that when deep into the physics of the natural world he declared that the language of God’s creation was mathematics. )

November and Jupiter

November is a month that starts off rather well — misty soft mornings, blue noontime skies, brightly colored autumn leaves, and a cool clean feeling in the air — but it ends badly with leafless trees, gray skies and freezing rain.

Planet Jupiter

The Planet Jupiter

In addition, this November we have a national recession, an unemployment rate that averages over 8 percent, bankers who want to charge you for access to your own money, and half a dozen argumentative Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency. So we’re turning our attention to the night-time sky. It’s far less depressing.

The brightest star in this November’s night isn’t a star. It’s the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun, our Earth is the third, and as the planets revolve around the sun there come times when we’re between the sun and Jupiter and the sunlight reflected at us from that planet is remarkably bright. This November is one of those times.

Jupiter was named after the Roman king of the gods. Yes, yes, we know you knew that. But did you know the name Jupiter derives from Iove and pater, meaning father Jove? OK, maybe you knew that too, if you remembered your Latin. In any case, this king of the gods planet is not only big (and by big we mean it’s more massive than all the other planets combined) it’s also composed mostly of gas. Frankly, we think it’s fitting that the giant king of the gods turns out to be a gas ball.  (OK, maybe we’re more depressed about politics than we knew. )

Jupiter has a lot of moons. Jupiter was an amorous god and astronomers began naming the moons after those he wooed* [That’s an asterisk, indicating a footnote.]  Now, that might strike you as sexist — Jupiter encircled by his sexual conquests.  If there were more women astronomers, maybe the moons would be named after his children. No matter how many satellites they discover around Jupiter, they won’t run out of names if they choose from among his offspring.

Speaking of names, the name Jupiter was given to the day of the week in Latin that we English speakers call Thursday. That’s why countries whose language derives from Latin, the Romance language nations, call it giovedi (Italian) or jeudi (French) or jueves(Spanish) and so on. Old English, deriving from Anglo-Saxon, imported the Northern god Thor, hence Thursday.  I think we can leave this topic now.

Ganymede by Rubens

Ganymede by Rubens

*We’re being prissy polite when we use the word woo here. And we’re hiding something when we say “those he loved.”  One of the moons is named after Ganymede, a male youth whom Homer called the most beautiful mortal. In fact, Ganymede was so beautiful that Zeus/Jupiter abducted him to serve as cup bearer to the gods on Olympus, where he also served as sexual consort to the  king of the gods.  On the right is Rubens’ painting of Ganymede being abducted by Zeus who’s taken the form of an eagle. The word catamite is derived from the name Ganymede.  You knew that, right?

Stop Slouching!

You know that your mood and your thoughts affect your posture. Now we’ve learned that changing your posture, even as briefly as a minute or two, can change your mood and your thinking in astonishing ways. And this change can be measured.

Harvard's Amy Cuddy

Harvard's Amy Cuddy

Researchers have reported remarkable changes in the hormone levels of 42 males and females when researchers placed those men and women in different poses for a bare minute per pose. Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, along with Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap (both of Columbia), first measured the hormone levels of their research subjects, then placed them  in two high-power or low-power poses for a minute per pose, then re-measured their hormone levels 17 minutes later. (Leaning back in your swivel chair with your feet on your desk, would be a high-power pose.  Sitting in a low chair with your  hands folded in your lap would be low-power.) A brief two minutes in high-power stances caused testosterone to rise; two minutes in low-power posture caused testosterone to decrease and cortisol, associated with stress, to rise.

Are you still slouching? Remember, this goes for women, too.  We bet Amy Cuddy doesn’t slouch.

The researchers also offered the men and women an opportunity to roll a die in order to double a two-dollar stake. Those who had been in high-power poses were more likely to gamble, in other words to take risks, a trait associated with dominant people. Indeed, the research subjects who had been placed in high-power stances reported feeling more powerful. (This didn’t work for us when we tried it, but  maybe that just says something about us.)

It’s been known for some time that expansive high-power postures that take up more space correlate with testosterone and cortisol levels in primates of both sexes. (And, yes, even you deep thinkers are primates when it comes to this.) The high-power individuals have higher levels of testosterone; the low-power people with their contractive postures, taking up less space, have lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol, meaning they are more subject to stress and more likely to succumb to diseases. And up until now it had been believed that primates who were at the top of the pack were there because they had been born with the right hormones for the job. Now it appears that getting into the high position, through whatever means, brings about the associated levels of testosterone and cortisol.

The research by Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney and Andy Yap, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance,” was published in the influential journal Psychological Science. That was about a year ago. We’re slow readers and never got to it.  But we did get to the  very interesting profile of Assistant Professor Amy Cuddy, with an informative review of other research she’s done,  and that’s accessible online at  Harvard Magazine.  The photograph of Amy Cuddy was taken from the magazine’s cover story; we think her posture is neither high-power nor low-power, but  just friendly.

“Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”   — Steve Jobs

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.