Monday, May 2, 2011

Online privacy; military gets hip; caterpillar robot; intelligent pricing

Four interesting items came to my attention yesterday and today:
  • In the New York Times, Randall Stross supports opt-in rules for online data (Opt-In Rules Are a Good Start), meaning that no one should be allowed to gather or use your digital information without your consent. For too many sites, the best we can get is an opt-out option, which requires us to say, "Hey, don't do this;" or, more typically, "Hey, stop doing this." Not surprisingly, the proposed Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011 is supports an opt-out approach (we wouldn't want industry to be hampered by privacy concerns). Surprisingly, the article's poster child for opt-in is Facebook, which must have cleaned up its act while I wasn't looking.
  • Also in the Times, Andrew Martin and Thomas Lin write that some senior officials in the United States military are pushing to start using, or increase the use of, smartphones, iPads, video games, and virtual worlds in military training (Keyboards First. Then Grenades). Other senior officials are opposed. But some of these technologies are already being used and have proven effective, and they are appealing to young recruits. The smart money is on increased use.
  • ScienceNOW, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has a wonderful video of a 10-centimeter/4-inch robot that mimics the escape behavior of some caterpillars (Video: Caterpillar-Inspired Robots Rock 'n' Roll). You've got to see it to believe it. From the video it appears the robot is still on wires (presumably for power or control), but it's only a matter of time before the military develops it for intelligence gathering or assassination.
  • Finally, ScienceInsider, also a AAAS publication, reports that an out-of-print 1992 book on developmental biology available on recently offered "15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping)" (The $23 Million Textbook). The biologist who noticed the outlandish price tracked changes for a while and noticed a pattern: "Whenever one seller changed the price of the book, the other seller reacted by offering the book at 99.83% of that price. In response, the first seller automatically started asking 127% of the other seller's new price - and so on. The price peaked on 18 April before a human being intervened and the prices came back to earth." The culprit was "algorithmic pricing." Thank goodness it wasn't used to order drone strikes.
Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

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