Thursday, January 30, 2014

The rise of e-currencies: How bitcoins and their ilk could save — or destroy! — the world

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Providence Phoenix

Bitcoins, and other e-currencies along similar lines, are all the rage these days — and everyone’s talking about them as if they know what bitcoins actually are, or do, or something. It won’t surprise you to learn that most people know only part of the picture, and most of those hardly understand the part they know.
In fairness, bitcoins are a challenging concept to understand. But we here at the Phoenix are always up for a challenge, so we’ll break it down for you. First, we’ll have an explanation of what bitcoins are, what they’re not, and what they make possible. Then we’ve assembled a set of arguments that explain how and why bitcoins are both the end of the world as we know it, and the next step to saving the world we love so well.
A useful point to start is to note that the word bitcoin, when used with a lowercase b, refers to the units of currency; when capitalized, Bitcoin refers to a software and the Internet-based communications methods used to track and exchange them. There are also other e-currencies, such as litecoin; all of them use the basic structure and concepts underlying the Bitcoin system, and differ only in the most arcane of technical details. They’re also not nearly as popular, nor as widely accepted — in part because bitcoins got there first.
Something from nothingDuring, and in the wake of, the 2008 financial crisis, the institutions we had relied on to ensure economic stability turned on us. Several deeply concerning and fundamental facts about the world’s currency became widely apparent:
>>Banks can’t be trusted Not only are they often working in opposition to their depositors’ best interests, but they gambled with other people’s money, lost, and then asked for government bailouts to pay off the debt.
>>Governments can’t be trusted Rather than protecting their people’s interests, governments sometimes see their citizens as just another cash source. In March 2013, faced with an impending economic collapse, the government of Cyprus confiscated 10 percent of all the money held in accounts in that country’s banks.
>>And anyway, money’s value is imaginary Governments, including the United States, can create massive amounts of new money out of thin air, and give it to whomever they want (usually the banks, as opposed to the people). This has always been true, but politicians and other financial experts no longer seem to worry that regular people object.
>>Still, money is an inescapable, integral part of our daily lives It’s a very flexible medium of exchange, which I can accept in remuneration for (to pick an example) my reporting and writing and spend in a grocery store in exchange for food.
Some people had expressed those concerns long before the 2008 meltdown; afterward, more people understood them much more clearly.
Out of these problems came a seemingly simple solution: Create another currency, not beholden to a government, and find a way to store it safely without banks.
Of course, it turns out those are two very hard things to do, while still preserving the confidence and security we expect from a monetary system. The most difficult problem is how to prevent counterfeiting — which is of course far easier with a digital item than a physical one (as the movie and music industries have learned, to their dismay).
Government currency — and even most other alternative currencies (such as time-dollars) — have a centralized authority that can verify the authenticity of money. In the United States, it’s the Federal Reserve. Replacing this system with another one that also required central authority and verification made the whole exercise moot. The real goal was to decentralize verification, while still ensuring nobody copied e-currency and, effectively, spent it twice.
In late 2008 and into 2009, a person or group going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto proposed a system called Bitcoin, offering a solution to the double-spending problem that was ingenious for its simplicity: The central authority keeping track of transactions should be the public at large, and the ledger should be available online to all who asked.
But that created another pair of questions: How to get the hundreds, even thousands, of different computers storing their own copies of the ledger to agree on when to update it, and what changes to add when updating?
Bitcoin offered an elegant solution to this problem, too. Whenever anyone wants to spend a bitcoin, they broadcast that intent to the network of ledger-keepers via the Internet. As each request comes in, each ledger-keeper computer checks its copy of the official record, to ensure that the spender’s identity is valid, that she actually has the correct amount available, and that she hasn’t spent it elsewhere already. If it looks good, each ledger-keeper adds the transaction to its own list of approved transactions that need to be added to its ledger in the next update. The ledger-keepers communicate about their individual approved lists; if a majority of them agree, the transaction is finalized and added to the shared official ledger. These checks and updates happen in computer software and encrypted communications across the Internet, and take only a few minutes.
Adding strength to this system is the fact that anyone can install the software on their computer to make it a ledger-keeper, receive their own copy of the ledger, and contribute to validation and verification of transactions. The ledger itself is fully public, showing which accounts sent how many bitcoins to which other accounts, and when.
Of course this raises the question of privacy. One of the things people like about physical cash is that it’s not particularly traceable. Bills have serial numbers, but most people don’t pay attention to those details, and it would be terribly hard to track any substantial sum. (See for an example of trying to track dollar bills’ physical movements.)
Because it’s so central to our lives (we don’t typically want to broadcast which doctors we go to, how often, nor how much we pay them, for instance) privacy is also a cornerstone of traditional electronic payments: We trust the merchants and banks to keep our information away from wrongdoers. (The recent, and ongoing, revelations about card-system hacking at Target offer a warning against being too trusting that way.) At the very least, though, merchants and banks don’t publish their transactions online for all to see.
But that is exactly what the Bitcoin system proposed doing.
Satoshi Nakamoto had a solution for this, too: Every account would have a pseudonym in this new currency system, and everyone could create and use as many accounts (and pseudonyms) as they wanted. The ledger would store the pseudonyms of the sender and receiver (not their real identities), and the ledger-keeping software would confirm through secure encrypted communication that the people using those pseudonyms were the people who had created them, by comparing digital signatures stored when the account was created against the digital signature presented during a transaction. (For those who wish to dig deeper into how a publicly available ledger can store a signature in a way that is truly secured so only one person can sign it, look into public-key cryptography. There’s enough reading online to occupy the rest of your days.)
This seemed to solve all the problems that had faced digital currency: quick and easy transaction approvals, protection against counterfeiting and double-spending, privacy protections for buyers and sellers, and avoidance of a central authority that could steal everything on a whim.
The next trick was getting people to actually use it.
Bit-miningIn 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto released a software program, also called Bitcoin, that for the first time allowed users who installed it on their computers to begin operating as ledger-keepers on the fledgling Bitcoin network. The software was open-source, meaning anyone who wants to can read the actual programming code it uses, which lets tech-savvy types check to ensure the software does only what it says it does, and nothing else nefarious or bothersome (such as stealing your passwords or using your computer to send spam emails).
To encourage broad distribution of the software, and most importantly, large numbers of copies of its ledger, the system includes a reward for those people who offer their computers to serve as ledger-keepers. At the moment, those people receive, on occasion (based on an extremely complicated mathematical formula), some new bitcoins. This process is somewhat confusingly called “mining,” which is meant to evoke the idea that by doing some work (keeping the ledger, checking new transactions, and updating the ledger), new bitcoins are discovered, as one might mine a precious metal.
At any given moment, the number of ledger-keepers varies. People connect their computers to the internet and disconnect them; people turn off the Bitcoin software and turn it back on again. The system doesn’t care, as long as there are several connected, and there are lots.
It’s an analogy of convenience, and only works to a point; we advise not getting too caught up in mining or ledger-keeping. (If you’re a programmer with thousands of actual dollars just lying around, there’s plenty to learn and do along those lines; if not, best not to worry, but instead to know that large numbers of independent, security-minded, anti-fraud experts have checked out the system and been satisfied that it’s safe and secure, protected by the principles of mathematics that underlie computer cryptography and secure transmission of information. Also, it’s useful to know that when the rare problems have been found, they’ve been fixed quickly, easily, and without harm to innocent parties.)
Now, and increasingly into the future, those who spend the time, energy, expertise, and real-world expense (in electricity and computing power) to keep the ledger are paid not by “mined” bitcoins — the 21-millionth and final bitcoin will be mined in about the year 2140 — but by small fees added on top of ordinary everyday bitcoin transactions. There are somewhere around 12 million bitcoins in circulation right now.
Once the network was established, with several copies of the transaction ledger in place and the ledger-keeper programs communicating with each other, it became possible to actually spend bitcoins. That’s where you come in — and where the promise and problems all begin.
Money by numbersA bitcoin is, in reality, nothing more than a few pieces of electronic data. You can do silly things like print them out on pages of paper, or engrave them into metal (and people have), but their only useful form is electronic.
There are, for all practical purposes, only two ways to get bitcoins. First, you can buy them, in online exchanges that will take your dollars and give you bitcoins, the same way you might give your dollars to a bank in exchange for euros or yen before an overseas trip. (The exchange rate varies, just like those other currencies; its highest ever was in December, at over $1200 per bitcoin. The current price is around $800, though you can buy smaller increments without purchasing an entire bitcoin.)
Second, you can sell a product or service that’s desired by people, and accept bitcoins as payment. (You’ll likely have to accept other forms of payment too, just like stores that take cash, checks, and credit cards.) When you have a customer who wants to buy using bitcoins, you accept the payment. Simple as that. Among the major players already accepting bitcoins are online retail giants Tiger Direct and; so does the Sacramento Kings basketball team. EBay is considering accepting bitcoin bids and payments.
(The aforementioned “mining” is the third way to get bitcoins, and it’s extremely technical, expensive, and not particularly accessible to regular people. I’ve tried it, wouldn’t recommend it, and it’s generally accepted as appropriate only for techie types with a lot of actual dollars (and time) on their hands. Think of this system as the equivalent of the US Mint — it makes the actual physical money and enables a particular economic system, but we don’t know how and shouldn’t try it at home. There is one significant difference: Only a finite number of bitcoins can ever be made, unlike the almighty unlimited dollar.)
To truly understand how the Bitcoin system works, and where its strengths and weaknesses lie, we have to look at the mechanics of how money changes hands.
First, there’s the cash method, which is obvious. I give you a dollar bill, and you give me something I want in exchange. It’s immediate, private (nobody other than the two of us know it happened), and secure (you and I have both looked at the bill and agree it is a real dollar and not counterfeit). It also has the potential to be anonymous; even if you know the face of the person you handed a dollar to at the toll plaza, you have no idea what their name is, and they don’t know you either. If you ran into each other tomorrow, you probably wouldn’t recognize each other.
Next is the electronic method, which includes checks, credit cards, wire transfers, and pretty much everything else. In that situation, I have account data (sometimes printed on a check or magnetically encoded on a credit card) that connects me to a pile of dollars held electronically in a bank somewhere. I give you that information and the authorization to deduct one dollar from that pile, in exchange for which you give me something I want.
It seems simple, and is often instantaneous, but it’s actually very complicated  — and expensive. When I swipe a debit card at a store, for example, the merchant’s machine has to read the code and transmit it securely to a central authority, which checks its database to see which bank I’m with, and then contacts that bank to ask if I have a dollar available in my pile. The bank isn’t going to answer that question for just anyone — it should only answer it for me or people I authorize — so it needs to be sure the request is coming from a legitimate user. This can be done a few ways, one of which is to ask for my PIN code, which I have established secretly with the bank in advance. I enter my PIN, which is then transmitted and verified, and then my bank responds by saying (I hope) that I do have a dollar available. Because it has received authorization from me (in the form of my PIN), my bank also sends a message along telling the store that it will transfer the dollar to the merchant’s account.
The cost adds up. Each of those steps takes electricity; some of them require specific equipment (the card-swiper, PIN-entry device, for example); others require high-speed data networks. Of course, the banks charge for their services, and for playing the middle-man in this transaction. And since every step is recorded electronically, it’s hard to keep transactions untraceable or anonymous.
The Bitcoin system throws all of that away, leaving an interaction much more like the cash transaction, but handled electronically — making it unnecessary to carry around large amounts of cash, as well as enabling transactions across distances.
Bitcoin will destroy the worldGovernments don’t like cash; it’s hard to trace, anonymous, and secure. Digital cash (which is essentially what bitcoins are) is even worse: It can travel instantly anywhere, and lacks things like serial numbers that can allow tracking, even after the fact.
Financial writer Cameron Keng posted on the charge that “Bitcoin represents more of the same short-sighted capitalism that got us into this mess, minus the accountability.” (Of course, the accountability was laughable.)
Software engineer and writer Alex Payne has called the Bitcoin system “a marriage of dubious technology and questionable economics wrapped up in a crypto-libertarian political agenda,” which encompasses pretty much all of the criticisms of bitcoins.
He’s not talking about the time-tested technology of public-key cryptography, which the Bitcoin system uses to verify identities. Rather he’s expressing concern about the nature of the public ledger and the software by which it is maintained and updated. It is true that this arrangement is entirely new — it is, in fact, the major breakthrough of the Bitcoin system. And it’s true that it has flaws: In August 2010, someone figured out a way to spend the same coin multiple times; that counterfeiting attempt was detected, stopped, and reversed, but it does suggest there may be other vulnerabilities yet undiscovered.
The economics question is based on the concept of “money supply,” which is a tool by which centralized economies influence key aspects of their markets, such as interest rates. When the US Federal Reserve wants to lower interest rates, for example, it creates money out of thin air and then offers it cheaply to banks. If it wants to raise interest rates, it takes money out of circulation.
New York Times economics writer Paul Krugman wrote that having a currency with a limited total supply of money encourages hoarding, not spending, because scarcity makes the currency more valuable. (This is true, but it ignores the fact that bitcoins are almost infinitely indivisible into fractions far smaller than pennies, so while the total supply of money is limited at the top, it is effectively unlimited in terms of how many people can have, use, and exchange bitcoins.)
The “crypto-libertarian political agenda” Payne scorns calls attention to the perspective of some bitcoin fans: Because it’s new, because it’s independent of governments, and because it’s Internet-based, some people have expressed hope that bitcoins will help them avoid taxation, regulation, or other outside meddling. Libertarian-in-chief Ron Paul has called bitcoins potential “destroyers of the dollar,” and plenty of libertarian types are excited about the idea of a currency that is not tied to any particular government.
Regulators in the United States and elsewhere are paying attention, and issuing statements about how they will treat bitcoins. (It varies significantly by country;  the United States said it would pay attention when dollars and bitcoins started to be interchanged — which is already happening, thereby beginning to attract government scrutiny.) Of course, government regulation and taxation helps pay for things like roads and fire departments, as well as limiting crime.
And oh yes, the crime. An online site called Silk Road is perhaps the poster child for the sort of crime made easier by verifiable (but anonymous) transactions over the Internet between total strangers. A clearinghouse for all sorts of illegal drugs, it was shut down by the FBI late last year; bitcoins were its currency. There is also a site that purportedly allows people to commission assassinations and pay via bitcoin. And of course there are plenty of other examples of ways bitcoins can be used nefariously.
There are other weaknesses: Transactions in bitcoins are not reversible in the way credit-card charges can be disputed and reversed. Of course refunds are possible, but only from the person you gave the money to. If an item is not as advertised, or never arrives, there is no third party available to handle a complaint or refund a buyer’s money.
And there are the costs. Running the ledger-keeping computers takes electricity, and the more computers are part of the network, the more it will require. It’s a fair claim, but usually avoids the fact that government money systems are also expensive: Pennies, for example, cost more than two cents each to mint. Printing dollars is more cost-effective: each new $100 bill costs just over 12 cents.
Of course, all this technology means bitcoins are not quite as populist as supporters might have you believe. Sure, they’re not beholden to governments, but to even use one you have to install a program on your computer to store and track your bitcoin holdings; when you do that, you’ll encounter all kinds of notices and alerts telling you that if you lose or forget the password to your Bitcoin-holding account, the bitcoins themselves will be lost forever, These are not the sorts of messages that embolden non-tech-savvy types to continue and engage with the system.
Bitcoin will save the worldDespite all of those problems and potential downfalls, there is a lot of promise, much of it based on a key distinction, made by money-technology writer David Wolman (a college friend of mine) in Wired magazine: There are two ways to use the word bitcoin.
First is as a unit of currency and exchange, as in “This item costs 1.2 bitcoins.”
And there is significant promise in this arena. Chris Dixon, a venture-capitalist investor in Silicon Valley, notes that the payment industry is massive, with people paying $500 billion a year in fees just to move their money from one place to another. Distributing the work of handling transactions, and reducing identity fraud in the bargain, could substantially reduce those fees.
For most people, bitcoins would be an easy intermediary. They could buy bitcoins with dollars, send the bitcoins somewhere else cheaply, and the recipient would convert the bitcoins into their own local currency. Using the Bitcoin system would solve the problems of high-cost transactions that sometimes take days to process, especially in the massive sector that is remittances to developing countries from workers in developed countries who send huge chunks of their earnings home.
For people who worry about government overreaching its power a bit more, it solves the problem of having someone else control their money, with the ability to seize or freeze it. And using bitcoins could help avoid the issues that arose when major payment-processing companies were pressured by the US government to stop transferring funds to WikiLeaks, in an attempt to deprive that whistleblower organization of financial support.
As several security researchers have pointed out — and a goodly number of self-appointed investigative teams have proven — Bitcoin is not anonymous. In fact, it’s barely pseudonymous. After the feds shut down Silk Road, the site’s bitcoins were consolidated in one account. Since all the transactions are public, it didn’t take much effort to go from reading the FBI media announcements saying 26,000 bitcoins had been seized, to checking the ledger to watch as a brand-new account suddenly filled up with just that amount.
(This led to a hilariously ironic development: Because all the transactions are public in the ledger, and because there’s an option to send a message with a payment, all sorts of anti-government types started sending the feds tiny amounts of bitcoin — yes, giving the feds their money, just for the privilege of sending them a rude message.)
But beyond these financial advantages, there is another way to think about, and use, Bitcoin.
The Bitcoin system is, Wolman writes, “more than just a currency; it’s an open-source protocol.”
Marc Andreesen, co-author of the very first web-browser program and now a venture capitalist, wrote recently in the New York Times that Bitcoin is a major development, solving a longstanding problem: “how to establish trust between otherwise unrelated parties over an untrusted network like the Internet. The practical consequence of solving this problem is that Bitcoin gives us, for the first time, a way for one Internet user to transfer a unique piece of digital property to another Internet user, such that the transfer is guaranteed to be safe and secure, everyone knows that the transfer has taken place, and nobody can challenge the legitimacy of the transfer. The consequences of this breakthrough are hard to overstate.”
And they are just being explored. Trumpeted by Wired as an “NSA-Proof Twitter,” a new system called Twister has emerged, combining the encryption and identity confirmation of Bitcoin with the peer-to-peer connection-management system of BitTorrent (which allows multiple computers to exchange information rapidly and efficiently over the Internet) to create a vastly distributed social network that cannot be taken down by malicious governments or corporations. This would be a great boon to people in places like Iran or San Francisco, where authorities have shut down access to Twitter in an attempt to quell public protests. Other uses are just being imagined now, and will no doubt be developed and tested soon. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Righting Wrongs: Pressure builds to close Guantanamo

Published in the Portland Phoenix

After years of delay, nearly 150 inmates still held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba may have improved hopes of getting released before they die. Human-rights groups are calling for the release process to accelerate, expressing gratitude that the government has made even a little bit of progress, while demanding prosecution of those who approved the use of torture against the detainees held at Guantanamo.
This month marks 12 years since the first inmates arrived there, and nearly five years since President Barack Obama signed an executive order calling for its closure. But the prison is still operating, holding people who were captured overseas and were at one time suspected of some sort of terrorist intention or action against the United States.
“Most of the people at Guantanamo have never been charged, let alone convicted, with any crime,” says Zeke Johnson, director of the security and human rights program at Amnesty International’s US headquarters in New York.
Of the 155 inmates still there, 77 have been cleared by US authorities for release — in some cases the clearance happened many years ago  — but have not yet been transferred out of the camp. Most of those are Yemenis whose home country is very unstable, which leads US officials to fear they would return to terrorist activities if they were sent there.
Another American fear has also delayed releases: the cruelly ironic concern that, if released, some of the inmates would be treated inhumanely upon their return home. So, the US rationale has been that it is somehow better to keep them in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day for years on end than to potentially risk their safety elsewhere.
In March 2011, Obama set up a Periodic Review Board that was to look at the cases of inmates who had not been previously cleared for release; that board issued its first decision last week, declaring that a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden was no longer a threat to the United States, and could therefore be released  — just as soon as a suitable country was found to accept him. Unfortunately, the man, Mahmoud Abd Al Aziz Al Mujahid is Yemeni, so he may not be going anywhere anytime soon.
There are 70 other inmates whose cases will be reviewed in the coming months, though again, their chances of actual release are questionable. But under the latest National Defense Reauthorization Act, signed into law last month, Obama has greater flexibility to determine who can be released. “He really needs to pick up the pace,” Johnson says, to bring inmates to a fair trial in federal court or to release them.
The president’s ability to do that remains limited, though; Congress continues to block any efforts to bring detainees to the US, even for further detention and trial.
Meanwhile, six men are facing trial under the military commission system created by Obama in 2009; that system has been criticized for failing to uphold international standards of fair and open trials.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture mobilized late last week to call once again for the closing of Guantanamo, and to encourage Obama to step up his efforts under his new powers.
Amnesty International (which in 2008 brought a replica of a Guantanamo cell to Portland; see “A Night in Guantanamo,” by Jeff Inglis, June 20, 2008) made similar statements, and issued a six-page report condemning the existence of the prison and the American treatment of its inmates as counter to international law and human-rights standards, including those to which the United States holds other countries.
The report also called for prosecutions of those who authorized and conducted torture against Guantanamo inmates; despite admissions that officials as high as President George W. Bush authorized torture, no Americans have been charged with crimes in connection with the treatment of inmates there. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Neutrinos: A little-noticed breakthrough lets scientists see the distant cosmos like never before

Published on GlobalPost

PORTLAND, Maine — Imagine being one of the very first humans, tens of thousands of years ago, to actually look up at the night sky. You’d see dozens of lights and other sights, with no understanding of what they were, where they were, or anything else. You might think they were just “pinholes in the curtain of night.”
Only after centuries of study, with the invention of countless increasingly complex devices to peer into the sky, can we say we know anything at all about planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole.
But a recent scientific discovery has brought us back to that very first night: to the very beginning of our exploration, and to the realization of just how rudimentary our knowledge is.
After decades of searching, scientists have detected high-energy subatomic particles originating from previously unknown sources in the universe.
The particles themselves aren't news. Neutrinos — nearly massless, charge-less byproducts of radioactive decay — were first theorized in 1930 and first detected in 1956 during nuclear experiments on Earth.
Since then, we have learned that neutrinos are literally everywhere. In the time it takes to read this sentence, about 700 trillion of them run through your body. Almost all of the neutrinos scientists have detected originated either from the Sun, from the Earth’s atmosphere, or from man-made nuclear activities.
However, an almost impossibly tiny proportion come from the far reaches of the universe. Tracing those neutrinos' movements offers the possibility of greatly expanding our understanding of the cosmos.
For more than a decade, a research project called IceCube has sought to do just that — to detect neutrinos from outside our galactic neighborhood, using a cubic-kilometer detector embedded in the Antarctic ice sheet.
A paper published in the journal Science revealed late last year that IceCube had detected 28 of the particles.
And that’s rocked the physics world.
These minuscule particles from distant sources are analogous to the light emitted by the first stars ever seen by human eyes.
Because they are so tiny and electrically neutral, neutrinos “can travel at nearly the speed of light from the edge of the universe without being deflected by magnetic fields or absorbed by matter,” according to IceCube’s explanatory webpage.
Most vitally, “they travel in straight lines from their source,” which means when we "detect them here on Earth, we can calculate where they came from, like a laser pointer aimed back out into space,” said Francis Halzen, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who directs IceCube.
“At the moment we don’t know what we’re mapping,” he added.
Still, the accomplishment is significant, in that it may lead to the discovery of more distant parts of the cosmos than we have ever known. It could even lead to new fields of physics. Some scientists suspect these extra-galactic neutrinos may be able to tell us more about the heretofore invisible “dark matter” that many believe makes up most of the mass of the universe.
Very high-energy neutrinos, like the 28 detected by IceCube, are as much as billion times more energetic than those commonly found here on Earth. They are thought to come from supernovas and black holes, but nobody is sure yet.
“The energy requirements of these sources are so large” that theorists’ imaginations are being stretched to come up with possible explanations, Halzen said. “We are really looking at the violent processes” of the universe.
Halzen has spent most of his career searching for neutrinos and trying to explain their origins, and not even he knows what we’ll find.
IceCube is only the first glance from the first “eye” ever to look at the sky in this way. “It’s like a map of the universe with 28 pixels,” he said. “That’s a lot of emptiness.”
Finding even these few neutrinos has taken decades of innovation and science. As far back as the 1970s, Halzen said, it was clear that finding high-energy neutrinos would require a massive detector.
Scientists thought that using a cubic kilometer of ice in the South Polar Plateau could be a way to achieve this. They embedded equipment in the ice, setting up a grid of deep holes and inserting long strings with detectors at regular intervals. The goal of wiring this massive cube was to detect tiny light pulses emitted when, at extremely rare intervals, a neutrino actually hit a piece of matter.
In 1999, your correspondent witnessed an early, small-scale test of the idea at the South Pole. Using hot-water hoses to “drill” the holes that house the equipment, a detector was built just 1 percent of the size of IceCube's. The effort consumed massive quantities of fuel to power huge water heaters near the South Pole. When that project — called AMANDA, for Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array — proved the concept was valid, construction began on the larger IceCube. It only finished in December 2010.
Now the task is to keep adding to the neutrino map, in part with IceCube, but also by finding more efficient means of detecting high-energy neutrinos, Halzen said. As that picture comes into sharper focus, physicists and astronomers can compare it with other maps of the universe, including those marking known locations of black holes, pulsars, and supernovas.
Right now, “there’s nothing that stands out” as matching up, Halzen said, though it’s obviously quite early in the process.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Transitions: Goodbye, hello

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With this issue, managing editor Jeff Inglis departs after more than eight years with the Portland Phoenix, and turns the reins over to Deirdre Fulton, who has been the paper’s full-time staff writer since 2007.
I’ve largely shied away from writing about myself in these pages because a newspaper isn’t about its editor, nor its staff. It’s about its readers, and the community they share. I’ve made occasional exceptions to the no-me rule for newsworthy angles on important topics; see, for example, “A Night in Guantanamo,” June 20, 2008; and “In My Rights Mind,” September 21, 2012. I hope you’ll pardon me another, to share my own brief perspective on the past eight-plus years I’ve spent shepherding the shared treasure that is thePortland Phoenix.
Things I’m proudest ofOur first-person articles bringing oft-unheard voices to important debates about abortion, rape survival, and long-term unemployment.
Our years-long scoop (still unchallenged by any Maine media outlets), a multiple-award-winning series, uncovering torture in the Maine State Prison, which has resulted in markedly improved treatment for mentally ill people who have ended up in the criminal-justice system.
Something I’m not proud ofNot explaining clearly enough how terrible FairPoint’s takeover of Verizon’s landlines would be for Mainers; the deal was approved by regulators who claimed it would be “in the public interest.” Now thousands of Mainers suffer bad phone and Internet service at high cost, and all the rest of us are being asked to open our wallets to prop up outdated landline technology, instead of preparing for the future by funding high-speed Internet connectivity.
Things still unfinishedMaine’s Democrats still act an awful lot like Maine’s Republicans (and vice-versa), but our paper’s repeated shaming of both political parties for catering to the interests of the wealthy and out-of-state corporations, and their sustained collective neglect for regular Maine people, has begun to help progressives gain ground in Augusta, and possibly even in searches for higher positions.
We and many others are still debunking the war on the poor Governor Paul LePage is waging (which by the way began under elephant-in-donkey’s-clothes John Baldacci), bolstering the principle that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers — and that corporate welfare should be a real, and fruitful, target for those who truly wish to root out government fraud, waste, and abuse.
People I’m grateful to
The staff, full-time and freelance, of the Portland Phoenix
. There are too many to name them, but they know who they are and what they have meant to me, to our efforts, and to our readers. Three standout long-term mentors, collaborators, and partners must be named, though: former executive editor Peter Kadzis, the late senior managing editor Clif Garboden, and incoming managing editor Deirdre Fulton. I’m thrilled to be leaving you in her hands, and her in yours.
And most of all, all of you, our readers and community members, for caring about thePortland Phoenix, for reading it, for thinking and talking about what we write, and yes even for criticizing us when you wish we had done better. Without you, there’d be nothing to write about, nothing to say, and nobody to read our words. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Press Releases: Whining is losing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Eliot Cutler is trying to present himself as a serious candidate for governor, three years after coming in second to Republican Paul LePage, but he and his media team need to step up their game.
Just two months ago, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud masterfully manipulated the state’s media coverage of his announcement that he is gay (see “Getting Spun, by Jeff Inglis, November 15, 2013).
In part because of that news, nobody was surprised when EqualityMaine (the state’s largest group promoting equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Mainers — and one with coveted grassroots energy) endorsed Michaud’s candidacy for the Blaine House last week.
There was no chance EQME would endorse LePage, and the governor’s response to the endorsement reflected mutual disinterest: In typical non-sequitur fashion, it was about jobs.
But Cutler, the independent, was clearly hurt by the choice, issuing a lengthy statement from his campaign’s press office that called the decision “partisan” — as if a political endorsement was supposed to be otherwise! He also enlisted former state senator Dennis Damon (a big player in this state’s fight for marriage equality) to write an opinion piece in the Bangor Daily News extolling the virtues of Cutler’s financial generosity toward that movement and other issues of importance to LGBT people.
And while he told WGAN radio on Monday that he didn’t want to make it a campaign issue, Cutler’s repeated complaints that someone else got an important endorsement seemed to suggest otherwise, though the campaign did distance itself from a Tuesday event set up by supporters to whine some more.
The whole thing was a silly overreaction that promptly got Cutler stung as a weak whiner. Michaud’s spokesman, David Farmer, went straight for the jugular, saying Cutler’s response showed his “true colors” as “a Washington lawyer (who) if he doesn’t get what he wants, he attacks.”
Facebook comments were withering. Even Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, joined a comment thread on Democratic activist Jill Barkley’s page, saying “I have never seen or heard of Mr. Cutler testifying or writing letters or cutting ads on marriage or equality issues (or other issues) over the many years they have been debated, including those early years when only a handful of legislators of either party openly supported the legislation. Mr. Cutler has been out of touch and hors de combat.” (Which, for those who haven’t recently brushed up on their French idioms, literally means “outside the fight.”)
Some might say that in landing the endorsement, Michaud had successfully spun not just the press but also the activist community; that seems unlikely, given the level of vocal debate about the unfortunate truth that during Michaud’s time in the state legislature, he voted 19 times against bills that would have moved LGBT Mainers toward equality.
Rather, the choice seems to have been one based on image for EqualityMaine, and there are three important factors the group must have considered. First, of course, is its relationship with the Democratic party structure, which is pushing Michaud hard as a better-than-Cutler option for anybody-but-LePage voters. Bucking that organization could have been politically expensive.
Second must have been the very fact that Cutler has given EQME thousands of dollars, which certainly would have led to accusations that he had purchased the endorsement if it had gone his way. No group wants to appear as if its support is for sale.
And third is the incredible symbolism of working to elect the nation’s first openly gay governor. (New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey doesn’t count; he came out seconds before announcing his resignation.) There’s simply no way EQME could have been expected to back any other candidate; imagine history’s judgement of a gay-rights organization that didn’t support a gay candidate in such a landmark-possibility race.
Cutler apparently either failed to grasp these basic points, or, more likely, didn’t think of them while tied up in his frustration at not getting the support of a very powerful grassroots organization. Did he think, perhaps, that he should have given EQME more money? Or that he’d wasted what he’d sent?
In any case, his response forgot the first rule of campaigning (“If you’re talking about the other person, you’re losing”) and made him seem petty and hypersensitive. It also reinforced the Democratic narrative that Cutler is a fringe sideshow trying to steal the limelight (and the Blaine House) for his own glory.
But there is a silver lining: If Cutler can’t grow a thicker skin, it’ll be a hoot to watch his reactions once LePage starts campaigning in earnest. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Billing Dept.: FairPoint wants bigger subsidies, from all Mainers

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Still struggling merely to provide the lowest quality landline telephone service in Maine, FairPoint Communications has now picked a fight with its competitors in the telecommunications industry by asking state regulators to charge non-FairPoint phone customers in Maine as much as $5 per month each to keep the company afloat — even if those people don’t use landlines at all.
FairPoint has always been up against a wall, since it highly leveraged itself to buy the assets of Verizon’s Northern New England operations in 2008, a deal only approved by regulators in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont because of the company’s promises to invest in expanding high-speed Internet connectivity and hiring skilled workers to support its services. (See “A Bad Idea Triumphs,” by Jeff Inglis, February 29, 2008.)
Well before the deal was approved, the Portland Phoenix revealed that the company planned to lay off four percent of workers every year, including some who had been recently hired; see “No Raises — It Gets Better,” by Jeff Inglis, November 20, 2007.)
After the deal was closed, the transition from Verizon to FairPoint was repeatedly delayed and rife with problems, including multiple failures to connect an unknown number of 9-1-1 calls to emergency services workers. (See “We Told You So,” by Jeff Inglis, July 4, 2008.)
And then in 2010, FairPoint declared bankruptcy. While under protection of a federal court, it strong-armed state regulators into granting permission to slow the Internet rollout. (See “FairPoint’s Struggles Continue,” by Jeff Inglis, September 3, 2010.)
This latest request, though, is the first to ask for financial support from those beyond its actual customer base — including tens of thousands of Mainers who do not use FairPoint’s services at all.
In June, FairPoint claimed that its so-called “service of last resort” (phone service where no other option is available) costs too much to provide to customers without additional help, and asked the Maine Public Utilities Commission for permission to raise prices $2 per month on its customers, and also for millions from the state’s Universal Service Fund, which is supported by all telecommunications customers, including cellular and cable subscribers.
The state’s USF collection now totals $7.8 million a year, according to William Black, deputy at the Office of the Public Advocate, which represents the people of Maine in utilities-regulation proceedings. FairPoint’s request would mean the fund would need to collect $67 million more, all from surcharges to customers — most of whom do not use FairPoint, and many of whom have actually transferred away from FairPoint in search of better service.
State service-quality reports show that FairPoint (including its subsidiaries) is worst at missing appointments among all telephone companies in the state, has the longest average delay as a result of missed appointments, and has the second-highest average of problems not being solved within 24 hours (behind tiny Island Telephone Company, based in Warren).
Jeff Nevins, FairPoint’s spokesman in Maine, did not return calls, and so was unable to answer questions about whether service would improve as a result of the requested investment, nor why people who left FairPoint should be asked to improve the company’s service to its remaining customers.
Wayne Jortner, senior counsel at the Office of the Public Advocate, says usually a company in FairPoint’s circumstances would ask for an increase in customer rates; he says FairPoint hasn’t done so for fear higher prices would drive away even more customers. That’s what has led to the company’s request to use USF money — spreading the cost across all Mainers with telephones.
The dispute has intensified in November and December, with the five major cellular companies (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular) filing objections to FairPoint’s request with the PUC, as has TimeWarner Cable, which also operates a telephone service over its cable Internet connections.
The decision process will run through July, with hearings slated in late May; Jortner and Black have requested the PUC hold public-testimony sessions around the state before making a final decision.
FairPoint’s request to use USF money for landline service runs counter to a current trend in telecommunications regulation: Federal USF money is now being transitioned away from subsidizing rural and high-cost phone service, in favor of expanding high-speed Internet access throughout the country. (Compared to other developed, tech-savvy countries, the US has significantly slower Internet speed at substantially higher costs, according to regular annual surveys by international Internet backbone giant Akamai.)
The state USF money is managed separately, Jortner says, with no such obligation to invest in future technology over dwindling legacy services.
Public comments to the Maine Public Utilities Commission are welcome at all times, via or by mail to 18 State House Station, Augusta ME 04333. This request is in docket 2013-00340.