Newspaper Column: Smart Meters and Wiretapping

Older US residential electric meter location, ...

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The Central Committee of the Bonneville Republican Party has lately become concerned with, and passed a resolution against, smart meter installation by Idaho Falls Power. Their concerns have been dismissed both by this newspaper and by Jackie Flowers, head of Idaho Falls Power.

I believe that their concerns about privacy and wiretapping are not overblown. It is possible to tell what someone is doing in their house, even down to which television show they are watching (according to a study by the Münster University of Applied Sciences or for the original German), with smart meters.

I do not believe that Idaho Falls Power is deliberately installing smart meters in people’s homes to spy on them. However, I also do not believe that Idaho Falls Power is doing enough to reassure customers that the smart meter data will not be misused.

When I spoke to an Idaho Falls Power employee, Mark Reed, in 2009, about smart meters, he was quite reassuring that the utility would never misuse the data from the smart meters. However, one aspect that we did not discuss, because I had not thought about it enough, was that the smart meter data is radio-transmitted and can theoretically be read by anyone with a receiver to receive that frequency. I have since learned that smart meters usually have little or no security for their data transmissions, so it’s easy for others to obtain.

Many people dismiss concerns about smart meter privacy by saying there is no conspiracy among utilities and city government or police to find out what citizens are doing in their homes. I would agree, but without proper security for the radio transmissions, anyone with the proper (easily obtainable) equipment can read them. Do you want your neighbor to know which TV shows you watch? I start seedlings for my garden with a heat mat – what if a busybody concluded the spike in my electrical consumption combined with purchases of potting soil meant I was growing marijuana?

Smart meters are probably the wave of the future, but we do not have to blindly accept them without safeguards. Why is Idaho Falls Power so secretive about the security levels of the smart meters? Until they can clearly explain why my personal data is not at risk with a smart meter, I for one don’t want a smart meter.

This column originally appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on December 14, 2011.


Since I wrote this column, it has come to my attention that some people have serious concerns about the health risks of smart meters. In California, they have organized a group called Stop Smart Meters. Here is an article about them in the San Francisco Chronicle: PG&E SmartMeter draws customer rebellion.


Newspaper Column: Social Security and the Destruction of Hope

Medicare & Social Security Deficits Chart

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Lately I have been seeing a lot of people writing and complaining that Social Security should not be lumped in with the rest of the national budget and debt for cuts, because it has its own trust fund and so is separate from the rest of the national budget.

This is true to a certain extent. However, what these people aren’t saying is that all of Social Security’s trust fund has been lent to the rest of the federal government. Therefore, it is only available for Social Security in the event that the federal government does not default on its debt. In a hypothetical situation as was being discussed at the end of July, if the federal government runs out of money because Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, there is no separate pot of money for Social Security to tap for its checks. In that event, the only money Social Security would have is the current money being paid in by current workers, which would not cover its obligations to retirees.

I hate to tell this to the baby boomers who believe that nothing is wrong with Social Security, but if nothing is done about it, the trust fund will be exhausted by 2036. In a 2011 report, the trustees of the fund wrote, “(a)nnual cost is projected to exceed non-interest income in 2011. … However, total income, including interest earnings on trust fund assets, will be sufficient to cover annual cost until 2023. The dollar level of the combined trust funds is projected to be drawn down beginning in 2023 until assets are exhausted in 2036.” After the trust fund is exhausted, then obligations to retirees must be met by current worker payments, which are insufficient due to the size of the baby boomer generation and increasing longevity.

If nothing is done to fix Social Security (e.g. making income over $250,000 subject to payroll tax as Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested), there is no way it can pay to the baby boomers’ children the money they have been promised. By closing your eyes to the future, you are sponging off your children and destroying any hope they have of getting back the money they are paying into Social Security.

This column was first published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on September 1, 2011.

Newspaper Column: Artificial Intelligence

Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons (also kn...

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Note: I wrote this column with my husband, Josh.

In May of 1997, the computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion. In February of 2011, the computer Watson beat the world Jeopardy champions. Someday in the future, humans such as you and I will probably not be the smartest beings on Earth.

Martin Hilbert and Priscila López, in a 2011 paper in the journal Science, estimate that the total computing ability of the world’s computers passed the computational ability of a single human brain in 2007. They also estimate that the combined computing power of humanity’s general-purpose computers have been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 58% between 1986 and 2007. While it is difficult to compare human brains with computer computation with precision, the Hilbert and López calculation, if anything, appears to be over-estimating the computing power of a single brain, so the combined power of human computers very well may have passed a single human earlier than 2007. In short, humanity could very well already create a computing system that was smarter than any human if we just connect enough existing computers and knew how to program it.

Every day, there are computer scientists working to create computers that search the Internet better, that can identify photos and people in those photos, that can create reports for humans from knowledge found on the Internet, cars that tell their owners when they need maintenance, and so forth. Every computer that is created to be better at interacting with humans and bringing humans the knowledge they search for brings closer the day of truly intelligent computers and robots that are smarter than humans.

We believe two things are almost inevitable: Intelligent computers and that they will not obey us. We have no reliable way to keep intelligent robots from turning on us ― we can’t make something more intelligent than humans our slaves (at least not for long). And if you think they can be programmed not to hurt us, think about how many bugs are in the average computer program, which is much less complicated. Most people think in terms of Utopia when thinking of robots ― we can make them do what we want when we want ― in reality they will be much too powerful. The more we expect from our computers the closer we bring the day of reckoning ― smarter than human artificial intelligence. Is this a good thing?

How it turns out for humanity depends on how the artificial intelligence treats us. This relationship could range from the robots being helpful when they wish to the robots attempting to destroy us. We don’t know how it will all play out but we think this needs to be discussed more.

The above essay was originally published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on June 16, 2011.

Additional Comments by Josh:
Human brains seem to be made up of components that are much bigger than comparable computer components. Human brains are much more efficient energy wise. Therefore, all that may be required for smarter than human robots is an increase in energy efficiency, without any more improvements in computing speed or size. Note also that since electric signals can move at the speed of light (3e8 m/s), 1.5 million times faster than nerve impulses, so a computer could be over 100 miles long and still have communication across it as fast as a human brain.

The belief that humans can somehow contain computers, either by limiting their actions through programming or by limiting their access to physical control, is probably incorrect. Think about how many loopholes are in things like human laws, and remember that lawyers are only human. Limiting the robots (such as by providing them only with a computer monitor for output) would only last until the computer managed to either trick a human into doing something that seems innocuous, or they manage to do something else tricky (such as perhaps using tempest radiation for radio transmission and receiving).

The way I think about a intelligent computer, is that it could do the kinds of thinking that a human could do, just faster. So imagine you could ask a hundred people a question. They think about it, and then come up with an answer. So a computer with a hundred times the computational ability of a human would be able to think as fast as a hundred people, except it would probably be even faster since it could coordinate a response better. So a question that would take an hour to answer would be answered in about half a minute.

Humans do take care of less intelligent animals, but we call them pets.

It might be possible to avoid having smarter than human computers (if everyone were Amish, this would not be a problem), but this would require serious restrictions on technology. Basically, this would require restricting the total computational power of humanity. If the computational power is not restricted, then it becomes possible that someone could accidentally create an intelligent computer.

An intelligent malevolent computer connected to the internet could do serious damage. Most of humanity’s industrial capacity is connected to the internet in some way. Almost all of humanity’s telecommunications capacity is connected to the internet.

One key question is how soon human level intelligent computers appear. If Hilbert and López are correct that humanity had the computational power of a human in 2007, and this continues to grow at 58% a year, then every 5 years, the computational power grows by about a factor of 10 (1.58^5 = 9.8). So in 2012, the world computational power is 10 human brains, in 2017 it is 100 times, in 2022 it is 1000 times, in 2027 it is 10,000 times. Diverting 1/1000 of human’s computers is much easier than diverting 100% of the the computers.

Technical Appendix

Nerve speeds: ~100 m/s ~200 m/h

The Control of Neuron Number. Robert W. Williams and Karl Herrup, 2001,

300 neurons – nematode worms ( Caenorhabditis elegans )

Human brain – at least 10 billion neurons, perhaps as many as 1 trillion, most likely 95–100 billion neurons

Complexity of neuturons: Probably not that great. Just three differential equations in the Hindmarsh-Rose model.

Size of Neurons:
Soma: 4 to 100 micrometers ( and )

Axon and dendrites: 1 micrometer thick.

Size of computer chip components (feature size):
45 nanometers (0.045 micrometers) (’s_law)

Computer processing power and growth rate:
6.4e18 instructions per second in 2007

Comparable to 10e17 nerve impulses in one human brain per second.

Growing 58% compounding annual growth rate since 1986

The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information
Martin Hilbert and Priscila López
Science 332, 60 (2011);
DOI: 10.1126/science.1200970

Newspaper Column: War and Mother’s Day

Julia Ward Howe

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In the aftermath of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe had an idea. If enough mothers prayed and worked for peace, would it bring about the end of war? And so began the celebration of Mother’s Day.

Over one hundred years later, we know that mothers praying for peace was not enough. Mother’s Day has been co-opted by the corporations as another day to buy stuff, and war has not ended.

How many people have died by violence since that day in 1870 when Mrs. Howe published her proclamation, which ends:

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Of course, such a congress of women never convened.

Last week, after almost ten years of hunting him, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan. His death or capture was most definitely necessary. But I believe that his death was not a blow for peace, but a further encouragement to those who believe that violence is the answer.

Today in the United States, women and men are considered equal, with no thought in public life given to any differences between them. But at the time of Mrs. Howe’s proclamation, men and women were considered to have separate spheres of influence and abilities. In asking women to convene for peace, she was asking them to leave the sphere of female influence, the household, and enter the sphere of male influence, public life.

There are people today who would be upset I assigned to men alone the willingness to kill for power and revenge. A belief in separate spheres of influence extending into public life and excluding women from the political life of this country died many decades ago with the advent of the suffragists, the right to vote, and feminism.

I do believe, however, and you may agree with me, that there are some areas in which men tend to feel more comfortable than women. One of those areas is violence. There are more men in prison than women, and more men in prison for violent offenses than women. So how can all of us peace-loving folk, both men and women, achieve peace when other men are striving for violence?

There are no easy answers, but, please, be peaceful in your own heart, and make your own place a peaceful one, and peace will grow in the world.

Newspaper Column: Wikileaks

United States Capitol building

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Don’t ask me why it was top secret, or even restricted; our government has gotten the habit of classifying anything as secret which the all-wise statesmen and bureaucrats decide we are not big enough girls and boys to know, a Mother-Knows-Best-Dear policy. I’ve read that there used to be a time when a taxpayer could demand the facts on anything and get them. I don’t know; it sounds Utopian.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (1951), chapter 24

If the United States was ever such a Utopia, it isn’t now. The Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971, and are still classified. Does it matter? Ordinary citizens can certainly read them. Think again. Are you an ordinary citizen? Not if you work for the federal government or a contractor for the federal government and have a security clearance.

The same rules apply to all the classified diplomatic materials recently leaked by WikiLeaks. The federal government has warned everyone with a clearance not to read Wikileaks documents or talk about their content, or read their content in other venues. Occasionally, more extreme measures have been taken, such as the Army blocking major news websites, such as the website of the New York Times, that publish the material.

The government has a right to protect its information. But the government has spectacularly failed to protect its information, and now it is widely read and discussed, except by the United States government employees. This is pointless, and in some cases, damaging to U.S. interests.

As a Department of Homeland Security official put it (quoted on the Federation of American Scientists Secrecy Project blog:,

If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don’t, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we’ve been intentionally left out of the information loop.

One could argue that government employees, and employees of government contractors, are the people in this country most informed about government affairs. How can we formulate effective policy and make good, democratic decisions if they are muzzled and cannot contribute to public discussions?

What kind of government doesn’t want to be talked about? Not one I want to live in. A democratic government retains the right to withhold certain information to protect its citizens and its interests. But those rights should be exercised judiciously. When the information is no longer protected, then anyone should be able to discuss it.

This column first appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on March 29, 2011.

Newspaper Column: Rally I Attended

Last Saturday I spent two hours standing out on the Broadway Bridge, exercising my First Amendment rights. I and over four dozen other people held a rally for the anti-bullying and human rights legislation that will be introduced in the Idaho Legislature this session. It was great to see so many people willing to brave the cold and come out and show their support for this legislation and sign cards to be sent to local legislators. This rally was in coordination with other rallies across Idaho, and there were people all across the state holding vigils, rallies, and meetings in favor of this legislation on Saturday.

This is not the first rally on the bridge I have done, and while it is almost always cold and usually windy, I always come away feeling empowered. It feels so good to know that I am doing my own small part in keeping our democracy running.

I think that a democracy hinges on the will of the people to do two things. One, and this is the most important, vote. If you do nothing else, vote! Two, participate in non-violent rallies, protests, and demonstrations. It is up to the people to let our elected officials know our will, and that we are paying attention to what they are up to. Letter writing is great, and there was a component of that in Saturday’s rally, but I think there is nothing better for elected officials to see than that there is a group of people willing to give up some of their time and energy to making their voices heard.

I want to talk a little now about the specific legislation inspiring this rally. Some people might argue that we don’t need anti-bullying legislation, that the solution to the problem is to enforce existing assault laws and not make new laws for every problem. Some people don’t like to see the state reaching into the schools and dictating behavior there.

To the first argument, as I understand the proposed legislation, it will not preclude existing laws from being enforced, but rather tell school districts that they must have and enforce anti-bullying policies in the schools. Most bullying does not begin with actions that would be prosecutable under assault laws, but with something much more subtle and hidden, that should be addressed by school policies before it reaches the level of assault.

To the second argument, as long as the government is setting up and funding schools (aka public schools), then the government and the state have the right to pass laws mandating certain policies and behaviors in the schools, as long as those are consistent with the Constitution and other existing laws.

This column originally appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on February 2, 2011.

Newspaper Column: Why does the working class scorn healthcare reform?

US residents with employer-based private healt...

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There is a mystery puzzling me lately. How have the poor and working class of this country and this state been persuaded that the people fighting against healthcare reform are on their side? And how have they been persuaded that healthcare reform is against their interests? How have the people and organizations fighting for healthcare reform lost the interest of the very people who most need it? Rich men have funded the Tea Party, but it is populated by the working class.

Without health insurance, the costs of having a baby or repairing a broken arm can wipe out any savings a family has. The medical costs of a heart attack or cancer can drive a family into bankruptcy. One of the most common causes of bankruptcy in this country is medical issues.

One way families deal with these unexpected costs is fundraisers. It is admirable that the community often steps forward and assists with huge medical bills. However, there are a few problems with this approach. First, in this difficult economy, more and more people need help with meeting their household needs, whether for food, winter coats, or medical bills, and those who can give have less to give as they cope with their own financial setbacks.

Health care systems

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Sometimes the money doesn’t come in time. I read just yesterday of a man who had a liver transplant lined up, but couldn’t raise the money in time and the liver went to another patient. He must now wait three years for another chance.

Third, and unfortunately, occasionally people commit fraud. They are not ill, but claim to be, and the community gives them money that then goes on luxury items, not medical bills. Thankfully, we have not yet had an example of this in our local community.

Traditional economics tells us that if a good is too expensive, then people will either go without or the price will come down. However, people are unwilling to forgo expensive medical care. The price only continues to rise because prices are set in a way that makes it impossible for consumers to comparison shop, and sometimes only the best will do, anyway.

The pricing and delivery system we have for healthcare is obviously untenable. The rich have no interest in reform, because they can pay for whatever they need. Instead of letting them dictate the terms of the debate, and shutting it down by creating a frenzy in the working class, the rest of us need to sit down and decide exactly what we want in our healthcare system, whether it is low cost medical equipment and clinics, health insurance for all, or something else entirely.

This column was originally published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on December 19, 2010.

Newspaper Column: More on Sidewalks

The You Asked For It column on Wednesday, September 29, had more information about city sidewalks, as provided by Doug Moser, city construction inspection chief. Moser explains that landowners are responsible for sidewalks abutting their land. He adds that the city has assigned an employee to drive around the city looking for hazardous sidewalks so the city will know what the problem areas are.

It is true that sidewalks are the responsibility of landowners, according to city code, but I believe the city is abdicating its responsibility towards its citizens. The city may not have a duty to repair sidewalks, but it does have a duty to enforce its ordinances. Many ordinances in this city seem to be enforced only upon the receipt of a complaint by another citizen. This is like only enforcing the speed limit when another driver calls the police to complain.

The city ought to be responsible for the sidewalks. They are a public good, like safe streets and clean water. Making private citizens accountable for public goods creates chaos. In attempting to save on expenditures by making landowners responsible for their sidewalks, the city has abdicated its duty.

Sending an employee around for years simply to catalog the problem areas makes no sense to me. If the sidewalks need repair, why not have that employee notify the landowner and initiate the procedure to get the repairs made? By the time the catalog is done, everything will be in even worse shape.

Many people have noticed the difficulty incurred by people with wheelchairs attempting to navigate city sidewalks. I do not understand why there is still a lip on new sidewalks where the concrete meets the asphalt, when the City Standard Drawings and Engineering Specifications were changed to avoid this lip in 1996.

ADA compliance does not only benefit people in wheelchairs. It benefits all of us, as the sidewalks become easier and safer to use. As it stands, city sidewalks are a tripping hazard. It’s only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured.

If the city has been trying to become ADA compliant for years, as alleged by the city information officer in response to an earlier column of mine, why is it still so difficult to use the city sidewalks? The obvious answer would be that the city is only trying to have the appearance of compliance, while avoiding actual work towards compliance. If this is not the case, I welcome a response from the city, explaining where to find compliant sidewalks.

This column was first published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on November 2, 2010.


Newspaper Column on Net Neutrality

On Sunday, August 8, 2010, Post Register Editor and Publisher Roger Plothow wrote on (the Post Register’s opinion page) about “The Net Neutrality Myth.” In short, Google and Verizon may (or may not) have made a deal that would establish fee schedules for the Internet. Plothow writes,

The Internet as we know it is full of garbage, a cesspool of bad information, lies, distortions, scams, falsehoods and just plain nonsense. A culling of this stuff has been a long time coming, and bringing capitalism into the mix can’t possibly hurt.

I must respectfully disagree. While I will agree that there is a lot of junk out there on the Internet, I disagree with the premise that “bringing capitalism into the mix can’t possibly hurt.” The problem, as I see it, that attempting to regulate the content of the Internet by who can pay what will not hurt just the providers of junk, but also legitimate businesspeople (i.e. capitalist entrepreneurs).

I have a little home-based business making crafts I invented and sell them. My main venue is on the Internet, specifically an online mall for handmade goods. This mall is like my landlord and does not do any marketing for me. I pay them a little when I list an item, and a little every time I sell one.

Since they do no marketing, I am almost entirely dependent for sales on people finding my items on the Internet through search. I am just starting out in this business and most of my money is tied up in inventory. I cannot pay extra money to have my pages load faster or better. I rely on net neutrality to give me an equal playing field with the big stores importing assembly-line goods from China.

The idea of net neutrality ending scares me. I already struggle with being seen on the Internet. For example, the mall I use made some changes this week that make a Facebook application I was using not work as it should. I am afraid this will decrease traffic to my store, but I am powerless to fix it.

As for bringing capitalism into the mix, it’s already present. We pay money for our Internet connection every month. In fact, it is a good portion of our phone bill. Why should other people be able to dictate which pages load fastest on the connection we pay for?

If the highest bidder should be seen by all, can Plothow tell me when the front page of the Post Register will be up for auction to the highest bidder?

This column originally appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on August 27, 2010.

Accessibility in the City

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is twenty years old. Twenty years old, and (my town) is just starting to meet full compliance with the act. In the last few years there was a lot of discussion of curb cuts, and the need for the whole city to have ADA compliant curb cuts. I thought that the curb cuts would improve at that time. I don’t think they have, not in a meaningful way.

My neighborhood, while there are many compliant curb cuts, is still full of non-compliant, non-wheelchair negotiable curb cuts. Every once in a while, I see someone in a wheelchair, usually accompanied by someone walking, and invariably, they are going down the middle of the street. Not safe or legal you may be thinking, but it is the only space negotiable by wheelchair on the street or sidewalk. The sidewalks are not smooth, many curb cuts are not wheelchair usable, and the side of the streets are covered by parked cars.

The city does have an ADA commission. Perhaps you have seen its advertisement in last Sunday’s paper, requesting interested parties to apply for membership. I thought about joining, but I have too many other time committments. Besides, the commission’s “mission is to review city facilities for compliance with the ADA building standards and recommend improvements for the city funding.” (From the [city] website)

To me, facilities means city buildings and parks. That is an important mission, but I would also like to see some effort directed towards the sidewalks, particularly as we were promised action on the sidewalks a few years ago.

While I’m on the subject of sidewalks, I want to mention that snow shovelling is often inadequate in the neighborhoods. I know August is a little early, but I thought I would start getting the word out. Many people seem to think that clearing a narrow path, wide enough for a single walker, is enough. It is not, as all strollers are wider than a person walking, let alone wheelchairs. My strollers are both able to negotiate packed snow, as long as the path is the width of the sidewalk. I think most mothers of small children stop walking outside in the winter months, because they cannot get down the streets.

If you are disabled or otherwise inconvenienced by the non-ADA compliant sidewalks, please say or write something to the city or the newspaper. If everyone stays quiet and copes as best they can, then nothing will happen. If we all speak out when we cannot get about as we like, then perhaps something will be done.

This essay originally appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on August 4, 2010.

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