Why Iceland Should Be in the News, But Is Not [via Nina Reznick]
by: Deena Stryker, The South Africa Civil Society Information Service | News Analysis
(Photo: Páll Hilmarsson / Flickr)
An Italian radio program's story about Iceland’s on-going revolution is a stunning example of how little our media tells us about the rest of the world. Americans may remember that at the start of the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland literally went bankrupt. The reasons were mentioned only in passing, and since then, this little-known member of the European Union fell back into oblivion.
As one European country after another fails or risks failing, imperiling the Euro, with repercussions for the entire world, the last thing the powers that be want is for Iceland to become an example. Here's why:
Five years of a pure neo-liberal regime had made Iceland, (population 320 thousand, no army), one of the richest countries in the world. In 2003 all the country’s banks were privatized, and in an effort to attract foreign investors, they offered on-line banking whose minimal costs allowed them to offer relatively high rates of return. The accounts, called IceSave, attracted many English and Dutch small investors. But as investments grew, so did the banks’ foreign debt. In 2003 Iceland’s debt was equal to 200 times its GNP, but in 2007, it was 900 percent. The 2008 world financial crisis was the coup de grace. The three main Icelandic banks, Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir, went belly up and were nationalized, while the Kroner lost 85% of its value with respect to the Euro. At the end of the year Iceland declared bankruptcy.
Contrary to what could be expected, the crisis resulted in Icelanders recovering their sovereign rights, through a process of direct participatory democracy that eventually led to a new Constitution. But only after much pain.
Geir Haarde, the Prime Minister of a Social Democratic coalition government, negotiated a two million one hundred thousand dollar loan, to which the Nordic countries added another two and a half million. But the foreign financial community pressured Iceland to impose drastic measures. The FMI and the European Union wanted to take over its debt, claiming this was the only way for the country to pay back Holland and Great Britain, who had promised to reimburse their citizens.
Protests and riots continued, eventually forcing the government to resign. Elections were brought forward to April 2009, resulting in a left-wing coalition which condemned the neoliberal economic system, but immediately gave in to its demands that Iceland pay off a total of three and a half million Euros. This required each Icelandic citizen to pay 100 Euros a month (or about $130) for fifteen years, at 5.5% interest, to pay off a debt incurred by private parties vis a vis other private parties. It was the straw that broke the reindeer’s back.
What happened next was extraordinary. The belief that citizens had to pay for the mistakes of a financial monopoly, that an entire nation must be taxed to pay off private debts was shattered, transforming the relationship between citizens and their political institutions and eventually driving Iceland’s leaders to the side of their constituents. The Head of State, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to ratify the law that would have made Iceland’s citizens responsible for its bankers’ debts, and accepted calls for a referendum.
Of course the international community only increased the pressure on Iceland. Great Britain and Holland threatened dire reprisals that would isolate the country. As Icelanders went to vote, foreign bankers threatened to block any aid from the IMF. The British government threatened to freeze Icelander savings and checking accounts. As Grimsson said: “We were told that if we refused the international community’s conditions, we would become the Cuba of the North. But if we had accepted, we would have become the Haiti of the North.” (How many times have I written that when Cubans see the dire state of their neighbor, Haiti, they count themselves lucky.)
In the March 2010 referendum, 93% voted against repayment of the debt. The IMF immediately froze its loan. But the revolution (though not televised in the United States), would not be intimidated. With the support of a furious citizenry, the government launched civil and penal investigations into those responsible for the financial crisis. Interpol put out an international arrest warrant for the ex-president of Kaupthing, Sigurdur Einarsson, as the other bankers implicated in the crash fled the country.
But Icelanders didn't stop there: they decided to draft a new constitution that would free the country from the exaggerated power of international finance and virtual money. (The one in use had been written when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark, in 1918, the only difference with the Danish constitution being that the word ‘president’ replaced the word ‘king’.)
To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituent’s meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape. The constitution that eventually emerges from this participatory democratic process will be submitted to parliament for approval after the next elections.
Some readers will remember that Iceland’s ninth century agrarian collapse was featured in Jared Diamond’s book by the same name. Today, that country is recovering from its financial collapse in ways just the opposite of those generally considered unavoidable, as confirmed yesterday by the new head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde to Fareed Zakaria. The people of Greece have been told that the privatization of their public sector is the only solution. And those of Italy, Spain and Portugal are facing the same threat.
They should look to Iceland. Refusing to bow to foreign interests, that small country stated loud and clear that the people are sovereign.
That’s why it is not in the news anymore.
[via Nina Reznick]
Researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Lab have developed technology that may someday cure the common cold, influenza and other ailments.
Anne Trafton, MIT News Office
Most bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics such as penicillin, discovered decades ago. However, such drugs are useless against viral infections, including influenza, the common cold, and deadly hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.
Now, in a development that could transform how viral infections are treated, a team of researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory has designed a drug that can identify cells that have been infected by any type of virus, then kill those cells to terminate the infection.
The microscope images above show that DRACO successfully treats viral infections. In the left set of four photos, rhinovirus (the common cold virus) kills untreated human cells (lower left), whereas DRACO has no toxicity in uninfected cells (upper right) and cures an infected cell population (lower right). Similarly, in the right set of four photos, dengue hemorrhagic fever virus kills untreated monkey cells (lower left), whereas DRACO has no toxicity in uninfected cells (upper right) and cures an infected cell population (lower right). |
In a paper published July 27 in the journal PLoS One, the researchers tested their drug against 15 viruses, and found it was effective against all of them — including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, a stomach virus, a polio virus, dengue fever and several other types of hemorrhagic fever.
The drug works by targeting a type of RNA produced only in cells that have been infected by viruses. “In theory, it should work against all viruses,” says Todd Rider, a senior staff scientist in Lincoln Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group who invented the new technology.
Because the technology is so broad-spectrum, it could potentially also be used to combat outbreaks of new viruses, such as the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, Rider says. Other members of the research team are Lincoln Lab staff members Scott Wick, Christina Zook, Tara Boettcher, Jennifer Pancoast and Benjamin Zusman.
Thinking of our Louisiana roots and some great card-playing memories. [via Laurie Atchity]
This gambling game is popular in Louisiana, USA. Although it is a trick-taking game unrelated to Poker, it has become known to Poker players in North America as an alternative choice in home Poker games. The game is of French origin. It is a descendant of Bourre, a three-card game which was popular in southwest France in the early 20th century, which was probably descended in turn from the Spanish game Burro ("donkey"). In the French game a player who plays and takes no tricks is said to be "bourré", and it is this term that gives its name to the Louisiana gameBourré, which is sometimes spelled with just one 'r': (bouré). Sometimes this is altered to "bourre" or "boure" by American writers unfamiliar with French accents, and often it is written "booray" or "boo-ray" which in American spelling approximates the French pronunciation of bourré.
The information on this page relies heavily on the book Bouré by Roy J Nickens (Baton Rouge, 1972) as well as correspondence from John May, Brad Duhon, Victoria Diemer and others.
Players and Cards
The game is best for seven players. In theory any number from two to eight can play, but with fewer than about five players the game becomes less interesting.
A standard international 52-card pack without jokers is used. The cards of each suit rank from high to low: A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2.
Ante and Deal
Before the first deal each player must contribute an ante of one chip to the pot. Before subsequent deals, certain players may not have to pay an ante, depending on the result of the previous hand - see below.
Any player who wishes to may shuffle and the dealer has the right to shuffle last. The cards must then be cut by the player to dealer's right.
The dealer deals out the cards one at a time, starting with the player to dealer's left and continuing clockwise until each player has five cards. Cards are dealt face down, except for the dealer's fifth and last card, which is dealt face up. The suit of this card indicates the trump suit.
The turn to deal passes to the left after each hand.
Draw or Pass
Players pick up their cards and look at them, but may not show their cards to anyone else.
Beginning with the player to dealer's left, each player in clockwise order must declare whether he or she will pass or play, and if playing, how many cards he or she wishes to discard.
If you pass, you stack your cards face down in front of you.and take no further part in the play of the hand. You can no longer win the pot on that deal, nor can you lose any additional chips.
If you play, you may discard some of your cards face down, announcing how many you are discarding. The dealer then deals you an equal number of replacement cards from the undealt part of the deck. You may discard your whole hand of five cards if you wish to, or if you are happy with your original cards you may stand pat and play with the hand you were dealt, discarding nothing.
It may happen, especially in an eight-player game, that the dealer runs out of cards to deal before all the players who wish to play have been served with replacements for their discards. In that case the dealer gathers up all the discarded cards and passed hands from the players who have already acted (but not the discards of the player who is currently being served). These cards are shuffled and cut and used to continue dealing cards to replace any remaining discards.
If the turned up trump card is an ace, the dealer must play. There is no risk in doing so since the ace of trumps always wins a trick.
If only one player elects to play, all the others passing, the lone player is deemed to have won all five tricks by default, and this player therefore collects the whole pot without playing out any cards. If all players other than the dealer pass, the dealer should of course play and collect the pot.
You should be careful not to make any premature announcement or gesture indicating whether you intend to play or pass or how many cards you might discard, before it is your turn to act. The penalty is to forfeit your next turn to deal.
The player to dealer's left, or if this player has passed, the next player in clockwise rotation who is playing, leads to the first trick. Thereafter the winner of each trick leads to the next.
A card is led by placing it face up in the centre of the table. Each of the other active players (those who have not passed) in clockwise order must also play a card face up in the centre. When all have played a card, the trick is complete. It is won by whoever played the highest card of the trump suit, or if no trump was played, by whoever played the highest card of the suit that was led.
The play of the cards is governed by strict rules.
- Players must always "follow suit" if able to - that is, all but the first to play to a trick must play a card of the same suit as the card that was led.
- Any player who is unable to follow suit, having no card of the suit that was led, must play a trump if able to.
- Subject to the requirement to follow suit, each player must play a card that beats the highest card so far played to the trick if possible.
A player who is unable to beat the highest card played to the trick, is still forced to follow suit if possible, and otherwise to trump. If the trick has already been trumped, and you are unable to follow suit, you must overtrump if possible, but if your trumps are not high enough to overtrump, you must still play a trump.
However, if you are unable to beat the highest card in the trick, you are under no obligation to play a high card, provided that you obey the rules of following suit or trumping. Example: spades are trumps and the queen of diamonds is led. The second player trumps with the four of spades. Playing third, you hold the ace and six of diamonds and some spades. You have diamonds so you are not allowed to trump, and therefore cannot win the trick. You can and should play your six of diamonds, not the ace. If the second player had played a diamond, you would have been obliged to play the ace of diamonds, to beat the queen.
A player who has no card of the suit led and has no trumps either can play any card, but of course cannot win the trick.
If the dealer is playing, the dealer's card that was dealt face up to determine the trump suit counts as belonging to the dealer's hand (except in the very unusual case that the dealer chose to discard it) and is played in accordance with the rules of play above.
A player who has three sure tricks irrespective of how the cards are played, and is therefore certain to win the pot, is said to have a cinch. In this case there are additional restrictions.
- If you have a cinch and it is your turn to lead, you must lead your highest trump.
- If you have a cinch and are playing on a trick to which another player led, and you are able to play a trump to the trick, you must play your highest trump.
- If you have a cinch and are playing last to a trick, there are no special restrictions - you must simply win the trick if you can, subject to the usual restrictions of following suit and trumping.
Note that your hand can be a cinch at the start of the play if you have a trump holding such as A-K-Q or K-Q-10-9-8. It can become a cinch later, for example if after winning a trick you have two sure trump tricks. Also, if you win the first three tricks, the cinch rules apply since you are sure to take the pot, and you must lead a trump to the fourth trick if you have one.
When you are required to play your "highest" trump because your hand is a cinch, the play of an adjacent trump - such as the King from Ace-King or the Jack from King-Jack when the Queen has already been played - is acceptable.
The player who wins most tricks takes the whole pot. To win the pot it is necessary to win more tricks than any other single player. Three tricks are always sufficient. The pot can be won with two tricks if three other players take one trick each.
If there is a tie for most tricks (when the tricks divide 2-2-1, and in the rare case of five players taking one trick each) no one takes the pot. This is known as a "split pot" but the pot is not shared out - it remains for the next deal and the new antes and any penalties are added to it.
Anyone who plays and takes no trick is said to have gone "bourré". These players must pay an amount equal to the whole contents of the pot. This payment forms part of the pot for the next deal.
A player who goes bourré does not have to place the normal one chip ante for the next deal. Also, if the pot is split, the players who tied for most tricks do not post an ante for the next deal. All remaining players pay one chip ante as usual.
In the following example the seven players are A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
Deal 1: All seven players ante so there are 7 chips in the pot. B, C, E and G play; the others pass. E wins 3 tricks, B and G win one each and C is bourré. E takes the 7 chips from the pot. C must pay 7 chips to the next pot. All players must ante for the next deal except for C. Therefore the pot now contains 13 chips.
Deal 2: With 13 chips in the pot, A, B, E and F play. The others pass. A and F take 2 tricks each, B takes one and E none. This is a spilt pot between A and F, so no one wins it. E has to add 13 chips to the pot, and B, C, D and G each ante one chip for the next deal, so the pot now contains 30 chips.
Deal 3: Only C, D and E play, and D wins all five tricks. D takes the 30 chips from the pot and C and E must each pay 30 chips to the next pot. In addition everyone C and E must pay an ante for the next deal, and the pot now contains 65 chips.
It should be clear from this example that the pot can sometimes build rather quickly, especially if more than one player is bourré or there is a split pot. For thisa reason the game is sometimes played with a limit. For example if the limit is 20 chips, then when the pot contains more than 20 chips, a player who wins takes only 20 chips from the pot, and a player who is bourré pays only 20 chips.
Any play that is not in accordance with the rules of play - such as failure to follow suit, failure to trump or failure to beat the highest card in the trick when able, is known as a renege. If the renege is not corrected before the next player plays a card, the penalty is to pay an amount equal to the size of the pot, exactly as though the player had gone bourré.
However, if having reneged you realise your error before the next player plays, you are allowed to recall your card and substitute a correct card. In this case you forfeit the right to win the pot, even if you take most tricks, and you forfeit your next turn to deal, but you do not have to match the pot (unless you win no tricks).
In this variation, all players pay an ante of one chip before the deal, and in addition, any player who decides to play must pay an additional chip to the pot. Those who pass do not pay this second ante - they just lose their first ante and forgo their chance to win the pot in this deal.
In the double ante game, it is normal to require an initial ante from all players, including those who paid for a bourré or were involved in a split pot on the previous deal.
Some play that the decisions whether or not to play and how many cards to draw are separated into two separate rounds. First each player in turn declares either "play" (paying a second ante of one chip) or "pass". After everyone has declared, there is a second round in which those who decided to play discard cards if they wish and are dealt replacements.
Separate Trump Card
Some play that five cards are dealt face down to each player, and then an extra card is dealt face up to determine the trump suit. There are two forms of this variation.
- The turned up trump belongs to no one. It indocates the trump suit but cannot be taken or played by any player.
- The turned up trump can be taken by the dealer if he or she decides to play. The dealer effectively has six cards; if for example the dealer discards four cards and elects to use the tuirned up trump, three replacement cards will be dealt to make up the dealer's five-card hand.
Some play that instead of declaring in rotation, all players decide independently whether they will play or pass. Those who want to play hold a chip in their closed fist; those who pass hold an empty fist. All reveal their decisions simultaneously and then those who decided to play discard in rotation as ussual.
I suspect that this variation is not traditional in Louisiana, but was adopted by poker players, who use a similar method for declaring high or low in some hi-lo games.
Four card Bourré
Victoria Diemer reports that in Indiana, Bourré is played with just four cards dealt to each player, with a separate card that belongs to no one indicating the trump suit. Players must have at least one trump or at least one club (a "dirty club") to play, which costs one chip. After players have decided whether to stay, up to 3 cards can be discarded, but not all four. After the draw, players have another chance to pass; those who want to play must pay an additional chip. As usual the player who takes most chips wins the pot, and if there is a tie the pot is carried over to the next deal. Anyone who takes no tricks must match the pot for the next deal. The penalty for a renege is twice the pot.
Other Bourré Web Sites
Another description of Bourré is available on Wikipedia.
Rules of a simplified version of Boo-Ray can be found in Peter Sarrett's Game Report site, although in fact it is a trick taking game, unrelated to Poker.
TIME Magazine's Person of the Year: The Protester [via Nina Reznick]
SKIN CONTROL [via Nina Reznick]
Breakthrough: Electronic circuits that are integrated with your skin
A team of engineers today announced a discovery that could change the world of electronics forever. Called an "epidermal electronic system" (EES), it's basically an electronic circuit mounted on your skin, designed to stretch, flex, and twist — and to take input from the movements of your body.
EES is a leap forward for wearable technologies, and has potential applications ranging from medical diagnostics to video game control and accelerated wound-healing. Engineers John Rogers and Todd Coleman, who worked on the discovery, tell io9 it's a huge step towards erasing the divide that separates machine and human.
Coleman and Rogers say they developed EES to forego the hard and rigid electronic "wafer" format of traditional electronics in favor of a softer, more dynamic platform.
To accomplish this, their team brought together scientists from several labs to develop "filamentary serpentine" (threadlike and squiggly) circuitry. When this circuitry is mounted on a thin, rubber substrate with elastic properties similar to skin, the result is a flexible patch that can bend and twist, or expand and contract, all without affecting electronic performance.
This video demonstrates the resilience of the EES patch, and how easily it can be applied. The patch (comprised of the circuitry and rubber substrate) is first mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic, then applied to the skin with water like a temporary tattoo.
All images courtesy of John Rogers
The Three Little Pigs
A teacher was reading the story of the Three Little Pigs to her class.
She came to the part of the story where first pig was trying to gather the building materials for his home.
She read. 'And so the pig went up to the man with the wheelbarrow full of straw and said: 'Pardon me sir, but may I have some of that straw to build my house?'
The teacher paused then asked the class: 'And what do you think the man said?'
One little boy raised his hand and said very matter-of-factly...
'I think the man would have said - 'Well, F#ck me!! A talking pig!'
The teacher had to leave the room.
Yoga Gives Back's First Global Calendar designed by Jonathan Mills!
Yoga Gives Back's first global calendar is now for sale here http://www.yogagivesback.org/calendar.php.
Yoga Gives Back's first global calendar is created to appreciate and celebrate YGB's global yoga community, with photos from our first successful global fundraiser "Thank You Mother India" that involved over 750 people in 10 countries, as well as other events throughout the world. Each month also features portraits of women and girls from our partner organizations in India, where YGB sends funds directly.
You can support Yoga Gives Back's mission by purchasing this global calendar. We can make a difference if we work together.
Lots of great photos from "Thank You Mother India" events in 10 countries and more!!
Tom's work for homeless Dec 15-18
We’re banding together to assemble survival kits. We’re distributing them to our homeless neighbors throughout the community. And we simply can’t do it without your help!
To learn more, read our FAQs.
Don’t miss this chance to put your heart into action. Register today and make a life-changing difference!
Please visit our blog and join our community on Facebook to read more about our work and stay updated on our latest activities. To see a time lapse video of the TGS volunteers in action, click here.
Seven Ways to Die [NOOK Book]
More About This Book
OverviewFrom the Nez Perce Indian reservation in Idaho to New York’s Central Park is a straight line right through Bill Diehl’s last and most intriguing lead character, Micah Cody.
There are seven basic ways to die. In 1969 Dr. John C. Cavanaugh catalogued them all in his Primer of Forensic Pathology-Cast Studies for the Novice M.E.
Micah Cody is a 30-something NYPD captain of homicide, who’s founded a special unit known as TAZ with city-wide license to take over any investigation at all, with special focus on serial killers. Now its ultimate challenge is on the loose in Manhattan, with three victims already whose causes of death seem like intentional defiance of TAZ’s existence—and four to go in four deadly days leading up to Halloween. Chronicling it all with great amusement is the Capote-like award-winning crime writer Ward Hamilton who, egged on by his sexually voracious socialite bedmate, is determined to bring TAZ to its knees journalistically.
Captain Micah Cody's Nez Perce name is “Youngest Wolf” from his ability to communicate with the animals and read nature's signs. As all hell is breaking loose in Manhattan, the wolves in Central Park howl, the peregrine falcons shriek their warnings—and Micah is listening.
Seven Ways to Die is a non-stop, sexy read with Diehl doing to the end what he did best throughout his bestselling career.
- BN ID: 2940013453814
- Publisher: AEI Books
- Publication date: 11/18/2011
- Format: eBook
- File size: 375 KB
- Items ship to U.S, APO/FPO and U.S. Protectorate addresses.
The “SPLINTERNET”: GOLDEN AGE OF THE INTERNET SOON TO BE HISTORY? [via Nina Reznick]
by Anil Ananthaswamy
Openness is the internet's great strength – and weakness. With powerful forces carving it up, is its golden age coming to an end?
How quickly the world changes. In August 1991 Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, posted a message to a discussion forum detailing a new method for sharing information between networked computers. To make his idea a reality, he also set up a server running on one of CERN's computers. A mere two decades later, some 2 billion of us are hooked up to Berners-Lee's invention, and the UN General Assembly last month declared access to it a fundamental human right. It is, of course, the World Wide Web.
Today, most of us in the developed world and elsewhere take the internet for granted. But should we? The way it works and the way we engage with it are still defined by characteristics it has inherited from its easy-going early days, and this has left it under threat - from criminals, controlling authorities and commercial interests. "The days of the internet as we used to think of it are ending," says Craig Labovitz of Arbor Networks, a security software company in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Could we now be living in the golden age of the internet?
Though it was the World Wide Web that opened the internet to the world, the underlying structure dates back much further. That architecture took shape in the early 1960s, when the US air force asked Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, to come up with a military communications network that could withstand a nuclear attack. Baran proposed a network with no central hub; instead, information would pass from any point in the network to any other through many decentralised switching stations, or routers.
For Baran's plan to work, every message would be broken up into small packets of digital information, each of which would be relayed from router to router, handed over like hot potatoes. Dividing the message into packets instead of sending it whole meant that communication links would only be busy during the instant they were called upon to carry those packets. The links could be shared from moment to moment. "That's a big win in terms of efficiency," says Jon Crowcroft, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge. It also made the network fast and robust: there was no central gatekeeper or single point of failure. Destroy any one link, and the remaining routers could work out a new path between origin and destination.
Baran's work paved the way for the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (see "Internet evolution"), which then led to the internet and the "anything goes" culture that remains its signature. From then on, the internet was open to anyone who wanted to join the party, from individual users to entire local networks. "There was a level of trust that worked in the early days," says Crowcroft. No one particularly cared who anyone was, and if you wanted to remain anonymous, you could. "We just connected and assumed everyone else was a nice guy." Even the hackers who almost immediately began to play with the new network's potential for mischief were largely harmless, showing up security weaknesses for the sheer technical joy of it.
These basic ingredients - openness, trust and decentralisation - were baked into the internet at its inception. It was these qualities, which allowed diverse groups of people from far-flung corners of the world to connect, experiment and invent, that were arguably the key elements of the explosive technological growth of the past two decades. That culture gave us the likes of Skype, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The internet's decentralised structure also makes it difficult for even the most controlling regime to seal off its citizens from the rest of the world. China and North Korea are perhaps the most successful in this respect; by providing only a few tightly controlled points of entry, these governments can censor the data its people can access. But less restrictive countries, such as South Korea, also splinter their citizens' experience of the web by restricting "socially harmful" sites. Savvy netizens routinely circumvent such attempts, using social media and the web's cloak of anonymity to embarrass and even topple their governments. The overthrow of the Egyptian regime in February is being called by some the first social media revolution. Though debatable, this assertion is supported in the book Tweets From Tahrir, an account told entirely through Twitter messages from the centre of the nation's capital.
It is tempting to think that things can only get better - that the internet can only evolve more openness, more democracy, more innovation, more freedom. Unfortunately, things might not be that simple.
There's a problem on the horizon, and it comes from an unexpected quarter - in fact from some of the very names we have come to associate most strongly with the internet's success. The likes of Apple, Google and Amazon are starting to fragment the web to support their own technologies, products and corporate strategy. Is there anything that can be done to stop them?
Some authorities are certainly trying. Google, for instance, has attracted the scrutiny of the US Federal Trade Commission, which last month launched an antitrust investigation to determine whether the company's search results skew towards businesses with which it is aligned and away from its competitors. And as millions of people buy into Apple's world of iPads and iPhones, they are also buying into Apple's restricted vision of the internet. The company tightly controls the technologies users are allowed to put on those devices.
Take, for instance, Adobe's Flash software, which most PCs support and most websites use to run graphics and other multimedia, and even entire apps. Flash is prohibited in all Apple apps, for security reasons - which means that the iPhone browser cannot display a large portion of the internet. That creates a private, Apple-only ecosystem within the larger internet. A similar kind of balkanisation is evident in Google's Android mobile-phone operating system, Amazon's Kindle e-reader, and Facebook's networks, which are completely walled off from the rest of the internet.
Should we care? On the one hand, these companies have grown so big precisely because they make products and provide services that we want to use.
The problem is that this concentration of power in the hands of a few creates problems for resilience and availability. "From an engineering standpoint, the downsides to this are the same things you get with monoculture in agriculture," says Labovitz. Ecosystems without genetic variation are the most vulnerable to being wiped out by a single virus. Similarly, as more of us depend on ever fewer sources for content, and get locked into proprietary technologies, we will become more susceptible to potentially catastrophic single points of failure.
That problem will only intensify with the ascendancy of the cloud, one of the biggest internet innovations of the past few years. The cloud is the nebulous collection of servers in distant locations that increasingly store our data and provide crucial services. It started with web mail services like Hotmail, which let you store your email on central servers rather than on the computer in front of you. The concept quickly spread. Last month, Apple announced the iCloud, a free service that will store all your music, photos, email, books and other data - and even apps - for seamless access via any Apple device, be that an iPhone, iPad or MacBook laptop.
Some companies have moved their entire IT departments into the cloud. Indeed, there are companies that barely exist outside the cloud: in addition to backing up data, Amazon lets internet-based companies rent space on its servers.
The cloud could generate exactly the single points of failure that the internet's robust architecture was supposed to prevent. And when those points fail, they may fail spectacularly. During an outage of Amazon's cloud service in April, when the company's servers went dark, entire companies briefly blinked out of existence. Cloud services also raise security concerns. "One big issue with being connected to the cloud is that a lot of information is in different places and shared," says Labovitz. "You no longer have one castle to protect. It's a much more distributed architecture, and a connected one. You just need one weak link."
Labovitz's worries are substantiated by a recent rise in real-world attacks. In March, an unknown group hacked RSA, a company that makes electronic tokens that can be used to create a supposedly impregnable password. Two months later, hackers used what they had gleaned from that attack to infiltrate computers belonging to the defence contractor Lockheed Martin, which relied on those tokens for their security. In May, Sony Online Entertainment's servers were hacked, compromising the personal information of about 25 million users.
The vulnerability is worrying enough if it's our email or personal data being hacked, but soon it could be more intimate and dangerous than that. Imagine being a heart patient and having your pacemaker hacked, or someone with diabetes whose insulin supply is suddenly cut off. That is a real prospect, as the next big internet innovation, the "internet of things", gets under way. In the utopian vision, sensors embedded in all kinds of everyday objects will continuously communicate with the cloud.
Objects that participate in this internet of things might be as mundane as a sensor in your refrigerator that tells the nearest supermarket when you're out of milk. Or it could be a medical sensor that taps into a cloud-based controller, for example, a monitor that transmits a diabetic person's glucose levels to a data centre every 5 minutes. This information could instantly be used to calculate an optimal insulin dosage, which is transmitted back to an insulin pump.
As we begin to interact with the internet in this way, without ever touching a keyboard or a screen, we will become increasingly vulnerable to threats, such as hacking and network instability, that were once only relevant for a small and relatively insignificant part of our lives. And that might necessitate a fundamental rethink of how the internet works.
Take anonymity. "It is the internet's greatest strength and its greatest weakness," says Marc Goodman, a computer security consultant who blogs at futurecrimes.com. For every popular uprising it facilitates, anonymity allows a slew of criminals far more dangerous than those early hackers to cover their online tracks. And these anonymous criminals can reach right into your computer if it's not well protected. There is no security built into the internet.
There have been several proposals to address this weakness. In 2009, Eugene Kaspersky, who runs the internet security firm Kaspersky Labs, based in Moscow, Russia, suggested that the internet would be better off if people were required to have a kind of licence to get online. To access Kaspersky's vision of the internet, for example, the processor in your computer might need to be verified. An authentication requirement would fragment the internet in many ways. Despite the idea's significant technical obstacles and the objections it raises among privacy advocates, however, similar proposals pop up from time to time.
There might be another way. The US National Science Foundation is investing $32 million in a project it calls the Future Internet Architectures programme. Under its auspices, four different groups have been set up, each spread across numerous institutions, to investigate options for a more evolved internet. The groups will cover mobile internet access, identity verification schemes, data safety - and cloud computing, part of the project called Nebula, after the Latin for "cloud". Given the promise of the internet of things, securing the cloud might be a good place to start. That means revamping the internet to ensure that it is highly resilient and constantly available: for example, by finding new ways of transmitting packets of information.
"Internet routing algorithms were designed in an era where people were really excited about finding the best path through a network," says Jonathan Smith of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who heads the Nebula team. "It's a beautiful algorithm. If you can find the best path, you should take it."
But what if that "best" path breaks down, in an attack, say? Choosing a new path can introduce delays that might be trivial for checking your email but crippling for applications that rely on real-time instructions from the cloud, such as the control for an insulin pump. So Smith and his colleagues are developing algorithms that will establish many, predetermined paths from endpoint to endpoint, something that is not possible in today's internet. Such an advance could increase the network's resilience to hacking.
Nebula's creators also envisage giving senders more control over the path their packets take, just as offline businesses can opt to hire safe couriers for a particularly important package, rather than entrusting it to the general mail. Similarly, receivers could dictate who can send them packets and routers could verify that a packet is indeed taking the intended path. This could solve the problem of trusting your network without resorting to a national or global internet identity programme.
There are some hard choices ahead. Had the internet been built with bulletproof security in mind, we might never have reaped the rewards of breakneck innovation. Yet as our dependence on the internet grows, we are more vulnerable to those who seek to disrupt - whether they are hackers exposing the internet's weaknesses, governments intent on keeping their citizens under control, or corporations driven by profits.
So how many of the internet's fundamental properties do we want to change? The nature of our future online lives will depend on answering this question, on how we walk the tightrope between total security and innovation-friendly openness. It is a question that will require widespread and vocal debate, says William Lehr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We cannot just assume that everything will work out fine," he says. But with some careful thought about how we want the next phase of the internet to look, we might prolong its golden age.
Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist
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